|People attend a vigil for Tina Fontaine and Faron Hall in Winnipeg, Manitoba|
The murders and disappearances have gone on since 1980. One thousand, two hundred murdered or missing. Must be a huge uproar. Well, not so much.
The 1,200 missing or murdered people are aboriginal women and girls in Canada, and when relatives, friends and others go to Ottawa for help, they get not much of anything.
As Warren Kinsella writes at First Perspective,
Now, we don't even have to say out loud that if the 1,200 murdered or missing were, say, debutantes or Rotarians or hockey players, nobody would be looking for something else to read in today's paper. If it had been a bunch of white girls who had been killed or disappeared, there would be no collective societal shrug taking place.
Holy God Almighty, there'd be a hue and a cry like none this nation had ever seen. You'd have mild-mannered suburbanites storming Parliament Hill with pitchforks and torches if we were talking about 20 Midget "A" teams, or the entire population of Tilt Cove, Newfoundland, or Greenwood, B.C.
But it's aboriginal women. And so nobody's enraged and nobody's storming Parliament Hill.
Indigenous women suffer a victimization rate three times higher than the Canadian population and are grossly over-represented in the number of women that go murdered and missing. While homicides have declined for Canadian women, the same cannot be said for Indigenous women. Indigenous women make up 4% of the population in Canada but 11% of the missing women and 16% of the murdered women. While these numbers are high, the levels in the western provinces and northern territories are frightening. The number of murdered Indigenous women in Manitoba is 49% and in Saskatchewan its 55%.
The most disturbing of all reports is the 2013 report entitled Those Who Take Us Away: Abusive Policing and Failures in Protection of Indigenous Women and Girls in Northern British Colombia prepared by Human Rights Watch. This report concluded that Indigenous women and girls are not only “under-protected” by the RCMP but are in fact the objects of RCMP abuse. They highlighted the many allegations of RCMP officers sexually exploiting and abusing young Indigenous girls.. There are reports of confinement, rape, and sexual assault on Indigenous girls and some have led to law suits. They also reported on a class action law suit against the RCMP by its own female officers for sexual harassment and gender discrimination...
...While the government and RCMP have, at times, tried to blame the victims for their own circumstances, it seems very clear that a large part of the problem is government and RCMP’s racist and sexist attitudes towards Indigenous women and girls. In addition to Canada’s discriminatory laws and policies against Indigenous peoples generally, and women specifically, the Human Rights Watch group even reports on an example of the judiciary being involved in the abuse against these girls. David Ramsay, a provincial court judge, was accused of sexually assaulting and violently abusing girls between 12 and 17 and eventually plead guilty. How are Indigenous women and girls supposed to get justice if the Justice system participates in the abuse and rape of these women?
One of the biggest impediments to moving forward is the continued failure of the federal government to have the RCMP investigated to determine the full extent to which racism against Indigenous people and sexism against women in general hamper their work. Harper’s own discriminatory attitude towards Indigenous peoples is a significant barrier to moving forward. Even the most recent United Nations report from the Rapporteur commented on how poor the relationship is between Canada and Indigenous peoples and has become worse since the last visit to Canada in 2003. The United Nations is not alone in its observation of deteriorating government relations – the Bertelsmann Foundation is the latest to note that Canada’s record on governance has declined under Harper, especially when it comes to Indigenous peoples. The UN further stated that Canada’s negative public comments about Indigenous peoples risks social peace.
There are indigenous people, even some others, who do care and they are fighting for recognition, fighting to ensure something is done, fighting for the missing and dead. For example, I take you to Manitoba where the death of a 15-year-old girl, Tina Fontaine, has prompted dozens of people to camp in the shadow of the Manitoba Legislature for days, calling for an inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women. The camp was set up two weeks ago following the discovery of Tina’s body wrapped in a bag in the Red River. The number of tents has continued to grow, as has the resolve and optimism of many protesters who hope this tragedy can be a turning point. Kylo Prince, speaking for many at the camp, says what is happening is merely a continuation of the genocide of Canada's native people. He says there s always hope.
“If I had no hope, I wouldn’t be standing here. I would be sitting in an alley, slamming some whisky with a needle in my arm and a crack pipe hanging out of my lips. But no, there is hope. We will conquer the darkness, but with light. We can’t fight it with anger or hatred.”
He thinks that maybe the fact that the Conservative federal government has reversed itself and now said it is will to participate in a roundtable discussion about the missing and the killed aboriginal women is one of those hopeful signs.
I would argue that these efforts serve to distract from root causes by focusing on indigenous people themselves as the problem.
This sentiment was reinforced when Winnipeg police Sgt. John O’Donovan stated that Tina didn’t realize “the danger she was putting herself in.” What danger is this? The danger of living in a society that condones violence against indigenous women, where killers face few deterrents, and where missing women are blamed for putting themselves “at risk.”
Surely tracking indigenous girls’ DNA so they can be identified after they die is not the starting point for justice. Indigenous women want to matter before we go missing. We want our lives to matter as much as our deaths; our stake in the present political struggle for indigenous resurgence is as vital as the future.
So do we need an inquiry?
We need to stop the killing of 15-year-old native girls. We need to put an end to the abduction of indigenous women. We need to overhaul a justice system in which justice is so distorted that it is no longer recognizable. We need no more excuses, no more condolences, no more lists of missing women. We need an end to treating violence as mundane.
An inquiry will only help if it has action attached and if it shifts power into the hands of indigenous women, meaning it is led by indigenous women. Such a process will only be meaningful if it has the scope and power to illuminate the multi-layered systemic failures which contribute to this relentless violence. Working across jurisdictional divisions and levels of governmental responsibility in the child welfare system, the justice system, the education system and the systems of transportation and housing, we need to find some semblance of accountability toward indigenous girls and women.
Accountability means supporting existing anti-violence measures already being initiated by indigenous communities. These include rite-of-passage ceremonies to restore honour for young women, the Moosehide Campaign in which native boys and men take on culturally-relevant responsibilities to end violence toward women, and mentoring between girls and women which fosters the resurgence of women’s cultural roles at a local level. Organizations such as the Native Youth Sexual Health Network must also be supported in their powerful educational work by and for native youth. Accountability means supporting indigenous visions of justice, restoring our humanity and upholding girls’ resistance and leadership.
Treating our deaths as unremarkable is a form of violence that needs to stop along with the murders themselves. Taking steps to end the violence now is the only route to justice.
HARPER SOLICITS RESEARCH TO BLAME FIRST NATIONS FOR MURDERED, MISSING AND TRADED INDIGENOUS WOMEN