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A choir of lost voices: the murder of Loretta Saunders and Canada's missing women

The murder of Loretta Saunders, a young scholar who researched missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada, reveals the structural violence that compounds violence against women, and the stinging injustice of Canada’s 825 lost Aboriginal women. 

On Saturday March 8, 2014 - International Women’s Day- the small Labrador community of Happy Valley-Goose Bay laid the body of murdered Inuk woman Loretta Saunders to rest. Saunders’ disappearance from her home in Halifax, Nova Scotia and the subsequent discovery of her body in a thin patch of wood on a highway median in the neighbouring province of New Brunswick left Canadians heartbroken. Loretta Saunders was the success story we didn’t know we had until we’d lost her. She was an honours student studying at St. Mary’s University, and - according to her thesis advisor - one of the brightest lights with whom he had ever worked. The topic of her thesis was missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada. 

Friday, the day before Loretta Saunders’ funeral, the Canadian House of Commons’ Special Committee on Violence Against Indigenous Women released its final report, causing a furor across Canada. More talked-about than the 16 recommendations it contains has been the absence of a recommendation to hold a national public inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada, an inquiry many have been demanding for years. New Democratic Party (NDP) Member of Parliament and Status of Women Critic Niki Ashton called the report ‘deficient in every way.’

Twenty-four hours before the report was released, Canadian Justice Minister Peter MacKay threw a collection of documents down onto the floor of the House of Commons in a child-like fit of anger.

The documents had been collected and were to be tabled as evidence of the ruling Conservative government’s efforts to combat crime, including violence against Aboriginal women and girls. These documents constitute the Conservative government’s unwavering response to the repeated calls it has faced for an inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women: calls issued by the NDP, the Liberal Party, the provincial premiers, and UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous People, James Anaya.

With the final report by the Special Committee on Violence Against Indigenous Women being tabled the next day, concern that the report would not recommend an inquiry was mounting based on the news that the report would include ‘dissenting opinions’ by NDP and Liberal MPs also serving on the committee. In the hours leading up to the report’s release, the opposition NDP continued to apply pressure to the government to launch an inquiry.

When Justice Minister MacKay attempted to table the documents he had compiled in response to these requests, he was found not to have them ready for submission in both official languages, a requirement by the House of Commons. Liberal MP Kevin Lamoureux asked MacKay when he would be prepared to table the documents properly, whereupon MacKay gestured to Lamoureux inviting him to cross the floor to collect the documents himself, immediately throwing them on the floor. Chastised by Speaker of the House of Commons Andrew Scheer, MacKay later apologized for his behaviour

Although some skepticism exists as to how effective an inquiry would ultimately be, there does seem to be consensus that the absence of a call for an inquiry is a distressing indication of government resistance to actively engage with the problem of violence against Aboriginal women. It seems telling that the government’s own Minister of Justice saw fit to throw their track record on the floor, but as an increasing number of Canadians are recognizing, this is an issue that must be taken up by all of Canada.

In 2007, Maryanne Pearce began compiling an exhaustively researched, cross-referenced database of missing and murdered women in Canada. Submitted in the autumn of 2013 as a part of her PhD thesis work for the University of Ottawa’s law school, the database is the first of its kind, and records over 800 cases of missing and murdered Aboriginal Canadian women since the 1960s. This figure is significantly higher than the 500+ missing and murdered Aboriginal women cited by the Native Women’s Association of Canada  (NWAC) in their Sisters of Spirit database begun in 2005, something that comes as no surprise to many who have been advocating for action on this issue for a long time.

Data compiled by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada and published in Amnesty International Canada’s report Stolen Sisters: Discrimination and Violence Against Indigenous Women in Canada shows that Aboriginal women in Canada between the ages of 25 and 44 are five times more likely to die as a result of violence than non-Aboriginal women of the same age. Compounding this disproportionately high level of violent homicides is the disproportionately low rate of success in solving those cases: according to the NWAC only 53% of the over 500 murders documented in the Sisters In Spirit database were solved, compared with a national homicide clearance rate of 84%.

Since autumn of 2013 alone, the NWAC reports that eight Aboriginal women have been killed. Loretta Saunders is one of those eight.

Loretta Saunders name has become famous because she was murdered, but it is important for many who knew her personally that she not be defined by this brutal act of others. The person or people who murdered Loretta Saunders should not be better known than the beauty of her life, a life that those who knew her continue to celebrate even as they mourn.

