By Mai-Lan Johnston and Aina De Lapparent Álvarez. Image from everythingzoomer.com
While the female Indigenous population represents about 4.3% of the total female population in Canada, indigenous women are disproportionately exposed to violence, and the number of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls is disproportionately high (Pederson). In more detail, there are 115 reported incidents of sexual assault per thousand Indigenous women per year, compared with 35 incidents per thousand non-Indigenous women. 160 in 1000 Indigenous women are victims of violent crime, compared with 74 victims in 1000 of non-Indigenous women (Social Development Canada). Moreover, the aforementioned statistics on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls are bound to a broader, more systemic problem in Canada. For example, in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, First Nations children living on-reserve experience a poverty rate (62% and 64% respectively) three times higher than non-Indigenous children (15% and 16% respectively) (“Half of First Nations”). These statistics, and many others, support the fact that Indigenous populations are victim to socially biased institutions that often exist to serve the political agendas of the government and neglect the needs of indigenous peoples. Further, reconciliation efforts are often settler-driven rather than driven by indigenous peoples themselves.
In recent years, advocacy organizations such as the Native Women’s Association of Canada and Canada’s National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls have drawn the far overdue attention of the media and non-Indigenous public to the victimization of Indigenous women in predominantly non-Indigenous communities. However, the new public attention arguably underestimates the reach of this problem; the number of high profile cases that filter through the news cycle do not justly represent the true range of this problem. It is our intention that this article, by explaining a brief history, outlining a handful of the several systemic issues involved, drawing attention to current cases, and providing an update to what is currently being done about the problem, will allow readers to gain a deeper understanding of the victimization of Indigenous women and girls in Canada.
In order to gain a deeper understanding of the root causes of the broader social marginalization of Indigenous people, the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada must be situated in the larger context of Canadian colonial history. More specifically, Indigenous women have been challenged by distinctively troubling problems that can be traced back to the first days of settler-colonialism in Canada. Settler men referred to Indigenous women as “Indian princesses,” stereotyping promiscuity and therefore propagating the sexual vulnerability of these Indigenous women. Colonialism resulted in the death of countless indigenous people, uprooted Indigenous people from their ancestral land and placed them on reserves, took indigenous children from their families and placed them in abusive residential schools, imposed colonial gender roles and norms, and generally sought to eradicate Indigenous culture, values, lifestyles, and peoples. The anger and frustration that came with the eradication of Indigenous culture often materialized as violence against women. The Indian Act was first enforced in 1869 and began the legal discrimination that Indigenous people have suffered since. The legally-binding, wholly unjust Indian Act ultimately posed as justification for perpetual and wide-ranging discrimination against Indigenous people. It intended to enable the Canadian federal government to have absolute control over Indigenous life, to manipulate and to “fix” (read: erase) indigenous culture. In 1985, Bill C-31s was amended to the Indian Act, with the intention of bringing the Indian Act into closer alignment with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in terms of discrimination against women. However, several First Nations women have spoken out about their dissatisfaction with Bill-31s, as land and funds dedicated to Indigenous communities are severely limited (Pederson). Unfortunately, recent history is equally as disturbing than the history inflicted by colonialist settlers.
Systemic Background of Violence Against Indigenous Women in Canada
The statistics on violence and poverty mentioned in the introduction support the notion that Indigenous people continue be victims of systemic and socially biased institutions that serve the political and economic agenda of the Canadian government.
Crimes against women in Indigenous communities should be understood as part of a wider scope of social turmoil caused largely by government policies that attempt to erode Indigenous culture. Going as far back as the Indian Act (1876), which continues to exist (with amendments), the federal government has control of “Indian” education, land, resources, and band administration (“Background: Indian Act”). Perhaps most regrettable is the ongoing and detrimental impact of Residential Schools on Indigenous peoples’ cultural life. The dark legacies of these policies promote a high poverty rate, poor education opportunities, and a society of high crime in Indigenous communities. Further, due to the government’s arguably ineffective efforts to amend the past, the homicide and missing persons’ rates for Indigenous women and girls is disproportionately high. Between 1980 and 2012, roughly 1017 women and girls who identify as indigenous were murdered (not including undocumented, unreported, or unexplained deaths) – a rate approximately 4.5 times higher than that of all other Canadian women. A 2013 report states that there are at least 105 Indigenous girls missing under suspicious circumstances (“Missing and Murdered”).
