As published in The Globe and Mail online edition, TUESDAY, MAY 30, 2023

Gerri Sharpe is president of Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada, a national non-profit organization fostering social, cultural, and economic development for Inuit women and gender-diverse people.

In June, 2021, Canada took a step closer toward reconciliation when it gave royal assent to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act.

Now, the federal government is on the verge of releasing a final UNDRIP action plan, which will set out its priorities for implementing the act in partnership with Indigenous peoples for years to come.

At Pauktuutit, we are awaiting the release of this action plan with cautious optimism. We represent Inuit women, who, alongside First Nations and Métis women, experience significantly higher rates of violence and sexual assault than non-Indigenous women. The implementation of the UNDRIP plan represents an opportunity to increase the safety of all Indigenous women and address the systemic factors underlying the harms they experience.

Despite the 231 calls for justice in the final report of the National Inquiry Into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in 2019, no demonstrable progress has been made in stopping new and tragic acts of homicide and violence against Inuit, First Nations and Métis women and girls from happening.

In the last eight months alone, Inuit have agonized and grieved for Nunavut’s Mary Papatsie, whose remains were found in Ottawa in October after she went missing in 2017 at age 39. The Inuit community is also mourning the loss of 22-year-old Savanna Pikuyak from Nunavut, murdered just after arriving in Ottawa in September to attend nursing school, along with Joanne Nutarak, a 31-year-old mother of four murdered in Pond Inlet, Nunavut, in April.

In addition to greater investments in strategies like violence and abuse prevention, as well as new Inuit-specific shelters and second-stage housing for women fleeing violence, Inuit women also want the UNDRIP action plan to include stronger support for gendered and culturally appropriate health care. This would support the efforts Inuit women are already making to restore traditional and culturally informed midwifery services in 51 communities across the northern regions of Canada, in their homeland of Inuit Nunangat. The goal is to alleviate the current practice of forcing many expectant Inuit mothers, in their final months of pregnancy, to leave the safety and support of families and friends to give birth in cities in the south.

In urban hospitals, Inuit are often treated by health care providers unfamiliar with their language and culture, making them even more vulnerable to experiencing racism and discrimination in Canada’s health care system.

In one particularly tragic example, 35-year-old Silatik Qavviq, a woman from Sanikiluaq, Nunavut, died in a Winnipeg hospital in 2021 from complications related to COVID-19. Ms. Qavviq, who had four other young children at home, had been medically evacuated south to give birth, but died a few weeks later after contracting the virus.

Inuit women are also calling for commitments to address the negative impacts of climate change on natural resources like water, ice flow, and permafrost, which in turn threaten food sustainability for their families and, ultimately, their connection to Inuit culture and overall security.

A report released by Pauktuutit in 2021 on the experiences of Inuit women in the mining industry found that more than half of the study participants had experienced intense and repeated incidents of sexual harassment and violence on the job.

The UNDRIP action plan has the potential to protect the rights of Inuit women working in the mining industry by helping to ensure employment standards and safeguards are in place for them. This should be a condition of federal government support to companies seeking to mine critical minerals in Inuit Nunangat.

As the national voice for Inuit women, Pauktuutit will be watching to see if the implementation of the UNDRIP action plan will consider the distinct expert knowledge, lived experiences, and concrete ideas of Inuit women, as well as gender-diverse Inuit.

Consistent with Article 22 of UNDRIP, which asserts that “states shall take measures, in conjunction with Indigenous peoples, to ensure that Indigenous women and children enjoy the full protection and guarantees against all forms of violence and discrimination,” Inuit women have been invited by the federal government to provide formal input into the development of the action plan.

Canada’s Attorney-General, David Lametti, has been tasked by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to deliver the milestone action plan, and has met with Inuit women leaders twice in the last two years to hear their priorities on UNDRIP. This leaves us hopeful that the priorities of Inuit women will be included in this critical road map for reconciliation.

However, we’ll only know if the voices of Inuit women were accorded the weight that UNDRIP calls for when the action plan is released when expected this month. We are cautiously optimistic.