The number of dead or missing Indigenous women in Canada numbers in the thousands. Can a government inquiry help end the violence?by / July 5, 2017 / Leave a comment
This Saturday, Canada officially celebrated its “150th birthday”—marking the date in 1867 when the British government ratified the British North America Act, creating the Dominion of Canada and legally entrenching the settler-colonial project that had started after European colonisers first arrived in the 15th century.
The origins of this project are worth remembering. For, while the Canadian government spent $500 million on national celebrations, it is spending a tenth of that amount to investigate a national crisis which has been mostly ignored in the international press: the disappearance and murder of at least 1,200 Indigenous women and girls since 1980.
This figure comes from a 2013 report by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, which drew from the Sisters In Spirit Database and other Indigenous data sources—though other estimates place the figure as high as 4,000. The official figure doesn’t include, for example, unreported cases, cases involving trans or two-spirit people not categorised as women, cases where the victim’s ethnicity was unknown, and ones that don’t fall under police jurisdiction.
The information we do have shows that 16 percent of women murdered in Canada from 1980 to 2012 were Indigenous—even though they make up only 4 percent of the country’s female population. Between 1969 and 2016, on the “Highway of Tears” alone—a 450-mile stretch of highway in rural British Columbia—as many as 50 Indigenous women went missing or were murdered. In most cases, we still don’t know what happened. (Following years of campaigning, the road finally has a public bus service—a simple way to prevent violence, as many women went missing after having to hitchhike.)
And whereas the murder rate is decreasing for non-Indigenous Canadian women, for Indigenous women, it hasn’t changed.
In December 2015, the Trudeau government finally launched the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG)—which Indigenous groups, women’s groups and other organisations have been calling for for more than 30 years. This independent inquiry is being led by five government-appointed commissioners from legal backgrounds, most of whom are female and fully or part-Indigenous.
The commission report on this systemic violence against Indigenous women, girls and LGBTQ2S individuals (the “2S” stands for two-spirit, an umbrella term used by some Indigenous communities to refer to people who have both a masculine and a feminine spirit), including those with disabilities and special needs. It will suggest specific solutions for the government, the criminal justice system and wider society. Its conclusions have the potential to be both far-reaching and significant: in Canada, almost 5 percent of the population is Indigenous, spanning more than 630 groups and more than 50 languages.
Yet many Indigenous groups and allies are wary—with good reason. We know that the underlying factors behind the violence include structural sexism and racism, poverty, homelessness and the legacy of colonialism. In 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report suggested 94 changes to the government’s Indigenous policies and programs—but only some of these have been acted on.
Though Justin Trudeau’s 2015 election campaign pledged to improve trust between the Canadian government and Indigenous peoples, it’s questionable if the MMIWG Inquiry is helping. It is behind schedule, staff members have been fired or resigned, and victims’ families are not being involved until September—just two months before the interim report is due.
Critics are therefore saying that the MMIWG Inquiry has not been transparent or communicative enough, is not sufficiently or sensitively involving families, community leaders and activists who have been working on this issue for decades, and in some cases is even re-traumatizing victims’ families. Canadian police forces aren’t being investigated for potential complicity or corruption in relation to this violence, and families have to be vetted before they can speak to the commission. The Native Women’s Association of Canada’s latest “report card” on the Inquiry (PDF) doesn’t even recommend that families participate in the process.
Organisations like the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF) hope that, in addition to addressing the causes of and solutions to violence against Indigenous women and girls, the Inquiry will help change the national narrative in Canada. “This inquiry already has raised awareness about the fact that so many Indigenous women and girls are missing and murdered in Canada—and that alone is very important,” says Legal Director Dr Kim Stanton, who argues that non-Indigenous Canadians need to be better informed for the situation to change.
Julie Kaye, a sociologist and a Research Advisor for the Institute of Advancement of Aboriginal Women, however, believes that awareness-raising should not take place on the back of exploitation for those living the Inquiry. She says that Indigenous women are both disproportionately criminalised and underprotected by police, and points out that there is a colonial dimension to the process by which non-Indigenous Canadians are becoming aware of the systemic violence that Indigenous communities have known and spoken about for decades. “Again it’s that colonial narrative of ‘discovery’: Canadians are discovering this type of violence, and all of a sudden it matters,” she says.
She points to grassroots initiatives such as It Starts With Us and Walking With Our Sisters as examples of how an inquiry could be truly run by, for and with Indigenous women, working with communities and with the ceremony needed to honour those who have been murdered and disappeared.
With this inquiry, Canadians have another opportunity to not only face up to the country’s systemic racism, sexism and colonialism, but also change it. With the Inquiry already underway, and an interim report due out in November, time is running out for the Commission to incorporate communities’ and families’ feedback and transform the process into one that facilitates national healing, mutual trust and decolonization.