Background & Statistics
The disappearance and murders of Indigenous women are not merely a new news phenomenon, but rather, they are an integral part of an ongoing pervasive problem in Canada. Murdered Indigenous women’s cases are not considered murders, but accidental deaths and disproportionate numbers. “According to the Native Women’s Association of Canada, only 53% of the 582 murder cases in the organization’s “Sisters in Spirit” database have been solved.”
“Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Canada (MMIWG) refers to a human rights crisis that has only recently become a topic of discussion within national media.” The MMIW was amplified by Indigenous journalist Sheila North Wilson in 2012. This hidden crisis dates back to the early development of Canada. It can only be understood in its historical context of the settler colonialism that led to the ongoing racialization, stereotyping, violence, and sexualization of Indigenous women, as well as the ways in which the state has engaged in policies of assimilation and extermination in Canada.
Settler colonialism is oriented towards the erasure of Indigenous peoples and the acquisition of land. In the Canadian context, this logic of elimination has taken different forms over the various decades. One of the forms that settler colonialism took was assimilation in the context of marriages and education. The objective was to have Indigenous peoples assimilated to the settler collective. This was done through various genocides and violence. For example, Indigenous children were taken from their families by the federal government and put in residential schools where, in an attempt to assimilate them, they were violently stripped of their culture, language and ways of life. In 2021, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) found 4,118 children’s corpses at unmarked graves, hidden and buried there by the staff of residential schools. The TRC believes there are more bodies and continues to look for them today. Other assimilation-based policies include the sterilization of Indigenous women without their consent, and it is important to note that these various policies are still in effect.
There is currently inconclusive rhetoric surrounding the numbers of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada. According to a 2014 Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) report, more than 1,200 Indigenous women were reported missing or murdered between 1980 and 2012. However, Indigenous women groups that have closely documented and monitored the number of missing and murdered Indigenous women reported over 4,000 missing and murdered Indigenous women between 1980 and 2012. These numbers are disproportionately high considering Indigenous women only make up 4% of the Canadian population but 16% of all homicide victims in Canada. This discrepancy is fostered by the under-representation of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, and the numbers are alarming and horrifying. According to Statistics Canada, Indigenous women and girls are twelve times more likely to be murdered or missing than other Canadian women.
On September 28, 2020, Joyce Echaquan, a 37-year-old Atikamekw woman and a mother of seven children, died of pulmonary edema, with healthcare-related racism as a contributing factor. Echaquan died on Sept. 28, 2020, a couple of minutes after posting a video of herself in a Quebec hospital as health care staff bombarded her with racist remarks. In the report, nurses, hospital staff, and even the prime minister of Quebec denied that this situation was linked to systemic racism and prejudice. Joyce Echaquan was mistakenly labelled as a drug addict and did not get the level of care she needed and is entitled to. Crises such as this specific example happen all over Canada, specifically in the province of British Columbia which has the highest number of murdered Indigenous women and girls. Although the last residential school was closed in 1996, racism towards Indigenous people remains prevalent.
Gloria Moody, Micheline Pare, Madison Scott, Aielah Saric Auger. Nicole Hoar are all names of Murdered Indigenous women on the “Highway of tears”, an 800 kilometres highway that marks a known site of the disappearance and murder of many Indigenous women and girls in British Columbia. It was declared by Inuit leaders from the region that, on this route alone, 43 of these cases were unsolved. Victims are divided by stereotypes and prioritized according to their “newsworthiness”. This notion reveals the discourse of the “missing White woman syndrome”, in which there is a recurring pattern of white female victims receiving more media coverage while they neglect to cover other victims. This also ties into the “fallen women” stereotype, which portrays Indigenous women victims in a less sympathetic light to the media. This problem is due to many factors such as systematic impoverishment, land dispossession, and numerous attempts to violently abolish traditional Indigenous cultures and customs.
Fortunately, Indigenous and non-indigenous people alike are coming together through organizations and other various methods to give voices to the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Many methods of resilience, resurgence, and revitalization are being put forward by Indigenous peoples to empower them and help foster healing from the effects of settler colonialism. Wapikoni Mobile, for example, is an organization that brings together Indigenous youths who are enacting their peoplehood and expressing their culture. This is a way to make the “invisible” Indigenous voices visible. Visual sovereignty is a concept that aims to fight and resist the oppression of Indigenous peoples, and public art made by Indigenous artists is a way to regain visual sovereignty and convey meaning.
Multidisciplinary Artist Jaime Black of mixed Anishinaabe and Finnish descent engages in themes of “memory, identity, place and resistance, and is grounded in an understanding of the body and the land as sources of cultural and spiritual knowledge.” Black created the REDress project, an organization that consisted of hanging red dresses, symbolic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. The purpose of this installation was, through aestheticization, to visualize and make visible the epidemic of violence endured by Indigenous women, and most importantly, give a voice to the women who have been long neglected by the Canadian government.
In conclusion, “to begin to understand the severity of the tragedy facing Indigenous women today you must first understand the history,”, a phrase that Nick Printup, the director and producer of the documentary Our Sisters in Spirit, expressed during an interview in 2016. Canadian society’s long-standing tradition of Indigenous oppression has normalized this situation from coast to coast. The situation keeps expanding and has reached a point where volunteers, looking to take matters into their own hands, are organizing search parties to “clean up” the river that runs through the city of Winnipeg in order to look for the bodies of missing Indigenous women and girls. The problem has grown to where community patrols, such as the Bear Clan founded by James Favel, have taken on the responsibility of patrolling the streets to search for MMIWG.
The disagreements in numbers and the creation of these organizations show the failure of law enforcement authorities, and the Canadian government as a whole, to deal with murdered indigenous women and girls in Canada. In 2019, the final report of the National Inquiry into MMIWG in Canada found that the deliberate action, or more specifically, the inactions of the government, were deeply rooted in colonialism and colonial ideologies, and these sentiments centred this ongoing crisis. Violence against Indigenous women is a criminal and social issue, but above all else, a serious human rights issue. Indigenous women and girls have the right to live in a safe environment, free from violence.
Featured image by Sam Javanrouh
- Allard-Tremblay, Yann “Introduction to Indigenous Studies” Lecture, McGill University, Montreal, 2021.
- “Quebec coroner says Joyce Echaquan would still be alive if she was white.” YouTube, uploaded by CBC News: The National, 05 Oct. 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E_hz3244M8A&ab_channel=CBCNews%3ATheNational