Our Stolen Sisters: Canada’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women

Written By: Zoe Poole, Edited By: Sophie Heisler

From idyllic landscapes of mountain and pine to the bustling city of Toronto, ‘the most multicultural city in the world’, Canada is often celebrated as a land of peace, where one can find serenity in nature and safety with respect to one’s diversity. That is, if you’re non-indigenous. While we like to think that racism is something which happens south of the Canadian border, racism in Canada is incredibly rampant; Maclean’s magazine reports that by almost every indicator Canada’s Indigenous population suffers worse hardships than the African-American population in the United States, largely due to systematic racism. Add gender to the equation and you can see that nowhere has Canada failed more clearly than in protecting Indigenous women and girls. As Winnipeg columnist Bartley Kives writes, white privilege in Winnipeg [and throughout Canada] is “not being worried your daughter is going to be raped and killed because of who she is”.

Indigenous women and girls, simply by virtue of being indigenous and female and regardless of age, socio-economic status, or whether they live on reserves or in urban areas, are at least three times more likely to experience violence and at least six times more likely to be murdered than any other woman or girl in Canada. These statistics were determined based on a report released by the RCMP in 2014–– the first to detail the number of Indigenous women and girls who were missing or murdered–– which came to approximately 1, 017 cases between 1980 and 2012. The disproportionality between rates of violence among indigenous versus non-indigenous women becomes increasingly shocking when considering that Indigenous women and girls make up less than five percent of Canada’s female population. Even more disturbing is that this disproportionality is likely to be even greater than the 2014 report suggests: as of 2016, officials have reported that information collected by the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) suggests the true number of missing and murdered Indigenous women could be as high as 4, 000.

Amnesty International and other human rights groups have declared the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada a clear human rights crisis, as an example of  gender-based violence and racism towards Canada’s Indigenous population. The ever-present fear that one’s daughter, sister, mother, aunt, or any other female relative will be assaulted or killed is a reality in Canada’s Indigenous communities. A quick google search will reveal a multitude of indigenous individuals in Canada having lost a female relative, sometimes multiple, to murder. One such case is that of Sue Caribou, a Cree woman who has lost three female relatives to murder, the latest being her 31 year old niece, Tanya Nepinak, who disappeared in 2011 on her way to get pizza. Another victim is well-known contemporary Canadian Inuit artist Annie Pootoogook, found dead in Ottawa’s Rideau River on September 19, 2016; her death proves that any Indigenous woman can be touched by the crisis, even prominent public figures. The epidemic of violence against Indigenous women is widespread, even reaching those in the McGill community: several Indigenous students at McGill University are missing aunts and other family members.

The Highway of Tears has become emblematic for the problem of violence against indigenous women and girls in Canada. The term refers to Highway 16, a 724 km stretch in northern British Columbia which has seen numerous murders and disappearances of Indigenous women since the 1960’s. Many of the victims were hitchhiking, many were teenagers, and many came from impoverished reserves, lacking the resources and support to advocate for themselves. As a result of these systemic barriers many of the cases– 18 in fact– went cold for decades. Finally, in December 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau upheld the Liberal Party’s campaign promise and announced the initiation of a National Inquiry to study the cases of more than 1,000 missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, the 18 unsolved from the Highway included.

Trudeau is the first Prime Minister in Canada to make the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women a priority. Despite the long ongoing call for a national inquiry by activists, aboriginal leaders, and victims’ families, there has been no previous government action to efficiently address the issue. In fact,, when asked about the possibility of a national inquiry, Trudeau’s predecessor Stephen Harper of the Conservative Party replied “it isn’t really high on our radar, to be honest”. Harper argued that the problem was one of domestic violence and criminality on Indigenous reserves. His Minister of Aboriginal Affairs also threw blame at Native communities, saying that most of the women had in fact been murdered by aboriginal men and addressing the issue as “a lack of respect for women and girls on reserves”.

The United Nations has repeatedly called for a national inquiry into violence against First Nations women and declared the Harper government’s refusal to initiate this investigation a grave violation of Indigenous women’s rights. It is this dismissal of the problem as ‘a native problem’ isolated to reserves and unworthy of government attention which allows such violence to continue. First Nations leaders acknowledge that violence is a problem on reserves, often beset with poverty, drug abuse, and unemployment; yet only 40% of the country’s Indigenous population actually live on reserves. The abuse and murder that Indigenous women in Canada face reflects a broader history of marginalization and abuse, a form of collateral damage from centuries of prejudice and a legacy of colonial heritage. Since the first contact between European explorers and Indigenous populations, Indigenous women have been scorned and stereotyped. Such contempt for indigenous women was reinforced by attempts to force First Nations to assimilate into mainstream Canadian society through mechanisms such as the state-sponsored, church-run Indian Residential School system, now recognized as a form of cultural genocide.

While we may now be two generations removed from residential schools, the type of institutionalized racism Indigenous peoples faced then is still present and can be seen evidenced in the attitude of government officials such as Harper and his staff in response to the crisis. It can also be seen in the police force: a frequent complaint of victim’s’ families is that police don’t investigate the deaths of Indigenous peoples with the same rigour as they do other Canadians. There have been numerous cases where the police have classified deaths of indigenous individuals as a suicide or the result of natural causes when there were signs showing otherwise. Similarly, there is a repeated lack of action when Indigenous women and girls are reported missing. Days before her body was pulled from the Red River wrapped in a plastic bag, 15 year old Tina Fontaine was found and released by police despite being a missing person. Amnesty International reports that Indigenous females are more likely to be targeted by perpetrators of violent crimes because it is well known that police often fail to give them adequate attention and protection.

       

Social services are also at fault: while they should be protecting vulnerable Indigenous children they instead expose them to further risk by plunging them into a dysfunctional foster care system or leaving them unattended in hotels. In Manitoba, reportedly the most racist province towards Indigenous people, Indigenous children make up about 90% of the children in foster care despite accounting for 35% of the province’s minors. These foster homes are often abusive and there is a direct correlation between girls taken into foster care and women who go missing. A chronic shortage of foster placements means that children taken into foster care are sometimes left in hotels in downtown Winnipeg, where they can easily go missing. Tina Fontaine had been under the supervision of the child-welfare system and given temporary placement in a Best Western hotel when she disappeared. Indigenous activist Sue Caribou draws a grim parallel between the neglect of the current foster care system and systematic abuse of residential schools: “Kids are shuffled around in abusive homes. It’s starting all over again”.

The type of racism and sexism that characterizes the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women has been perpetuated by the media, the police, and the justice system in Canada. Victimization of Indigenous women is linked to the legacy of Canada’s colonial past that we have yet to erase: the racist and sexist stereotyping of Indigenous women, intergenerational poverty and the continued marginalization of Indigenous populations, the effects of residential schools, systemic violence, high unemployment rates, government inaction, inefficient social services and child protection, gaps in police and government reporting, and inefficient law enforcement.

The effects of systemic racism upon the Indigenous population, in particular upon women and girls, is discussed in the documentary Highway of Tears. Since the release of the documentary  in 2015 there has been some progress on behalf of the government to address the issue, notably Trudeau’s promise for a National Inquiry. However, there is no question that the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls cannot be fully addressed until we address institutionalized racism in Canada–– and for this, we need to actually acknowledge it.

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