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September 22, 2014

The murders and disappearances of nearly 1,200 aboriginal women over the past 30 years is one of Canada's greatest national shames. And yes, Prime Minister Harper, while these incidents are criminal matters, they are also a sociological phenomenon.

Aboriginal people make up 4.3 per cent of Canada's population. Yet, 16 per cent of female victims of homicide are aboriginal. This is a sociological issue. However, 90 per cent of homicide cases, for both native and non-native women, are resolved by the justice system. There does not appear to be a policing issue.

Whether a national inquiry would bring any improvement is an open question. Canada's indigenous people have been researched and studied endlessly. The recommendations of the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples were not implemented; the 2005 Kelowna Accord among aboriginal peoples and the federal and provincial governments was not implemented. The list goes on.

The basic causes of the desperation and despair among aboriginal people are well known – lack of education, joblessness, poverty, substance abuse, inadequate housing and violence. Deeper lies the legacy of paternalism and government policies aimed at destroying the cultural heritage of indigenous people and assimilating them into Western society. Canada's churches played a major role in this through the residential school system.

This is all known, and yet we fail to act. Knowledge has led not to action, but to indifference.

Indifference is a spiritual problem, one with political consequences. Pope Francis addressed the spiritual issue when, in The Joy of the Gospel, he spoke of our enthusiasm for maintaining a materialistic lifestyle. Our culture of prosperity deadens our souls and excludes others from the benefits of creation.

"Almost without being aware of it," the pope wrote, "we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people's pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else's responsibility and not our own" (54).

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall supports a national inquiry into the murdered and missing aboriginal women. Governments need "to ask every single question that you can possibly ask to make sure that it doesn't happen again," Wall says.

This is correct. However, no inquiry should delude Canadians into believing the murders of aboriginal woman are a problem that can be solved by reason and intellect. Reason is needed; even more necessary is the heart. The heart needs to change so that aboriginal women are seen, not as a problem, but as our sisters.

Until we have a change of heart, more studies will only gather more dust. Indifference can only be conquered when we join together in what the pope called "a caravan of solidarity, a sacred pilgrimage." Canada needs a spiritual conversion in its relationship with aboriginal people.