6 Stolen Sisters: The Politics, Policies, and Travesty of Missing and Murdered Women in Canada

Wendee Kubik and Carrie Bourassa

Wendee Kubik and Carrie Bourassa

In 2004, Amnesty International, in partnership with the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC), released a report documenting how the economic and social marginalization of Aboriginal women in Canada has led to a significant higher risk of violence against Aboriginal women. Stolen Sisters: A Human Rights Response to Discrimination and Violence Against Indigenous Women in Canada told several of the stories of Aboriginal women and girls who had gone missing or were murdered in Canada. This groundbreaking report also documented how the violence was often met with official government indifference and systematic prejudice from various police forces. Prior to the Stolen Sisters report, government commissions and official inquiries such as the Manitoba Justice Inquiry, the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, and a number of United Nations human rights bodies had already noted these problems. In addition, many of these previous inquiries and commissions presented concrete recommendations for reforms.

Since Amnesty International’s 2004 report was released, several other investigations have been undertaken. Numerous recommendations have been presented to various governments and government bodies recommending measures to be taken to end these deaths and ameliorate the dire circumstances causing many Aboriginal women to go missing. However, the numbers of missing and murdered women continues to rise (Human Rights Watch, 2013a, 7). In this chapter, we offer a historical timeline relating to missing and murdered women, a critical analysis of why women continue to be victims of violence, and why Canada’s federal Conservative government ignored the issue.

Historical Overview

In March 2004, in tandem with Amnesty’s Stolen Sisters report, the NWAC launched the Sisters in Spirit (SIS) campaign to raise awareness of the extremely high rates of violence perpetrated against Aboriginal women in Canada. In November 2005, the federal government acknowledged the problem of violence against Aboriginal women and signed a five-year contribution agreement with the NWAC to address this racialized and sexualized violence. Sisters in Spirit received $5 million dollars over five years and used the money for research. They also recommended a number of actions to address some of the causes of violence against Aboriginal women (Hughes, 208). The main goals and objectives of the Sisters in Spirit initiative were to:

  1. reduce the risks and increase the safety and security of all Aboriginal women and girls in Canada;
  2. address the high incidence of violence against Aboriginal women, particularly racialized, sexualized violence, that is, violence perpetrated against Aboriginal women because of their sex and Aboriginal identity; and
  3. increase gender equality and improve the participation of Aboriginal women in the economic, social, cultural, and political realms of Canadian society (209).

Two other events created a significant impact during this time period. The first was the Robert Pickton case in Vancouver, the second was the continuing reports of missing or murdered Aboriginal women and girls along Northern British Columbia’s Highway 16, referred to as the Highway of Tears. Robert Pickton, a Port Coquitlam pig farmer and Canada’s most notorious serial killer, was charged with the murder of women in more than twenty-six cases (although he confessed to an undercover officer that he killed forty-nine women in total). Pickton was convicted of the second-degree murder of only six of the twenty-seven women (twenty of the charges were stayed by the crown), and in 2007 he was sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole for twenty-five years. The Pickton murder case, and the numerous incidents of missing and murdered women along Highway 16, substantially increased public attention to the violence Aboriginal women face. Because of these ghastly occurrences and the resulting media focus, knowledge about missing and murdered women, particularly Aboriginal women, was forefront in the media.

There were numerous calls for action and connections were made to the root causes, the reasons why these murders and disappearances were occurring. The government was criticized, not only about this issue but about a number of other problems facing Aboriginal people (e.g., inadequate housing on reserves, poverty, unemployment, and health issues). The government’s reaction was to point out the funding that was given to the Sisters in Spirit initiative.

However, when the Sisters in Spirit’s five-year funding agreement ended in 2010, the Conservative Government of Canada informed the NWAC that it would no longer fund Sisters In Spirit. The NWAC was also told that the Status of Women’s Community Fund did not fund research, policy development, or advocacy so there would be no further consideration for Sisters In Spirit (Barrera; Jackson). Like Sisters In Spirit, a number of other non-profit women’s and advocacy groups lost funding and many disbanded.

