Crystal J. Giesbrecht & Gordon Barnes
Amnesty International’s research illustrates the connection between violence against Indigenous women in Canada and in Mexico. In 2003, Amnesty International published Intolerable Killings: 10 Years of Abductions and Murders of Women in Ciudad Juárez and Chihuahua, focusing on a ten-year cycle of abductions and femicides—gender-based murders of girls and women—in northern Mexico. The report documented more than 370 cases of women killed in Ciudad Juárez and the city of Chihuahua. Of those cases, research indicated that at least 137 of the victims suffered some form of sexual violence and at least seventy of the total number of women murdered remained unidentified. At least seventy other women or girls also remained unaccounted for after having been officially reported missing.
At that time, Amnesty International called on representatives of the Mexican federal and state governments for an immediate and decisive intervention to ensure justice in Ciudad Juárez and the city of Chihuahua and for the state and municipal authorities to cooperate fully with these steps. In addition, Amnesty International called for an independent judicial review of the cases investigated by the Chihuahua Procuraduría General de Justicia del Estado (PGJE), State Prosecutor’s Office, or brought before the courts. The goals of calling for a review were to:
- correct miscarriages of justice;
- investigate and punish any official responsible for abuses;
- set in motion substantive reform of the system of administration and procuration of justice in the state of Chihuahua;
- demonstrate respect for the dignity of relatives and the organizations working for women’s rights;
- prevent, investigate, and punish intimidation or harassment against relatives and the organizations working for women’s rights; and
- publicly recognize the legitimacy of their struggle.
Soon after beginning work on the issue of missing and murdered women in Mexico, Amnesty International began examining disappearances and killings of Indigenous women in Canada. In 2004, Amnesty International released its research report titled Stolen Sisters: A Human Rights Response to Discrimination and Violence against Indigenous Women in Canada, documenting the thousands of Indigenous women who have been murdered or are missing. A follow-up to this report titled No More Stolen Sisters: The Need for a Comprehensive Response to Discrimination and Violence Against Indigenous Women in Canada was issued in 2009.
Stolen Sisters linked high levels of violence experienced by Indigenous women and girls across Canada to deeply rooted patterns of social and economic marginalization and discrimination. This discrimination has put large numbers of Indigenous women and girls in situations of heightened vulnerability to violence, has helped fuel violent acts of hatred against them, and has denied Indigenous women and girls adequate protection under the law and in society as a whole. The report notes that similar concerns have been repeatedly brought to the attention of Canadian officials by Indigenous Peoples’ organizations and by official inquiries.
In 2004, Amnesty International issued the following recommendations for all levels of government in Canada, based on the recommendations made by the families of missing women, frontline organizations working for Indigenous women’s welfare and safety, official government inquiries and commissions, and standard interpretations of the human rights obligations of governments:
- acknowledge the seriousness of the problem;
- support research into the extent and causes of violence against Indigenous women;
- take immediate action to protect women at greatest risk;
- provide training and resources for police to make prevention of violence against women a genuine priority;
- address the social and economic factors that lead to Indigenous women’s extreme vulnerability to violence; and
- end the marginalization of Indigenous women in Canadian society.
In No More Stolen Sisters, Amnesty provided revised recommendations for the federal government including:
- working in partnership with Indigenous women, representative organizations, and provincial and territorial officials to develop a comprehensive, coordinated national plan of action. The plan should include:
- the collection and publication of data on health, social, and economic conditions for Indigenous women in Canada;
- standardized police protocols for investigating missing persons cases including tools for fair and effective risk assessment for missing individuals;
- an improved system of transitioning initial missing persons cases into long-term missing persons cases or unsolved murders involving Indigenous women and other women at risk; and
- adequate, sustained, long-term funding to ensure the provision of culturally relevant services to meet the needs of Indigenous women and girls at risk of violence or who are in contact with the police and justice systems, including emergency shelters, court workers, victim services, and specific programs to assist women who have been trafficked within Canada.
- ensuring that funding for programs for Indigenous women, children, and families is equitable to those available to non-Indigenous people in Canada and is sufficient to ensure effective protection and full enjoyment of their rights, with particular priority being given to eliminating discrimination in funding for Indigenous child welfare;
- fulfilling the commitment set out in the Kelowna Accord to end inequalities in health, housing, education, and other services for Indigenous peoples;
- implementing the recommendations of the Canadian Human Rights Commission and the United Nations Human Rights Committee concerning the treatment of women prisoners, including the creation of a new security risk assessment system; and
- implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Over a decade later, most of these recommendations have not been implemented. Data collected by the Canadian government and academic and community-based researchers shows that First Nations, Inuit, and Métis women and girls face much higher rates of violence than all other women and girls in Canada combined (Conroy, 2018; Dawson, Sutton, Carrigan, Grand’Maison, 2018). Large gaps in government support for services to First Nations, Inuit, and Métis communities deny Indigenous women and girls supports they need to escape and recover from this violence. In 2015, newly elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised a renewed nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous Peoples. That renewed relationship must also be firmly rooted in the federal government’s commitment to gender equality for all women in Canada. The federal government has announced increases in funding for violence prevention programs for Indigenous women and girls, but the measures taken to date are not enough to close the gap in safety and support and to achieve equality.