The cycle of poverty and crime stems from the lack of education available in Indigenous communities. Compared with the settler culture of “degrees equals job opportunity,” formal education is severely less available for on-reserve Indigenous peoples. In fact, 20% of Metis, 47% of First Nations on reserve, and 49% of Inuit populations do not have high school diplomas, while 12% of Canada’s total population does not have high school diplomas (Social Development Canada). The insufficient or non-existent provincial government funding for schools in Indigenous communities is the cause of low education availability for Indigenous peoples, and is representative of the broader social marginalization caused by the both provincial and federal governments. In British Columbia (BC) – the only province with supplemental agreements for education funds for Indigenous populations, the per-student funding for First Nations students is approximately 20% less than those students in provincial public schools. Outside of BC, funding for Indigenous students is about 37% less than their non-Indigenous counterparts. This severe deficit in funding results in poor infrastructure, an inability to obtain and retain quality teachers, less educational programs, and overall less opportunity for indigenous students (Moore). Now, consider this – an Indigenous person unable to achieve a high school diploma is seeking a job outside of their reserve. They enter into a world where a high school diploma is an assumed achievement, and they are regrettably unprepared at no fault of their own. Unemployment becomes their new reality, and poverty is soon to follow. Studies have shown that one’s income level is highly correlated with their probability of being a victim of crime (Social Development Canada). The high crime rates, particularly with regards to women, can be attributed to the equally high rates of poverty among Indigenous communities caused by a severe lack of educational opportunities.
The issues caused by the overarching social marginalization of Indigenous communities fosters an unhealthy culture of substance abuse and mental illness that some indigenous people struggle with (as a result of their social, political, and economic colonialism). Many indigenous families have lost a family member to suicide or addiction. The overshadowing shame historically inflicted by the government continues to invade the lives of indigenous peoples in Canada. As one Indigenous woman said in a hearing as part of Canada’s National Inquiry into the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, “the federal government made us wards of the state through the Indian Act and we learnt helplessness. We became ashamed of ourself. We believed what society was telling us” (“Part 1: Families and Survivors”). This heartbreaking testimony is only one of many, and clearly exhibits the brutal psychological impact that society-wide shaming has had on a community. In the context of violence against Indigenous women, many abusers were victims of residential schools and similarly, a lot of victims were residential school survivors (“Part 1: Families and Survivors”). The lack of resources to cope with life after residential schools coupled with existing in the anger of their personal and ancestral pasts only further promotes a cycle of violence against women and social turmoil in Indigenous communities.
When attempting to connect settler and Indigenous histories, Indigenous history is often portrayed incorrectly. This slows the process of reconciliation. Non-indigenous Canadians are miseducated about Indigenous peoples by their teachers and parents who were taught by generations of misinformed settler Canadians. Continuation of the incorrect education of Indigenous peoples’ histories and experiences will only further entrench a division between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians. Ending the unequal treatment of Indigenous peoples and reducing the rates of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada will require cooperation between non-Indigenous and Indigenous Canadians, but without accurate shared information and a clear understanding of each other’s histories, this will be impossible.
The repeated violence against the culture and collective identity of Indigenous peoples has debilitated the foundation of Indigenous communities and society. The isolation and forced withdrawal of Indigenous peoples from the rest of Canadian society cultivates social problems for the individuals and the communities, which only further promote the social marginalization that increases the risk of violence faced by women.
