Song for Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women

Song for Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women

Quiz by Sharon Michiko Yoneda

 “Today I feel hopeful for the first time that as victims of violence our words will be heard. The words of our lost ones are spoken! We will be there to represent them; they may be lost, but they are not forgotten!”

Notes from the Canadian Encyclopedia:  

Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women of Canada

Missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada (MMIWG) refers to a human rights crisis that has only recently become a topic of discussion within national media. Indigenous women and communities, women’s groups and international organizations have long called for action into the high and disproportionate rates of violence and the appalling numbers of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada. Prior to the launch of the national public inquiry on 8 December 2015, these calls were continually ignored by the federal government. Described by some as a hidden crisis, Dawn Lavell-Harvard, former president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, refers to MMIWG as a national tragedy and a national shame. In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada supported the call for a national public inquiry into the disproportionate victimization of Indigenous women and girls. The National Inquiry’s Final Report was completed and presented to the public on 3 June 2019.

The Missing and Murdered: Statistics and Demographics

There is a lot of disagreement about the number of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) acknowledged in a 2014 report that there have been more than 1,200 missing and murdered Indigenous women between 1980 and 2012. Indigenous women’s groups, however, document the number of missing and murdered to be over 4,000. The confusion about the numbers has to do with the under-reporting of violence against Indigenous women and girls and the lack of an effective database, as well as the failure to identify such cases by ethnicity (See Indigenous Women’s Issues).

The Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) has drawn attention to figures from Statistics Canada documenting high rates of violence against Indigenous women. For example, Indigenous women 15 years and older were 3.5 times more likely to experience violence than non-Indigenous women, according to the 2004 General Social Survey. Violence against Indigenous women and girls is not only more frequent but also more severe. Between 1997 and 2000, the homicide rate for Indigenous women was nearly seven times higher than the rate for non-Indigenous women.

The demographics give a sense of the extent of the violence that Indigenous women and girls face across this country, but they fail to tell the stories of the deep trauma that this violence has on entire communities or the stories of children who have lost their mothers to senseless violence. The statistics cannot reflect the experiences of the families and communities who have lost a loved one. The missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls were mothers, daughters, sisters, aunties, cousins and grandmothers. Many were students completing post-secondary education, such as Loretta Saunders, an Inuk woman murdered at age 26 in 2014, who was completing her honours thesis on this very issue at the time she went missing. Some were only children, such as 14-year-old Azraya Acakabee Kokopenace and 15-year-old Tina Fontaine — who were both in the child welfare system at the time — or 16-year-old Delaine Copenace. This ongoing tragedy affects all Indigenous women and girls from all walks of life and throughout many communities and cities across Canada. Although some perpetrators are known to the victim, many are strangers.

Historical Context: Colonialism, Racism and the Sexualization of Women

Nick Printup, director and producer of the documentary Our Sisters in Spirit (2015), stated in a 2016 interview that “to begin to understand the severity of the tragedy facing Indigenous women today you must first understand the history.” The issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada is as old as the development of Canada itself and must be understood within the historical context of settler colonialism that has led to the ongoing racialization and sexualization of Indigenous women. Historically, Indigenous women were sexualized and held against dangerous cultural attitudes and stereotypes that permeate many facets of Canadian society today.

The late Mohawk poet Tekahionwake (E. Pauline Johnson) wrote about these stereotypes 125 years ago. In an essay entitled “A Strong Race Opinion: On The Indian Girl in Modern Fiction,” which was originally published in the Toronto Sunday Globe on 22 May 1892, Johnson spoke out about the images of the “Indian squaw” that were presented in mainstream literature. Similarly, in her book, Iskwewak — Kah’Ki Yaw Ni Wahkomakanak: Neither Indian Princesses nor Easy Squaws (1995), author Janice Acoose also drew attention to the racialized and sexualized legacy of settler colonialism that has led to an acceptance of violence. As Acoose noted, these colonial attitudes have justified many of the legally sanctioned policies that have targeted Indigenous women and families, such as the Indian Act and residential schools. Other examples include the pass system (a process by which Indian agents approved passes for First Nations people to leave the reserve for whatever reason) and forced sterilization (see Eugenics). These policies severely limited Indigenous women’s livelihood by severing community ties and preventing Indigenous women’s access to community resources and safety networks. Colonial attitudes also justified the mass removal of Indigenous children through policies of state apprehension, such as the Sixties Scoop, and this continues today in what is now referred to as the “Millennium Scoop.” Violence against Indigenous women and girls in Canada today cannot be understood without first examining the effects of Canada’s deep history of settler colonialism on Indigenous families and communities.