In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) issued ninety-four Calls to Action, including increasing permanent funding to programs for Indigenous Peoples, addressing the problems within the child welfare system, and opening a national public inquiry into “the causes of, and remedies for, the disproportionate victimization of Aboriginal women and girls” (4). Also in 2015, The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) investigated the situation of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada and provided recommendations to address the issue of missing and murdered women as well as the ongoing and systemic violence that Indigenous women in Canada face. Comprehensive recommendations were provided in the areas of combatting violence, improving socioeconomic conditions, overcoming the legacy of colonialism, ending discrimination against Indigenous women, and implementing a national inquiry and plan of action. CEDAW advised that these recommendations “should be considered and implemented as a whole” by the Government of Canada to effectively address the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women (54).
Recognizing the impacts of resource development on Indigenous women and girls, Amnesty conducted research in northeast BC and published Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Gender, Indigenous Rights, and Energy Development in Northeast British Columbia, Canada in 2016. The report explores how resource development benefits some people but further marginalizes and impoverishes others—overwhelmingly Indigenous women and girls. The report found that the industry both fuels violence and increases vulnerability to violence, leading to disproportionately high rates of violence against Indigenous women and girls, and a lack of culturally relevant services for Indigenous women and girls experiencing marginalization and violence.
In 2016, the federal government launched the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Amnesty urged the government to immediately take concrete action to implement the many outstanding recommendations from previous inquiries and Parliamentary committee studies to prevent further violence against Indigenous women and girls during the Inquiry. In June 2019, the National Inquiry released its final report which included 231 Calls for Justice to end the severe levels of violence experienced by First Nations, Métis, and Inuit women, girls, and two-spirit persons in Canada. The National Inquiry illustrated a clear link between the history of harmful government programs and policies and the ongoing failure to address the continuing legacy of those harms and the pervasive violence against Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit persons. The federal government has committed to developing a National Action Plan to prevent and address the violence, but at this time, details on how this commitment will translate into action are unclear. Following the National Inquiry, Amnesty International and other organizations called on Canada’s Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs to provide a comprehensive response to the Inquiry’s final report before Parliament rose in June. This did not happen, and Amnesty continues to advocate for a coordinated and comprehensive National Action Plan on violence against women involving all levels of government.
In Regina, Amnesty International continues to partner with the Saskatchewan Sisters in Spirit group for an annual vigil on October 4, the National Day of Remembrance of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in Canada. At a provincial Amnesty conference in 2014, attendees wrote the names of over 150 Indigenous women and girls from Saskatchewan who have been murdered or gone missing on a large banner. Names were obtained from a list compiled by Maryanne Pearce (2013). This banner continues to be used at public events, and new names continue to be added as ever more Indigenous women and girls lose their lives to violence. At events, Amnesty members are approached by a family member who asks if their loved one’s name is on the banner. At times, it is a name that was not included in the original list (which speaks to the lack of a comprehensive database on missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada), and the family member adds their cousin’s or sister’s or daughter’s or mother’s or grandmother’s name to the banner. We continue to add names to honour and remember the women while we await the year that there are no more names to add.
The tragic reality is that Indigenous women and girls continue to be murdered and are missing in communities here in Saskatchewan and in other parts of Canada. We are reminded of the urgent need for a comprehensive response almost daily. No one should suffer the grief of having a sister, mother, daughter, friend, family, or community member suddenly disappear, never to be seen again. No one should have to live in fear that she will be the next woman or girl to go missing. “There is not one cause of violence against Indigenous women and girls, and likewise, there is not one single solution. A comprehensive, coordinated, well-resourced national response, developed with Indigenous women and girls, is needed to end the violence” (Amnesty International Canada 2019). Canadian officials have a clear and inescapable obligation to ensure the safety of Indigenous women and girls, to bring those responsible for violence against them to justice, and to address the deeper systemic issues that have placed so many Indigenous women and girls in harm’s way. Amnesty will continue to echo the calls for justice issued by Indigenous women and girls, Indigenous women’s organizations, and affected families and communities until liberty, security, and the protection of human rights is a reality for all Indigenous women and girls.
Amnesty International Canada (2019). No More Stolen Sisters: Solutions. Retrieved from https://www.amnesty.ca/our-work/campaigns/no-more-stolen-sisters/solutions
Amnesty International (2016). Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Gender, Indigenous Rights, and Energy Development in Northeast British Columbia, Canada.
___ (2009). No More Stolen Sisters: The Need for a Comprehensive Response to Discrimination and Violence against Indigenous Women in Canada.
——— (2004). Stolen Sisters: A Human Rights Response to Discrimination and Violence against Indigenous Women in Canada.
——— (2003). Intolerable Killings: 10 Years of Abductions and Murders of Women in Ciudad Juárez and Chihuahua.
Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Report of the inquiry concerning Canada of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women under article 8 of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. CEDAW/C/OP.8/CAN/1, March 30, 2015 .
Conroy, S. Police-reported violence against girls and young women in Canada, 2017. Juristat, 2018. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 85-002-X.
Dawson, M., S. Sutton, M. Carrigan, and V. Grand’Maison. #CallItFemicide: Understanding gender-related killings of women and girls in Canada 2018. Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability, 2018. Retrieved from https://www.femicideincanada.ca/callitfemicide.
Pearce, M.. “An Awkward Silence: Missing and Murdered Vulnerable Women and the Justice System.” Doctoral dissertation. University of Ottawa, Canada, 2013. Available from https://ruor.uottawa.ca/handle/10393/26299
Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (2015). Calls to Action. Retrieved from http://www.trc.ca/assets/pdf/Calls_to_Action_English2.pdf
- This chapter is dedicated to the women who have been stolen and to their families and communities. ↵