When Justin Trudeau came into power in 2015, many Canadians (myself included) were eager to see if he would deliver on his empathetic, progressive platform. One of the promises he made was a commitment to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples and the commission of a national inquiry into the missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW). In particular, I was curious to see if Trudeau would step up and do right by Indigenous women, who arguably endure the harshest discrimination and obstacles in Canada. There is a historical and colonial background to the oppression that continues today against Indigenous women. The Residential School system, the Sixties Scoop, and gender discrimination within the Indian Act have all subjected Indigenous communities, especially women, to violence, cultural dislocation, and oppression.
This environment of discrimination and hostility persists today. The national homicide rate for Indigenous women is at least seven times higher than for non-Indigenous women. While Indigenous women and girls only make up 4.3% of the female population in Canada, they account for 11.3% of missing women in the country.
The scale and severity of the persecution faced by Indigenous women and girls in our country is a national human rights crisis, and Canadians need to see it as such.
Violence Against Indigenous Women.
“The crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada means that police services across the country should be acutely aware of and sensitive to the well-being, vulnerability, and needs of Indigenous women. Instead, in some cases, it is the police themselves who are making Indigenous women feel unsafe.” - Farida Deif, Canada director at Human Rights Watch
In a 2009 government survey of the Canadian provinces, Aboriginal women were nearly three times more likely than non-Aboriginal women to report being a victim of a violent crime, and this is true regardless of whether the violence was perpetrated by a stranger or by a spouse.
Violence against Indigenous women has deep roots in discrimination and racism. Some people harm Indigenous women either because of their racist views, or perhaps because they know they’ll avoid serious consequences due to our society’s general apathy wards the welfare of Indigenous women.
Indigenous women are particularly vulnerable to all forms of violence, including violence perpetrated by casual acquaintances and police abuse. The UN and Inter-American Commission on Human Rights have affirmed that racist discrimination and socio-economic marginalization are the root causes of the murders and disappearances of Indigenous women and girls.
Additionally, there is little recourse available for this violence, since Canadian police forces hardly serve as a tool of protection for Indigenous women and communities. As Amnesty International has noted, police procedures for responding to missing persons cases often fail to acknowledge the pervasiveness and severity of threats Indigenous women endure, which leads to slow and ineffective action. Harmful biases are pervasive in police departments that devalue family concerns regarding criminal matters (be it a missing person or a suspicious death). As a result, these concerns are often ignored or produce insufficient and lacklustre investigations.
Lastly, the frequent impunity perpetrators are awarded for crimes against Indigenous women promotes an environment of tolerance. It tells us that these acts are to be expected, are inevitable. It erases the severity and criminality of the acts. This apathetic paradigm leads women and girls to not seek justice because history have shown them that they won’t get it.
Case Study: Saskatchewan.
In 2016, Human Rights Watch (HRW) did an investigation into the police treatment of Indigenous women in Saskatchewan. Its report discussed abuse and a lack of commitment from police, as well as an overarching mistrust of police by Indigenous women. The 64 respondents spoke of inappropriate and invasive body and strip searches, sexual harassment, and physical assault from officers, as well as a feeling of general neglect when reporting domestic violence. HRW noted that the women’s accounts of police abuse raise serious concerns about their safety in the province.
Throughout Saskatchewan, Indigenous women said they would not report a crime against them or a crime involving an Indigenous woman that they had witnessed due to fear that police might retaliate by harassing them or physically assaulting an Indigenous suspect. This absence of trust between Indigenous communities and law enforcement is harmful for everyone, but it has particularly adverse effects for victims and potential victims of violence who are hesitant to seek police protection.
“It breeds a culture of silence that can be life-threatening for victims of violence.”- Human Rights Watch
While the federal government in 2010 announced plans to spend $10 million over five years to address violence against Indigenous women and girls, most of the funding was earmarked for police initiatives that track missing persons in general, without specifically investigating sexual and gender based violence (SGBV) against Indigenous women and girls. In addition, the programming lacks an overarching strategy and the allocation of resources has been disjointed.
MMIW National Inquiry.
Somewhere between 1,200 and 4,000 Indigenous women and girls in Canada have been murdered or are missing. (The RCMP reported 1,200 in 2104, but in 2016 ‘Walk 4 Justice’ collected names from families and communities and stopped counting at 4,232.)