Native Women’s Association of Canada: Sisters in Spirit Initiative

The Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) secured funds in 2005 from Status of Women Canada to research and provide awareness about violence against Indigenous women. With this funding, the Sisters in Spirit Initiative was launched. NWAC also developed a national database to track cases of violence against Indigenous women. Their work culminated in a final report entitled What Their Stories Tell Us: Research Findings from the Sisters in Spirit Initiative.

The report includes a framework for addressing and preventing violence against Indigenous women along with the stories of missing Indigenous women and recommendations for policy development. NWAC’s prevention and safety policy includes tools for educating young Indigenous women and girls on safety issues and looks at risk factors that make Indigenous women vulnerable to violence, including poverty, homelessness and lack of affordable housing (See also Social Conditions of Indigenous Peoples and Economic Conditions of Indigenous Peoples).

The need for police accountability and transparency, cultural sensitivity training and forming good relationships with Indigenous communities are other key areas highlighted in the report. NWAC also expressed a need for more research and awareness about various forms of violence, particularly violence perpetrated by strangers or acquaintances. The need for improvements in tracking and identifying cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women was another key area identified in the report. NWAC articulated that the violence experienced by Indigenous women is much higher than reported in government statistics and police-collected data. The report noted that about six out of ten incidents of violent crimes against Indigenous people go unreported and that demographic information is not always collected (See also Demography of Indigenous Peoples).

Response from the Federal Government

Despite the ongoing push from Indigenous women and communities and human rights groups such as Amnesty International, the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action, Human Rights Watch and the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, the federal government continued to dismiss the need to launch a national public inquiry. In fact, former prime minister Stephen Harper, speaking at Yukon College in Whitehorse in August 2014, following the death of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine — who was killed after she left her foster home — stated that violence against Indigenous women and girls in Canada should not be viewed as “sociological phenomenon.” In other words, the Fontaine case was not part of a larger crisis resulting from a variety of racial, sexual and colonial abuses or socio-economic issues. Several months later, on 17 December 2014, during an interview with CBC chief correspondent Peter Mansbridge, Stephen Harper stated that a national inquiry on missing and murdered Indigenous women wasn’t “really high on [the government’s] radar.”

Following the change in government in 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the government of Canada launched a national public inquiry.

Prevailing Attitudes toward Indigenous Women

During an opening address at an international conference on MMIWG, writer Maria Campbell stated that “patriarchy and misogyny are so ingrained in our society that they are normal, and our silence makes them normal.” Other Indigenous women activists have referred to the lack of awareness about missing and murdered Indigenous women as a “deafening silence.” The following examples demonstrate the ways stereotypes that may lead to violence against Indigenous women and girls are perpetuated and accepted within different venues throughout society. In the two cases below, Indigenous women spoke out to raise awareness about such violence.

In 2012, Mi’kmaq lawyer, activist and professor Pamela Palmater spoke out against offensive names of menu items at the Holy Chuck Restaurant. The “Half-Breed” and “Dirty Drunken Half-Breed” were the names of two hamburgers on the menu. These terms are racial slurs that have been used to perpetuate violence against Indigenous peoples.

In July 2015, two paintings appeared on a storefront window — including one depicting bound and gagged Indigenous women — during the Hospitality Days cultural festival in Bathurst, New Brunswick. Patty Musgrave, Aboriginal advisor for New Brunswick Community College, wrote to city council, expressing her outrage at the painting, which trivialized, and perhaps even glorified, violence against Indigenous women and the history of colonialism. Musgrave stated that “the building that housed these art pieces was a building in which two human beings were murdered. One a woman. These murders were never solved and … it is quite offensive that you would allow paintings to be hung in the windows of this building while still-grieving families must see this as part of your ‘Hospitality Days.’”

Activists and the families of missing and murdered Indigenous women continue to persevere against these prevailing attitudes, seeking justice, accountability, reconciliation and better public education (See also Indigenous Peoples: Political Organizations and Activism

The Final Report declared that the violence against Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people is “a national tragedy of epic proportion.” The commissioners called for a new era in relations between Indigenous women, girls, 2SLGBTQQIA, and the Canadian people, a relationship centred on the empowerment of Indigenous women and girls: “To put an end to this tragedy, the rightful power and place of women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA people must be reinstated, which requires dismantling the structures of colonialism within Canadian society.”

Despite hundreds of pages of heartbreaking testimonials and studies revealing thousands of lives lost and families destroyed, Commissioner Qajaq Robinson wrote in a spirit of hopefulness that “Ending this genocide and rebuilding Canada into a decolonized nation requires a new relationship and an equal partnership between all Canadians and Indigenous Peoples. I hope that the Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls can be a tool to do just that.” This spirit of hopefulness was echoed by Jeremiah Bosse, widower of Daleen Bosse, a woman from Onion Lake Cree Nation murdered in May 2004: “Today I feel hopeful for the first time that as victims of violence our words will be heard. The words of our lost ones are spoken! We will be there to represent them; they may be lost, but they are not forgotten!”