In the March 2010 federal budget, the Conservative government allocated $10 million dollars to combat violence against Aboriginal women. The money was purportedly to address the disturbingly high number of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and to take action so that law enforcement and the justice system would meet the needs of Aboriginal women and their families (Government of Canada). This sounded hopeful; however, the Federal Government subsequently clarified that the $10 million would be spent over two years, and instead of directing funds to Aboriginal women’s organizations, it would be distributed as follows: $4 million for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) to establish a National Police Support Centre for Missing Persons, $1.5 million to Public Safety Canada to develop community safety plans to improve the safety of Aboriginal women within Aboriginal communities, $2.15 million to the Department of Justice Victims Fund, and $1 million to support the development of school- and community-based pilot projects (FAFIA, 14).

The allocation of funds was decided without consulting the NWAC, and it was not specifically designed to address violence against Aboriginal women, nor would it address the more serious forms of violence, such as murder. The Conservative government felt that there was no need for Sisters in Spirit to continue its research or maintain a database of information on missing and murdered Aboriginal women because the RCMP would receive funds to collect information on all missing persons (not just Aboriginal women). There was no mention of any of the underlying issues that contribute to the high rates of violence against Aboriginal women and girls such as poverty and racism. When the funding for Sisters in Spirit ended, the NWAC established a new program called Evidence to Action. The three-year project would receive $1.89 million in funding from the Status of Women for violence prevention beginning in February 2011. However, in a clear effort to silence growing criticism on this issue, one of the conditions of this new money was that the NWAC could no longer conduct any research into missing and murdered Indigenous women (Jackson).

In September 2010, the Government of British Columbia established the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry into the facts, decisions, and police investigations involved in the Pickton case. The Attorney General of British Columbia provided funding for one lawyer to represent some of the families of women murdered by Robert Pickton but did not provide funding to any of the civil society groups granted standing by the Commissioner. As a result, many of the groups that could have provided expert testimony on root causes and systemic issues were unable to participate in the inquiry’s fact-finding process because they could not afford to.

In March 2011, the House of Commons Standing Committee on the Status of Women (composed of Members of Parliament from all parties) released an interim report on violence against Aboriginal Women. This report recognized the need for a comprehensive approach to eliminating violence against Aboriginal women and girls. The Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action (FAFIA) noted that this report was particularly significant because it recognized that “poverty, racism, Canada’s colonial history and systemic police failures are root causes of the violence and contributing factors to it” (19). Between April 2010 and February 2011, the Committee heard from over 150 witnesses from across Canada and subsequently concluded “that it is impossible to deal with violence against Aboriginal women without dealing with all of the other systems which make women vulnerable to violence and make it difficult for them to escape violence” (17). The Standing Committee found that poverty was repeatedly cited by witnesses as a root cause of the violence against Aboriginal women (18). Meanwhile, parliament was prorogued for the 2011 election, and in April the Conservative Party of Canada was re-elected. The Standing Committee on the Status of Women was reconstituted with only two of the previous members who had heard the testimony of the Aboriginal women and civil society organizations (19).

On December 12, 2011, the newly composed Standing Committee issued a Final Report on violence against Aboriginal women. This report abandoned the root cause approach that had previously identified poverty as one of the main causes of the violence experienced by Aboriginal women. The Conservative government refused to even consider implementing a national action plan to address the disappearances and murders or deal with the underlying causes of the violence against missing and murdered Aboriginal women.

Because of the government’s lack of action, FAFIA an alliance of more than eighty Canadian women’s organizations, took up the case of the murdered and missing women. One of their central goals was to ensure that Canadian governments respect, protect, and fulfill the commitments they have made to women as a signatory to international human rights treaties and agreements, including the United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination. In December 2011, The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women announced that it was opening an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada. In 2008, the committee had called on the government “to examine the reasons for the failure to investigate the cases of missing and murdered aboriginal women and to take the necessary steps to remedy the deficiencies in the system” (Human Rights Watch 2013b).

The Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action submitted that Canada was in violation of Article 2 of the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. In January 2011, a submission to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination was prepared by Shelagh Day of FAFIA and Sharon McIvor outlining the case against Canada (Aboriginal Multi-Media Society). In February 2012, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) committee initiated an inquiry under Article 8 of the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against women. “FAFIA and NWAC requested this Inquiry because violence against Aboriginal women and girls is a national tragedy that demands immediate and concerted action,” said Jeannette Corbiere Lavell, then President of NWAC (Aboriginal Multi-Media Society).

During this same time period, Human Rights Watch, the New York based international non-governmental organization that conducts research and advocacy on human rights, also began investigating the incidences of missing and murdered women. On February 13, 2013, Human Rights Watch released an eighty-nine page report titled “Those who take us away: Abusive Policing and Failures in Protection of Indigenous Women and Girls in Northern British Columbia, Canada.” This report documented not only the ongoing failure of police to protect Indigenous women and girls, but also the violent acts perpetrated by police officers themselves. Human Rights Watch stated that the RCMP failed to properly investigate a series of disappearances and suspected murders of Aboriginal women and called for the Canadian government to establish a national commission of inquiry into the murders and disappearances of Indigenous women and girls, including the examination of the impact of police misconduct in communities along Highway 16, the Highway of Tears. Human Rights Watch stated: “With leadership from indigenous communities, [the government must] develop and implement a national action plan to address violence against indigenous women and girls that addresses the structural roots of the violence as well as the accountability and coordination of government bodies charged with preventing and responding to violence” (15). Human Rights Watch is clear that “unless the systematic problems of poverty, racism and sexism, the underlying social and economic problems, are dealt with we will continue to have missing and murdered women” (2013b). Meghan Rhoad, women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, argues that “The threat of domestic and random violence on one side and mistreatment by RCMP officers on the other leaves indigenous women in a constant state of insecurity.” She asks, “Where can they turn for help when the police are known to be unresponsive and, in some cases, abusive” (Human Rights Watch, 2013b).

The UN Secretary General, in combination with the United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), said that national action and national strategies are needed worldwide to end violence against Aboriginal women and girls (NWAC media release March 8, 2013). On the same day, NWAC again requested a national inquiry for missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls, and the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations renewed their own call for a National Public Commission of Inquiry. Opposition parties and Aboriginal leaders such as Shawn Atleo, then National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, called for a public commission inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls in Canada.

In April 2013, Canada’s provincial Aboriginal Affairs minister said they believe a national inquiry is needed to examine why Aboriginal women are seven times more likely to die of violence than other Canadian women (Winnipeg Free Press). On April 17, 2013, nine of Canada’s provinces called for a national inquiry. The provinces also asked that Ottawa consult with them, the territories, and Canada’s five national Aboriginal organizations to set the terms of reference for an inquiry (Paul). Parliament agreed to appoint a special committee on the matter of missing and murdered Aboriginal women but resisted calls for a national inquiry. Then on May 1, 2014, the RCMP released statistics that indicated nearly 1200 Aboriginal women had been murdered or gone missing in Canada in the previous 30 years; about 1000 murder victims, and approximately 186 disappearances (LeBlanc). RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson stated, “I think there’s 4 per cent of aboriginal women in Canada; I think there’s 16 per cent of the murdered women are aboriginal, 12 per cent of the missing women are aboriginal. So clearly an overrepresentation” (LeBlanc).