The highly anticipated and long awaited MMIW National Inquiry, a way for families and advocates to know why Indigenous women and girls are victims of violence far more often than other women in Canada, was launched August 2016. Unfortunately, though not surprisingly, it has been dubbed by many as a “dismal failure.” As of this May, the inquiry was still being “set up,” apparently organizing conference rooms and catering (you know, the important stuff). Furthermore, the commission would not start hearing from families until the end of the month. This is not just embarrassing, but also problematic given that the inquiry's interim report is due November 1, 2017, giving the commissioners only a few months to hear testimonies.
In May, the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) issued its second report card on the national inquiry. To say it was optimistic would be a lie. On 10 out of the report card’s 15 measures, the national inquiry flat out failed. In 3 areas it received cautions and in 2 others there was not enough information to make an assessment.
NWAC’s unfavourable evaluation followed consistent complaints by advocates and family members that the process is falling far behind its intended pace and that communication has been insufficient and often non-existent.
“This many months into the inquiry, we cannot afford to be nice anymore.” - Francyne Joe, NWAC’s interim president
NWAC declared that the national inquiry is not set up to consider the trauma endured by the victims’ loved ones. The inquiry has failed also failed to meet its mandates of promoting reconciliation, fostering public awareness, and allowing families and communities to share their experiences/perspectives.
Our attempt to do right by Indigenous women and their communities has, so far, been a complete failure. Those that the inquiry is meant to serve feel slighted, forgotten and devalued. Even when we say we are going to help, we fail to truly commit to promoting any meaningful change.
Does Canada Have a Conscience?
No ifs ands or buts, Canada needs to step up, take responsibility, and take action to ensure the safety and welfare of Indigenous Women. It is shameful that our nation allows this institutional violence to persist in 2017.
There has been increasing national pressure coming from Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadian citizens for our nation to recognize this atrocity and take further action. For example, in 2013, over 200 communities across the country hosted ‘Sisters in Spirit’ vigils to honour missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW).
It’s not just myself or fellow Canadians that think this. There have been multiple calls to action from the international community telling Canada to step up. In 2008, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) recommended that Canada “develop a specific and integrated plan for addressing the particular conditions affecting aboriginal women, both on and off reserves, and of ethnic and minority women, including poverty, poor health, inadequate housing, low school completion rates, low employment rates, low income and high rates of violence.”
In 2012, three separate UN committees called out Canada’s lack of protection for Indigenous women. The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) expressed its concern “that Aboriginal women and girls are disproportionately victims of life threatening forms of violence, spousal homicides and disappearances,” and urged Canada to take appropriate action, including the establishment of a national database on MMIW, in consultation with Indigenous women and their organizations. The Committee Against Torture recommended Canada “enhance its efforts to end all forms of violence against aboriginal women and girls by, inter alia, developing a coordinated and comprehensive national plan of action, in close cooperation with aboriginal women’s organization…” Lastly, the Committee on the Rights of the Child advised Canada to make sure “the factors contributing to the high levels of violence among Aboriginal women and girls are well understood and addressed in national and province/territory plans.”
If Canada is indeed to step up and affect real change, how would it do that? Here is a list of suggestions, from myself and (mostly) Indigenous activists and organizations.
First and foremost, we need a legitimate commitment to address violence against Indigenous women and girls. No progress will be made if we are not truly committed to the cause, in our mind and our heart. We need to provide protection and a realization of their human rights as set out in Canadian and international law, most importantly the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).
Second, we will get nowhere if we don’t lay out a comprehensive, coordinated national response to address gaps in current policies, programs and services available to stop violence against Indigenous women and girls. Not to mention that implementing a national action plan to is also necessary to fulfil our international human rights commitments.
Third, we need a comprehensive data collection system. Across the country, police fail to record whether or not the victim is Indigenous in the majority of homicide cases. As such, there is no official statistic on the number of MMIW. This lack of data allows us to mask a serious problem, making it more difficult to allocate appropriate resources and creating barriers to an effective response at the community level.
Fourth is money. Nothing gets done without money. We need robust, long term funding to ensure the provision of (culturally relevant and sensitive) services for Indigenous women and girls at risk of violence or in contact with law enforcement or the justice system. This would include emergency shelters, court workers, and services for survivors of violence and trafficking.
Fifth, we need to transform how our law enforcement deals with Indigenous communities in general, and specifically issues of SGBV. We need to create standardized protocols for police on how to handle missing person cases as well as improved coordination of investigations into long term missing person cases and unsolved murders involving Indigenous women and girls.