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    Faces of Canada's disappeared Indigenous Women

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Canada’s living legacy of colonialism and insitutionalized racism explains the crisis of violence against and disappearances against Indigenous women.

On July 31, 2014, Tina Fontaine, a 15-year-old Indigenous girl from Sagueen First Nation in Manitoba, Canada, was reported missing to the Winnipeg Police by her Great Aunt.

Struggling to deal with the beating death of her father Eugene, the little girl ran away from foster care. She was in the care of Child and Family Services in Winnipeg, Manitoba. A week after she was reported missing, she was found by two Winnipeg Police officers during a traffic stop at 3 a.m. She was in the company of an older man who was allegedly impaired. Instead of taking teemager Tina to safety, the police sent her into the night by herself. The next day, she was passed out in an alley and picked up by Winnipeg Fire and Paramedics and taken to hospital for treatment. Child and Family Services took her from the hospital checked her into a downtown hotel where she runs away again. On August 17, 2014, she is pulled from the Red River in a bag having been murdered.

Sadly, this is not an isolated incident.

This is just one of thousands of stories of disappeared in Canada – also referred to as murdered, missing, and traded Indigenous women, girls, and babies. According to the most recent report by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), Canada’s national police force, there were at least 1,181 cases of murdered and missing Indigenous women in Canada over a 30 year period from 1980 to 2012. This report doubled the original estimate from the Native Women’s Association of Canada, who under the Sisters in Spirit campaign in 2010 met with Indigenous families and found no less than 600 murdered and missing. Even these two reports must be taken in the context of previous reports which have long highlighted Canada’s disappeared as a growing crisis.

Racism in Canada is killing our women and girls. State actors are involved in the sexual abuse and violence against Indigenous women and girls.

In Canada, Indigenous women make up 2 percent of the population, yet 16 percent of all women that go murdered and missing. In Manitoba, Indigenous women make up 49 percent of the murdered and missing, 55 percent in Saskatchewan and 28 percent in Alberta. They are 3 times more likely to suffer violence than Canadian women; the homicide rate is on the rise for Indigenous women, but on decline for Canadian women; and they are more likely to be attacked by strangers and people in authority than Canadian women. Despite claims by Canadian officials that the reason for the disappeared is Indigenous men, the statistics show that Canadian men are more likely to kill their spouses than Indigenous men. Recent research indicates that Indigenous women, girls and even babies are being taken on ships headed for the United Nations and traded into the sex trade.

Disappearances: A Legacy of Colonialism

Though the media spotlight on Canada’s disappeared has recently captured the public’s attention, it has failed to provide the colonial context to this sociological phenomenon. In fact, the first known cases of murdered Indigenous women and girls were in 1756 when laws were passed offering bounties on the scalps of Indigenous men, women and children from the Mi’kmaw Nation killing many of our people. In the 1800s, Canada passed the Indian Act which divided up Indigenous Nations into small reserves, outlawed their cultures, and stole their lands. The Indian Act stripped thousands of Indigenous women and children of their identities and their right to live in their communities making them vulnerable in violent, racist urban areas.

The Indian Act further empowered Canadian officials to commit even worse atrocities on Indigenous boys and girls by taking children from reserves, forcing them to live in residential schools where they were starved, beaten, tortured, raped and murdered by the thousands. Upwards of 40 percent never made it out alive; those that did have suffered inter-generational trauma. Even the end of residential schools was not the end of violence against Indigenous women and girls at the hands of the state. Many Indigenous women and girls were sterilized against their knowledge and consent in order to reduce our populations.

Sadly, this colonial history is also our colonial present. Today, Indigenous women and their children are discriminated under the Indian Act and have lesser or no legal recognition, despite winning many court cases. The state’s deliberate, chronic underfunding of reserve communities have resulted in Indigenous peoples with 7-20 years lower lifespan than Canadians, some of the highest suicide rates in the world and the lowest socio-economic conditions. The statistics are staggering. Despite being only 4 percent of the Canadian population, Indigenous peoples suffer the following:

  • 90 percent of all children in foster care in Manitoba;
  • 34 percent of women in prison are Indigenous;

  • 97 percent increase in Indigenous women in prison;

  • Suicide rate is 5 times the national average;

  • Suicide rates for Indigenous women are 7 times higher;

  • 40 percent First Nation children live in poverty compared to 17% of Canadian children;

  • Infant mortality rate is twice as high as Canadians;

  • 116 (20 percent) reserve communities (First Nations) are without clean water;

  • 75 percent of all reserve water systems are at risk;

  • 40 percent of homes are in need of major repair;

  • 85,000 homes needed.

In fact, Canada was once considered the fourth best place to live in the world, according to the United Nation’s human development index. But when the conditions of Indigenous peoples were measured, Canada dropped to 78th below places like Mexico and Chile.

At least 36 percent of Indigenous women live in poverty, have less income than Canadian women, and are less likely to have formal education. Many Indigenous women, because of state-imposed conditions of poverty, are homeless and forced to migrate to the cities without community supports. This leaves them vulnerable to both societal and state-sponsored racism and violence. This is perhaps the most startling part of Canada’s disappeared – the role of state agents in committing the violence. Racism isn’t just an issue of political correctness – racism in Canada is killing our women and girls.

Former British Columbia provincial court judge David Ramsey pleaded guilty to sexually and physically assaulting young Indigenous girls between 12 and 16 years old. He committed horrific acts of violence on these children and left one naked on the side of the road after sexually assaulting her. The RCMP delayed almost 3 years before bringing charges. Human Rights Watch reported documented instances of rape and violence by RCMP against Indigenous women and girls. Despite complaints against RCMP, they refused to investigate their officers. The true extent of the role of the RCMP, provincial, and municipal police and state authorities in the disappearances and violence against Indigenous women and girls has never been investigated despite calls for a national inquiry.

The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) released its report in 2015 that found Canada to have committed “grave violations” of human rights against Indigenous women and girls for its failure to address the crisis and for its discriminatory treatment of Indigenous women and girls, which includes creating the impoverished socio-economic conditions which makes them more vulnerable. Prior to this, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Indigenous issues called on Canada to conduct a national inquiry, as did the U.N. Human Rights Council. Prime Minister Harper denied it was a sociological phenomenon and stated that an inquiry was “not high on our radar.” Canada’s Minister of Aboriginal Affairs Bernard Valcourt tried to blame it all on Indigenous men and denied the need for an inquiry.

The vast majority of legal and human rights experts as well as Indigenous communities have called for both a national inquiry and an emergency action plan that would focus on addressing the root causes of vulnerability of our women and girls and ensure prompt police investigation and action to keep our women safe. The provision of adequate housing, food, water, education and health care would go a long way towards keeping our women safe. Governments must also take responsibility for their role in promoting racist and discriminatory attitudes toward Indigenous peoples, including victim blaming and vilifying our people as terrorists, insurgents and criminals, which the Rapporteur has warned risks social peace in Canada.

Racism in Canada is killing our women and girls. State actors are involved in the sexual abuse and violence against Indigenous women and girls. The problem is getting worse, not better. Despite calls from the international community, Canada has ignored over 50 studies and 700 recommendations on how to address the crisis. What is lacking is the political will to protect the women, girls and babies living in Canada.

Canada never intended that Indigenous peoples would survive the genocide committed during colonization – but we have. Now, we need international support to keep our women and girls safe. The state’s culpability in creating and maintaining the socio-economic conditions that result in our vulnerability must be challenged head on. We should all work towards a world where Indigenous women and girls never have to worry about being disappeared.

Dr. Pamela Palmater is an Associate Professor and Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University.

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