There are many ongoing cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada. Below are some of the most recent known cases, keeping in mind that many cases go unreported. Amnesty Interntional University of Toronto mourns the loss of these women and urges capable bodies to do what they can to address this issue. We must continue to shed light on the issue of murdered and missing indigenous women by engaging in conversations, supporting organizations that do necessary work, lobbying the government to take adequate steps, and refusing to be silenced. May these women rest in power. The impact they had on their communities is far greater than the hate that took their lives.
Chantel John – Conne River, Newfoundland: Chantel, murdered at age 28, was a member of the Miawpukek Mi’kamawey Mawi’omi First Nation. Her ex-boyfriend Kirk Keeping was arrested by RCMP, accused of first degree murder. The Miawpukek Mi’kamawey Mawi’omi First Nation stated that Chantel’s case is representative of Canada’s national crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women (“Man Charged”).
Ashley Morin – North Battleford, Sakatchewan: 31 year-old Ashley Morin was reported missing on January 11, 2019 – she was last seen on July 10, 2018. Her family hung red dresses on trees around the city, symbolizing missing and murdered Indigenous women (“Vigil to Be Held”).Erica Hill O’Watch – Regina, Saskatchewan:
Erica Hill O’Watch – Regine, Saskatchewan: ‘Erica was pronounced dead at the scene of a house party on October 13, 2018. The 16 year old’s friends and family are now honouring Hill-O’Watch with a Missing and Murdered Indigenous Logo. A 15 year-old boy was was arrested and charged with second-degree murder (“I Don’t Get to See Her Fall in Love”). Dianne Mae Bignell – Thomson, Manitoba:
Dianne Mae Bignell – Thomson, Manitoba: 60 year-old Dianne was last seen on her birthday on May 17, 2018. The RCMP have assured her daughter Clara Bignell that they are actively working on finding her mother (“Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women”).
Jeanenne Chantel Fontaine – Winnipeg, Manitoba: 29 year-old Jeanenne was shot dead in March 2017. On January 19, 2019, a jury found Christopher Brass and Jason Meilleur to be guilty of manslaughter. Jeanenne’s father, Eugene Fontaine was found beaten to death in 2011. Jeanenne’s cousin, 15 year old Tina Fontaine, was found dead in Red River in August of 2014. Jeanenne’s case is representative of how it is common for Indigenous families to experience the loss of several family members to targeted violence (Malone).
Monica Jack – Vancouver, British Columbia: Monica was sexually assaulted and strangled to death when she was 12 years old in 1978. Her skull and bones were found 17 years later. On January 17, 2019, Garry Handlen was charged for the first-degree murder of Monica. Handlen was involved in a supposed gang organization. He told his crime boss that he grabbed and “Indigenous girl,” threw her bike in a lake, forced her into the bathroom of his camper and drove up a rough hill where he killed her (Bains).
Cassidy Bernard – Cape Breton, Nova Scotia: 22 year-old Cassidy was found unresponsive in her home in the We’koqma’q First Nation on October 24, 2018. A $100,000 reward has been offered by the We’koqma’q band council for information that leads to an arrest and conviction in connection with Cassidy’s death. The RCMP have labelled Cassidy’s death as “suspicious,” and have yet to confirm or deny the case as homicide (“Police Still Tight-Lipped”).
Cindy Gladue– Edmonton, Alberta: In June 2011, Cindy, a 36-year old Metis woman, bled to death in a bathtub in a motel room. Cindy was described to have suffered from drug addiction and poverty. Bradley Barton was accused but found not guilty by a jury of manslaughter and first-degree murder. The case revealed that Barton and Gladue had “consensual” but extremely violent sex that left the victim with an 11cm cut in her vagina. Following nationwide protests, the Crown appealed, and the Alberta Court of Appeal ordered a new trial that began in October 2018. The Appeal Court ruled that there were serious errors in the original trial. The Appeal court also claims that the judge’s charge to the jury about Barton’s conduct, as well as how consent is defined and understood as it pertains to sexual assault legislation. The Alberta Crown will argue to the Supreme Court to set precedent for if an “objective likelihood of harm” cancels out sexual consent. Similarly to how someone killed in a fist fight didn’t consent to bodily harm (Purdy).