Conservative Prime Minister Steven Harper in 2014 continued to dismiss the calls for a national inquiry, arguing that the deaths should be viewed as individual crimes and not as a “sociological phenomenon” (Singh), thus denying the links to poverty, racism, the colonial past, lack of housing, and the dire living conditions that Aboriginal people in Canada face every day. In August 2014, the outcome of a meeting between provincial premiers and national Aboriginal groups was the decision to hold a National Roundtable on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Ottawa in February 2015. It included the Assembly of First Nations, the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the Métis National Council, and the Native Women’s Association of Canada as well as Federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt, Status of Women Minister Kellie Leitch, and representatives from each of the provinces and territories. The limited outcome was a commitment to keep talking and begin nationwide prevention and awareness campaigns. There was also an agreement to hold another meeting at the end of 2016 (Smith).

Again, in February 2015, the Legal Strategy Coalition on Violence against Aboriginal Women, a national coalition of advocacy groups including Amnesty International, released a report critical of the RCMP’s report “Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women: Operational Overview.” The report concluded that the federal government had ignored most of the more than 700 recommendations contained in fifty-eight reports on violence against Aboriginal women and girls in Canada. Forty of the studies were from the federal government. The study also showed that only a handful of the 700 recommendations had been acted on. Numerous groups continued to call for a national inquiry and the Conservative government steadfastly refused to agree, stating that there had already been numerous reports documenting the issues. Yet, few of those reports had been acted on.

Moreover, while the RCMP’s report factually highlighted that Aboriginal women are a marginalized population who experience higher rates of violence, unemployment, substance abuse, and over-representation in the sex trade, there were concerns with how these facts were reported. In what amounts to clear victim blaming and pointing to supposedly high-risk lifestyles, the often dire circumstances faced by many Aboriginal women were presented as risk factors (Bourgeois, 2018). Similarly, by positioning the homicides as a result of relationship violence, highlighting the fact that Aboriginal women, for the most part, knew their perpetrators, not only are the victims blamed, so too are Aboriginal men and Aboriginal families. The report failed to point out that the risk factors are linked to much deeper systemic issues including the history of colonization and the resulting pervasive poverty in most communities. The Native Youth Sexual Health Network (NYSHN) noted that the risk factors raised in the report such as alcoholism/drug abuse, sex trade work, and intimate partner violence are all linked to the lack of safe access to transportation and housing and the continued legacy of settler colonialism, racism, discrimination, and stereotyping (Hodge). Moreover, colonization has not ended and continues in new forms through Indian Act policy and legislation.

In fact, on October 7, 2015, despite several Aboriginal women having gone missing along the Highway of Tears (Highway 16 between Prince Rupert and Prince George, BC), Bob Zimmer, the Conservative MP for the region, said that the violence was a result of unemployment: “One of the major drivers of missing and murdered aboriginal women is lack of economic activity or, simply put, a lack of a job” (CBC News). Zimmer went on to say that many women don’t want to leave the reserve and that puts them at risk because little employment can be found on reserve; in essence, again blaming the women for their own victimization.

What is of particular concern is how Indigenous women and men are being stigmatized through the reporting of high rates of intimate partner violence. The 2014 RCMP report indicated that 62 percent of murders of Indigenous women and girls reported by the RCMP were acts of domestic violence committed by a spouse, former spouse, family member, or intimate partner (Amnesty International, 2015). What was not highlighted in the report or in the media was that this rate is significantly lower than the rate of domestic violence reported in the general population: 74 percent of the murders of non-Aboriginal women are committed by intimate partners and family members (Amnesty International, 2015). While the report demonstrates that most female homicide victims had a previous relationship to the perpetrators, Amnesty points out the fact that Aboriginal women were more likely than non-aboriginal women to be murdered by a casual acquaintance (including neighbors, employers, and what police call authority figures) or a total stranger was largely ignored. In the twenty-two-year period covered by the RCMP report, acquaintances were responsible for the murder of 300 Indigenous women and attacks by strangers account for almost 10 percent of homicides—eighty-one murders of Indigenous women or girls (Amnesty International, 2015).

