Mr. Speaker, I would like to begin my remarks by thanking my hon. colleague for his very powerful speech. To me, and I think to all of us, it is a reminder of why we are here. We bring our personal experience and the issues that we care about. It is not just a debating club or about procedure; it is about these incredibly important issues in our society that have been buried and washed over. That is why today New Democrats are united, as the official opposition, to make sure that this debate in the House is heard and that the commitment we have made will happen. Within 100 days of becoming government, we will hold a public inquiry.
It took more than 20 years for the Oppal inquiry in British Columbia to happen. When I was a city councillor in Vancouver, in 1987, and women began to go missing in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, we were told not to worry, that there would be a case-by-case criminal investigation. It was very similar to what we heard from the Minister of Status of Women yesterday.
Those disappearances were never followed up on, and it was the families and friends of the missing women, many of whom were aboriginal and sex workers, who finally got together and said there was something horrific going on. It was not about individual cases, but about our justice system, predators, and the failure of our justice system to see the missing women as citizens and vulnerable people.
For years, these disappearances were not dealt with, and it took more than 20 years until finally there was a public inquiry in Vancouver. It was not a perfect public inquiry, but it was important because it shed light and opened the door to examining some of the systemic issues that my colleague talked about.
We need to take the experience in British Columbia and understand that it is happening right across the country. It is not isolated to the Highway of Tears, in northern B.C., or to Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. It is happening in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Ontario, and in Atlantic Canada.
I listened to the Minister of Status of Women yesterday talk about her action plan, and I looked at that action plan, $2.5 million over five years, to create projects and raise awareness. Awareness is important, and we have to show the leadership here to create that awareness. However, we need to have a public inquiry to ensure we are not just looking at individual cases but at what happened and why society as a whole failed these women What is it that went wrong, and why? Only a public inquiry can do that.
I remember meeting with the Liberal minister of justice, in 1999, a couple of years after I had been elected, and explaining what had happened in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. I was shocked. Although he was sympathetic, he was not aware of what was going on. I realized then that there was a tremendous amount of work that had to be done. The story was focused in Vancouver. At that point, the story of what was happening had not yet fully come to light.
Mr. Speaker, that is how long it takes. An inquiry is important because the stories of the families need to be heard. We are talking about individual women who are missing and have been murdered. We are talking about the impact on families and communities.
What I find troubling about the government's response was said so well by Audrey Huntley, the co-founder of No More Silence. She said, in reaction to the government's announcement, “It feels to me like it’s really laying the blame on the aboriginal community and completely ignoring stranger violence”. She went on to say:
We need to engage Canadian society in why aboriginal women aren’t valued. That’s really what it comes down to. They’re not valued when it comes to the police investigating their cases, they’re not valued by that child welfare system and they’re not valued by their foster families, so really it’s a very deep systemic problem.
That is what Audrey Huntley had to say.
She is not the only one to understand the depth and the horror of what is taking place and that only a public inquiry can examine some of the systemic issues, whether it is the way that policing investigations are done, contributing factors of violence and poverty and racism, and the legacy of colonialism and residential schools, as has been so well articulated by my colleague today.
We were glad that a motion was passed a couple of years ago in the House to set up a special committee, but even that committee became a disappointment. Yet again, the government refused to act on the need for a national inquiry. I want to thank my colleagues, the member for Nanaimo—Cowichan, who was on that committee, and the member for Churchill, who has had this file and has done so much work on calling for a national inquiry. These are contributions that we make as individual members to keep this issue alive.
We are here today to say that we will not let this issue be swept under the carpet. We will ensure that those voices are heard. I do not believe it will take 20 years, like it did for the Oppal commission. I believe we will have a historic opportunity in about a year to change the government and to put in place a government that is progressive, an NDP government that actually listens to what people are saying and will make commitments to follow through on the suffering and historic injustices of aboriginal people in this country.
A public inquiry is a very key component of that, but it is not the only component. There are many things that need to be done: addressing poverty; ensuring clean water, education, and housing. These are all issues that our leader, the member for Outremont, has raised and articulated in this House. He has met with the aboriginal leadership and communities. This is a very deep commitment that we bring, not only to this debate, but to the work that we do from now and into the election.
I am glad we are having this debate today. It is a Friday afternoon, and I know members would probably like to be home today. We would all like to be home. However, this is our place. We are here for a reason. We are here in solidarity with the organizations that have called for the national inquiry. We are here in solidarity. We are here to ensure that those voices are heard. I am glad we are having this debate, and we will make that commitment to follow through.
I know the Conservatives do not like it. They want to have us contained to the little action plan that trots out just a few million dollars over five years. It is a pathetic response to a huge issue in this country. Let it be said that the Conservatives should listen to what those families are saying. They should understand that a public inquiry, which we have the power to bring about in a timely way—not that it is the be-all and the end-all; it is really just the beginning—is a powerful instrument to shed light on this issue and to bring justice for the missing and murdered women.