Mary Yellowback – Winnipeg, Manitoba: The 33 year-old mother of six was found dead in a recycling depot. She lived on Manto Sipi Cree Nation in northern Manitoba and was visiting Winnipeg for a medical appointment for her son. Her death has been ruled as “suspicious,” however police have yet to confirm if her death was a homicide. News of Mary’s death spread as the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls held hearings in Winnipeg. The homicide unit in Winnipeg is continuing to investigate Mary’s death (“‘It’s Tragic’”).
What is currently being done?
Addressing indigenous peoples’ and indigenous and non-indigenous activists’ demands, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women began in 2016. This entity promises to included affected families in the process while respecting the traumatic nature of these issues as well as respecting diversity. It seeks to conclude by proposing concrete steps to prevent more women from undergoing this violence. Thus the intentions were to work coast to coast, which is a major divergence from the previous practice of understanding and deciding on issues related to indigenous wellbeing from Ottawa. While the entity was composed of four Commissioners from across the country, one quit, and while the commission was supposed to submit its report by December 31st 2018, it was granted an extension of five months, which raises several questions. Was the budget of $53 million insufficient? Was the breadth and depth of task underestimated? The slow pace of the commission raised concerns in indigenous communities over what can be perceived as a lack of interest or partial engagement, which is not contributive to the government’s supposed attempts towards reconciliation.
The Native Women’s Association of Canada also pursued outreach programs through artistic workshops. For example, the artist Gloria Larocque, creator of the “Aboriginal Angel Doll Project” was asked to explore the visual representation of strong and beautiful indigenous women who have become ‘faceless’ victims of crime to give back these women their story and some agency, so they live in the memory of not only their families but also other Canadians. Larocque created a traveling art exhibit of more than 600 Faceless Dolls. This idea was well received and seemed to respond to some concrete demands of restoring dignity to women who were subject to this violence. Families, community members, teachers, and allies continue to reach out to the NWAC to replicate the concept of the exhibition.
Non-governmental actors have also been involved in advancing this issue. Most notably, Sisters In Spirit (SIS) distinguished itself because it was driven and led by indigenous women. Similar to the NWAC, it sought to produce knowledge and disseminate it, first by filling the gap on statistical information on violence against indigenous women. As a matter of fact, only Manitoba could provide the public with information similar to the information produced by Sisters in Spirit. The database is extraordinaily complex as it takes 200 variables into account, and it remains active. Thus, it allows for complex analysis of patterns as well as visualizations of it. SIS also did considerable work in preserving the memory of those who were lost to this violence.
Amnesty International has pointed out that the perspective in which the Canadian government is framing this issue detracts from the push towards more effective action . In effect, refusing to apply the category of “torture” to such a crisis because it is perpetrated by non-state actors is to miss the point. It is a very narrow understanding of the UN definition of torture, one that applies to a past where states were the main actors for torture, at least in its historical documentation.
While we appreciate the National Commission’s effort to produce the best report, the demand for an extension proved that Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, and Indigenous communities were right in their complaint that the process was slow. Further, the announcement of a deadline extension came to many as a surprise. If the National Commission wants to operate on less of a top-down approach, it ought to improve its communication strategy by involving key actors to corroborate with the government’s announced intention to move towards reconciliation. Amnesty International has long asked for a National Action Plan, addressing gaps in policy, specially in prevention and in dealing with new cases promptly.
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Purdy, Chris. “Supreme Court to Hear Questions in Case of Woman’s Death after Rough Sex.” Edmonton, 9 Oct. 2018, edmonton.ctvnews.ca/supreme-court-to-hear-questions-in-case-of-woman-s-death-after-rough-sex-1.4126464.
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“Vigil to Be Held for Ashley Morin.” Saskatoon, 11 Jan. 2019, saskatoon.ctvnews.ca/vigil-to-be-held-for-ashley-morin-1.4249933.