While no one is denying that intimate partner violence (IPV) is an issue in Indigenous communities, these are not unique situations. We know IPV occurs in homes across Canada, yet in the RCMP report, Indigenous women are stigmatized and marginalized. As Amnesty International (2015) notes:

It’s generally understood that the majority of acts of violence against women and girls are committed by someone from the same ethnic group or background.  As many commentators have pointed out, the unique significance that the government is attaching to the Indigenous identity of many of the perpetrators of violence against Indigenous women and girls is part of a wider social narrative that places the responsibility for violence against Indigenous women and girls solely on Indigenous communities themselves.

Although the RCMP Commissioner has the ability to release comparative figures so that Indigenous people would not be further stigmatized and marginalized, to date that has not happened.

Underlying Structural Problems to be Addressed

Calls for change and action have been reiterated time and time again since Amnesty’s Stolen Sisters paper was published in 2004. The focus for change has been on the structural components that cause and enable violence against women. In order to help stop violence against Aboriginal women, these factors must be addressed. Amnesty International’s 2009 report, No More Stolen Sisters noted that poverty, racism, Canada’s colonial history, and systemic police failures are both the root causes of the violence and contributing factors to it (2). By ignoring the structural components of violence against women, it is not only allowed to continue but simultaneously encouraged through lack of accountability. Two facets of the problem identified by Aboriginal families and non-government organizations, including NWAC, Amnesty International, and the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action are:

  1. the failure of police to protect Aboriginal women and girls from violence and to investigate promptly and thoroughly when they are missing or murdered, and
  2. the disadvantaged social and economic conditions in which Aboriginal women and girls live that makes them vulnerable to violence and unable to escape it (Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action, 2012).

These two issues were highlighted by United Nations treaty bodies including the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 2006 and the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in 2007. Canada accepted the underlying principles in these recommendations; however, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), in reviewing Canada’s compliance, acknowledged that, although a working group had been established, there were still many cases of murdered or missing Aboriginal women that had not been fully investigated (Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action 2012).

CEDAW recommended that Canada “develop a plan for addressing the particular conditions affecting aboriginal women, both on and off reserves,” which include “poverty, poor health, inadequate housing, low school completion rates, low employment rates, low income and high rates of violence” (9). Canada was to report back in 2009 and did so; however, FAFIA, the British Columbia CEDAW group, and Amnesty indicated that Canada had taken no adequate action to address the problems.

Analysis: Colonial, Systematic Racist, and Sexist Attitudes Still Occurring

It has been more than a decade since “Stolen Sisters: A Human Rights Response to Discrimination and Violence against Indigenous Women in Canada” was released by Amnesty International and NWAC. The issue of missing and murdered women has been forefront in the news, and awareness has been raised across Canada. Pressure has been put on governments, agencies and police forces asking them to deal with this national problem. The government of Canada has taken a few steps to address the murders and disappearances, but the persistence of the violence indicates a need for a comprehensive plan of action.

The federal Conservative government did agree to establish a parliamentary committee to study the issue, but Aboriginal women’s lives remain at risk, in part because of the failure of Canadian officials to implement critical measures needed to reduce the marginalization of Aboriginal women in Canada. Economic, social, and health problems caused by systemic poverty among Aboriginal populations have time and again been demonstrated and linked as causes of violence. One of the most recent examples is the poverty and inadequate housing on the Attawapiskat reserve in northern Ontario. This was one of the reasons for Theresa Spence’s hunger strike and the start of the Idle No More Movement. Time and again, Canada’s Conservative government has demonstrated a lack of will to make the changes that would stop these incidents from occurring. Neo-liberal policies have cut funding and curbed the voices calling for action and change. There have been changes in mandates of organizations and government policy so the focus can only be on what the government agenda has deemed acceptable. For example, under the federal Conservative government, strict procedures were put in place delineating how scientists can speak about and publish their research (Manasan). Why was there so much resistance to addressing this problem by the federal Conservatives? It is widely understood that the roots of the on-going patterns of violence experienced by too many Aboriginal women in Canada are to be found in the processes and dynamics of colonialism (Bourgeois). In the case of Canada, there was a dual process of colonialism, first involving European powers and then internally by the Canadian state. The situation of Aboriginal people in these processes varies, in some cases being incorporated into commercial networks only to be cast aside at the whim of unfavourable market conditions. In other cases, they were deemed irrelevant or even problematic to economic development and were treated accordingly (Daschuk; Carter).