Widely described as warm and courageous, Saunders was also a strong student who would likely have made an important contribution in Canada’s fledgling struggle to protect and celebrate Aboriginal women. But Saunders herself was not invulnerable. Living with long-term partner Yalcin Surkultay at the time of her disappearance, Saunders was subletting her own apartment to earn extra money to fund her studies. Post-secondary education in Canada is an expensive prospect, with many students having tens of thousands of dollars of debt by the time they graduate. Statistics Canada lists the average 2013-2014 undergraduate full-time tuition fees in Nova Scota at $6,185.00

Loretta Saunders’ brother, Edmund, told The National Post that his sister had been having difficulty collecting rent from her two tenants, Victoria Henneberry, 28, and Blake Leggette, 25. On February 13 - the day police believe she was murdered - Edmund Saunders says his sister went to her apartment with the intention of collecting the rent or - if her tenants could not pay - evicting them. When she arrived to find the apartment empty, Saunders apparently called Henneberry and Leggette to inform them that they would have to vacate the apartment. Surveillance footage from her building shows Saunders leaving the property alone. Six days later, Henneberry and Leggette were found driving Saunders’ stolen car in the small town of Harrow, near Windsor, Ontario and the American border. On February 26, Loretta Saunders’ body was found.  Henneberry and Leggette have been charged with first degree murder, with police believing the crime was premeditated.

Why are so many Aboriginal women being killed? Circumstances surrounding Aboriginal women’s deaths include high levels of family violence, in addition to women being targeted in acts of racist hatred. The NWAC’s document Fact Sheet / Violence Against Aboriginal Women calls for greater research into forms of violence apart from that occurring in the home, or in the context of sex work. Maryanne Pearce’s finding that -  of over 800 missing and murdered Aboriginal women- 80% had no connection to the sex trade should establish that many of the narratives so frequently cited in explanation of this national catastrophe are in fact relevant to only a fraction of these crimes.

And where these narratives are relevant, they must be kept in perspective as a context rather than a justification. In response to frequent media attempts to connect the problem of missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Winnipeg with the hazards of the sex trade, University of Manitoba gender studies professor Shawna Ferris asked "Shouldn't we be aiming for a city where regardless of the trials people are going through, they're not killed?"

‘Elimination’ is the word Loretta Saunders’ thesis advisor, Darryl Leroux, used in the moving piece he wrote after Saunders’ body was found, originally published on the Halifax Media Co-op website and since reproduced around the internet:

"It is a recipe for disaster for indigenous peoples, and especially indigenous women. Who suffers most when access to land, to the ecological order at the basis of most indigenous societies, is limited, controlled, or outright eliminated? Is that not what’s at the basis of a settler society like our own, eliminating indigenous peoples' relationship to the land (and/or their actual bodies), so that can we plunder it for our gain?"

Leroux describes the racist policies that drive this disposession - not least of which being the enforced attendance of residential schools, where Aboriginal children were often beaten for speaking their native language - as leading to ‘social chaos’. Crucially, Leroux also calls the bluff of non-Aboriginals who conclude that this ‘social chaos’ is consequent of Aboriginal people not understanding ‘how to live well in society’.

One does not have to search very hard to find stories of Aboriginals seeking to improve the legacy of ‘social chaos’ and promoting positive change within their communities. Kevin Settee, a 23-year old University of Manitoba undergraduate student, is one example. Settee is a representative of Manitoba’s Break the Silence campaign, an anti-violence movement among Aboriginal men that addresses the high levels of family violence in Aboriginal communities, and has spoken out on the imperative to work towards ‘healthy communities where women are supported’ - adding that Aboriginal men ‘need to look at ourselves.’

Community based solutions are also promoted by the Indigenous Nationhood Movement. With their #ItEndsHere social media campaign, grassroots change is the focus. Indeed, a national inquiry would be viewed with skepticism by Sarah Hunt of the Kwagiulth Nation, who says that ‘there’s nothing binding with inquiries, they don’t necessarily lead to action.’ Bernadette Smith’s sister Claudette Osborne disappeared in July of 2008. Although she has described the Special Committee on Violence Against Indigenous Women’s decision not to hold an inquiry as ‘a slap in the face’, she would ultimately prefer to see greater government investment in community programs.

While some feel skeptical about the results an inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women would bring, many Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians alike consider an inquiry to be a vital next step in the country’s struggle to address the vulnerability of Aboriginal women to violence, and to facilitate some sort of reconciliation for the catalogue of injustices contributing to this vulnerability. The day after police believe Loretta Saunders to have been murdered, the Nova Scotia Native Women’s Association delivered 20,000 signatures to the Canadian House of Commons calling for an inquiry. Association president Cheryl Maloney was interviewed by Saunders in Autumn of 2013, and helped distribute missing person posters after Saunders disappearance was reported. Maloney also helped plan a vigil that took place on March 5 on Parliament Hill. