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Sisters in Spirit

| June 5, 2014

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© 2012 SamerMuscati/Human Rights Watch

Activists are increasing pressure on the Canadian government to take action on the crisis of missing and murdered aboriginal women.

In 2010, the government of Canada shut down an initiative it had been funding for five years called Sisters in Spirit (SIS). Led by aboriginal women under the umbrella of the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC), it had developed a sophisticated database on systemic violence in the country, where aboriginal women are five times more likely than other women to die as a result of violence.

As the Conservative government cut the life support for SIS, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced, “It’s time to take concrete steps to address the issue of missing and murdered aboriginal women,” and channeled funds into law enforcement and a more generalized Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) missing persons database without a focus on aboriginal women. At the time, SIS had documented at least 582 cases of missing and murdered aboriginal women. Four years have passed, and amid a renewed call for a public inquiry into the root causes of violence against aboriginal women, a recent report by the RCMP reveals figures more staggering.

The report, the most comprehensive of its kind, stretches back three decades and reveals 1,181 missing and murdered aboriginal women between 1980 and 2012. Thirty years ago, 8 percent of female murder victims in Canada were aboriginal; now it’s 23 percent. With that in mind, Amnesty International has recently called attention to a police failure to record whether victims of violence are aboriginal: “The RCMP says its findings are based on collaboration with Statistics Canada and more than 300 different police jurisdictions. However, we already know from Statistics Canada that police often fail to record whether or not the victims of violent crime are Indigenous. In 2009, for example, police recorded the Indigenous identity of the majority of homicide victims as ‘unknown.’”

The president of NWAC, Michele Audette, unsurprised by the report’s findings, still acknowledges its significance. “It’s a strong statement coming from a Canadian institution accountable to the minister of justice. It’s powerful for us.” Audette emphasizes the role of public pressure and the need to keep it strong to ensure their aim of a public inquiry is met—a goal that the government continues to ignore. “In the past two years,” she says, “NWAC has been able to mobilize the international community, the thirteen premiers across Canada, and citizens, with 28,000 who signed petitions.”

At issue is a refusal by those in power to fully acknowledge the effects of a patriarchal relationship with the aboriginal community that began with the Indian Act of 1867. The apartheid-like Indian Act controlled such things as Indian status, land, resources, education, band administration, and the highly controversial residential schools. The ensuing social and economic conditions left aboriginal women in particular vulnerable. It took a high-profile serial murder case in 2007 to highlight how they are preyed upon with little fear of consequence.

Robert Pickton was charged in British Columbia with 27 counts of murder; the majority of his victims were aboriginal. A formal inquiry was later launched in British Columbia into the role of the Vancouver police and RCMP. A December 2012 article in Canada’s Globe and Mail announced its findings, reporting that “‘blatant’ police failures triggered by systemic bias against the poor, vulnerable women of Vancouver’s drug-ridden Downtown Eastside allowed serial killer Robert Pickton to evade arrest for years.”

Around this time, the hashtag #MMIW (for missing and murdered indigenous women) appeared, primarily around a call for another inquiry, this time national in breadth. Slow to start, the tag’s cadence picked up last October when the UN sent James Anaya, a special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, to Canada, and it was beginning to beat regularly as the annual February 14 women’s memorial marches took place nationally and internationally.

In early May, Anaya released his findings, writing that aboriginal human rights problems have reached “crisis proportions” in Canada, and stating that an inquiry could “provide an opportunity for the voices of the victims’ families to be heard, deepen understanding of the magnitude and systemic dimensions of the issue, and identify best practices that could lead to an adequately coordinated response.” His findings have been echoed by both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

Upon release of the RCMP report, comments by Justice Minister Peter MacKay suggest the government appears to get it, seems to understand the layers of discrimination and systematic oppression behind the data, but officials are refusing, for now, to enter into further dialogue on the issues. “For too long, the voices of victims have too often been ignored, while the system has overemphasized those of the criminals,” admitted MacKay. And, without pause or acknowledgment of the breadth of information available to him: “We must continue to take concrete action now, not just continue to study the issue.”

To many, including native groups, human rights organizations, opposition leaders, and women’s rights activists, concrete action means more than looking at the surface; it means understanding the root causes of the violence—namely extreme poverty caused by decades of racism and policies and programs that discriminate against the aboriginal community as a whole.

Jess Hausty, a young Heiltsuk community organizer, uses a graphic produced by the RCMP to illustrate the point that when all else fails, to justify the inaction of those in power, victim-blaming too often becomes the tactic. The graphic, entitled Vulnerability Factors—Murdered, which was distributed to all police jurisdictions in Canada, compares non-aboriginal women to aboriginal, pointing directly at statistics surrounding issues such as prostitution, alcohol use, and unemployment.

“To look at graphics like this, we’re all unemployed, deviant criminals with addictions issues; we’re practically self-victimizing. That shaming of victims is a lot easier than confronting society’s collective demons and recognizing that Canada and Canadians are not just ignoring the problem, and not even just exacerbating it—they are benefitting from the subjugation of indigenous women.”

“For now,” Michele Audette says, “it’s a matter of public awareness, education, and being patient. We are getting there.” If patience is running thin for others, social media, mostly Twitter, is picking up the slack, providing a platform for individual stories. Housty says, “Now we are using social media as a tool to organize ourselves, to build community, and to share solutions—and hope. ‘Divide and conquer’ doesn’t work anymore.”

Recently #MMIW has been seen embedded with other hashtags; lifted higher by lost girls in Nigeria (#BringBackOurGirls) and #YesAllWomen. At least 1,181 of our native sisters will never return, but the voices of all Canadians can lend themselves to making sure this figure hasn’t doubled again in another four years. 

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