Note: In Canada, the indigenous peoples are known as the First Nations people or Aboriginal people.
In November 2014, a 16-year-old girl was brutally attacked and left for dead along the banks of the Assiniboine River in Winnipeg. She was violently assaulted and ended up in the freezing river. When she crawled out of the river, she was attacked again, beaten with a weapon and left for dead. This girl was Rinelle Harper, an indigenous teenager from Garden Hill First Nation in the Canadian province of Manitoba. Almost a year later, Rinelle is now recovering and has spoken out on the issue of the violence against Aboriginal women in Canada.
Between 1980 and 2012, according to a 2014 report by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, there were 1,181 reported incidents of murdered or unresolved missing Aboriginal women, and the number has grown since then. First Nations women are 3 times more likely to be victimized than a non-Aboriginal woman. This is an incredibly high and disproportionate rate, considering the fact that Statistics Canada reports that in 2006, indigenous women made up just 3.8% of the total female population in the nation.
Why are Aboriginal women being targeted?
Canada’s dark history of unjust treatment towards the First Nations people will certainly shock the foreigners who have only heard of the welcoming and friendly Canadian stereotypes. As more and more European settlers came to Canada, the government rethought their relationship with the indigenous peoples and enforced many assimilation tactics. Among these were the residential schools. For more information about this, please read a previous article, “Residential Schools: Canada’s Dark History”. In summation, these residential schools took First Nations children away from their home and placed them in boarding schools with the aim of “killing the Indian in the child”. Emotional, physical and sexual abuse was abundant in these schools, leading to widespread scars still present today. This legacy includes alcohol and drug abuse, the loss of cultural identity and a vicious cycle of neglect and abuse.
While the root cause of such high rates of victimization of First Nations women is not clear-cut, we can spot a couple of underlying issues. There has been immense institutionalized racism against the First Nations people, and this has spread to everyday racism. Sexism and racism has led to a notion that First Nations women are unworthy and unimportant. This has men believing that they can get away with committing acts of violence against these women. Cycles of neglect and abuse have left indigenous women vulnerable, especially those in urban centres. According to the Native Women’s Association of Canada, 70% of the women go missing in urban areas, and 60% were murdered in such areas. However, even when most acts of violence occur outside of reserves, they have large direct impacts on the communities on the reserves.
“The shock and grief of a missing or murdered community member impacts the entire community, no matter where the violence takes place.” – Native Women’s Association of Canada
In many cases, when First Nations women are first reported missing, the police have failed to protect them. A case that demonstrates this in particular is that of Tina Fontaine. Tina Fontaine was a teenage girl from Sagkeeng First Nation, Manitoba. She was first reported missing in Winnipeg by her aunt in August 2014. A week later, her body was found in the Red River in Winnipeg. The police released that 24 hours before her death, they had stopped car with a drunk driver in which Tina was a passenger. The officers had taken the driver into custody but let everyone else go, despite the fact that Tina was known to be missing at the time. In regards to this information, Thelma Favel, Tina’s great-aunt lamented, “I just can’t describe it how I am still feeling, knowing that if they did their jobs, my baby might still be here.”
It is clear that the Canadian police have failed to put in place any measures that would meet the needs of indigenous women and their families. When CBC News asked 110 families of victims to rank the quality of police investigation in each case, the average rating concluded to be a 2.8 out of 10. Furthermore, families have revealed that when they reported that their loved ones were missing, the police failed to act and told families to wait longer before they would open an investigation. In many cases, the police were simply not convinced that they were missing.
According to Crystal Bruyere, who lost her 17 year old cousin Fonessa Bruyere in Winnipeg in 2007, the police told her grandmother that Fonessa was just a prostitute who was probably on a binge and that she would come home. This, of course, was not the case; almost a month later, Fonessa was found in a field, stabbed 17 times. Had the police done their jobs and went to look for her, would Fonessa Bruyere be alive today?
First Nations communities calling for a national inquiry:
Canadians across the country are calling on the government for a public inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women. The Conservative government, led by Stephen Harper, has repeatedly rejected the calls for a commission, claiming that the issue has been studied many times already and does not need another inquiry. The Conservatives deny that it is a sociological phenomenon and call it a criminal problem. The leader cites that over the last 20 years, 40 studies have been conducted by various organizations. However, four reports between 2012 and 2015 recommended the establishment of a national commission, joining citizens across the country calling for a public inquiry.
A report by the Legal Strategy Coalition on Violence Against Indigenous Women states that this commission could “consolidate and update existing knowledge about the causes of violence against indigenous women, comprehensively evaluate the adequacy of existing initiatives and programs, and help Canadians and policymakers understand why there has been so much resistance to action to address this issue”. Many roundtable discussions have been held and provincial premiers across the country have called for a commission, but Harper still refuses to hold a federal commission. Last Tuesday, he called it a “law-and-order problem” and noted that police have solved most of the murder cases.
Advocates criticized Harper for his lack of action, especially those at Amnesty International who have urged the Canadian government for action for 11 years under a campaign entitled, “No More Stolen Sisters”. A campaigner from Amnesty, Craig Benjamin, stated, “We have to get to the point of understanding the violence is far more pervasive, that it has multiple causes and that it does in fact have deep roots in our society and the relationships between Aboriginal and Non-Aboriginal people”.
With the federal election occurring on Monday and advanced polls already held this past weekend, this issue has been brought to debate among the political parties over the past few weeks. The two other major parties – the Liberals, led by Justin Trudeau, and the New Democrats (commonly known as NDP), led by Tom Mulcair – have both pledged to start the commission and make it an issue of priority. Also supporting the inquiry is the Green Party, as leader Elizabeth May applauds “Canada’s Premiers and Aboriginal leaders for demanding an inquiry so that [Canada] can at last move forward in resolving this crisis”. The election is a tight race, so we will have to wait and see what lies next for the Indigenous communities in Canada.
A commission is not enough
While it is important that we learn more about this violence and how the police and government can improve their accountability and help families and communities, it is even more important to take action. Canada needs to properly address this issue with actions, and the government must support communities in doing so. Important steps to take include improving the justice system to ensure that offenders serve appropriate sentences, addressing poverty as a root cause, using education to combat such causes and building more women’s shelters across Canada to provide safety to vulnerable women. Furthermore, the government and police forces must improve officer training and ensure that they foster cultural understanding. The First Nations people in Canada are especially vulnerable to poverty and it is important that not only police officers, but also all Canadians, understand how history has played a role into how First Nations people have become a marginalized group in Canada.
Awareness of the missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada has become more widespread during the current election. However, when October 19th passes and the election concludes, it is important that we still remember the lives of these women. We must continue to pressure the government to take this issue seriously and remember that these women are not just statistics: they are mothers, daughters, sisters and cousins, and above all, they are people, just like us.