A patriarchal gender order accompanied and informed the activities of the European external colonizers and internal colonization by the Canadian state. Patriarchy is a gender hierarchy in which men are dominant and masculinity tends to be esteemed, and in which major social institutions, practices, and ideological frameworks support, legitimize, and facilitate male and masculine domination and the oppression and exploitation of women, many other men and the concomitant devaluation of femininity.

The role of racism in the operation and justification of colonialism has been well documented, as have the intersections of racism and patriarchy. The fact is that, having lost their land, political independence, cultural and social institutions, and entire way of life, many Indigenous people in Canada face increasing rates of poverty, unemployment, inadequate housing, and declining heath statuses. In order to avoid the negative effects inherent in racist patriarchal colonialism, federal governments in Canada would have had to engage in systematic deliberate sustained alliances with First Nations to support mutual actions and policies to address and redress this deleterious impact of the centuries. This did not (and could not have) happen under the federal Conservative government. In order to address the multiple root causes of the high rates of missing and murdered Aboriginal women, they would have needed to spend money to rectify numerous issues. This would not resonate with its traditional base of conservative voters who would not see it as a good investment. The current manifestation of this ideology of extreme individualism is marked by a denigration of the common good and any notion of the commonweal.

In October 2015, a federal election brought the Liberal government of Justin Trudeau to power. Trudeau had campaigned on promises to call an inquiry into missing and murdered women and a promise of more funding to First Nations for health and education. On December 8, 2015, the federal government called for an inquiry and cross-country consultations have been initiated with First Nations groups, organizations, and the families of missing and murdered Indigenous women. The Federal budget brought down on March 22, 2016 included funding for Aboriginal communities and a renewed relationship with Indigenous Peoples, so there is hope for change.

Conclusions

Over the past years, the political will to implement change and address the structural problems and violence Aboriginal women face in Canada has been lacking. The roots of this violence are inextricably linked to Canada’s colonial past, the racism perpetrated against First Nations, Métis and Inuit people, and the resulting poverty, food insecurity, and sexism and misogyny that women, particularly Aboriginal women, experience. During the Conservative government of Steven Harper, there was a lack of political will to address the problems faced by marginalized groups, particularly Indigenous women because, by conservative logic, it is not up to the government to fight racism, sexism, poverty, health disparities, inadequate housing, or even to support NGOs that might address these issues. Stephen Harper was crass enough to say MMIW were “not on the radar”. The role of the government was seen as supporting and reinforcing the operation of the market and ensuring that private individuals were left free to fend for themselves. This system resulted in over 1200 missing or murdered Aboriginal women.

Canada claims to be a democratic country that values equality and fairness. Clearly, for equality to exist, the persistent underlying causes of inequality need to be addressed. Advocacy and people who advocate for justice need to be allowed to speak. The Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) has designated October 4 as a day to remember and honour the lives of the many missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls in Canada as well as to offer support to families who have been tragically touched by the loss of a loved one to violence. In 2014, there were a record breaking 264 Sisters In Spirit Vigils registered across Canada with most major media outlets covering the stories. Walk 4 Justice, which has carried out a walk across Canada each summer since 2006 to talk with Aboriginal families and communities about missing women, believes that there are many cases of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls that have gone undocumented by police or media. The large numbers of missing and murdered women have deep roots in the structures of our society, roots that must be addressed in a systematic manner so justice for Indigenous women and girls can prevail. This call has been echoed by the United Nations and numerous international and global human rights organizations. Until the murders stop, the shame is Canada’s. 

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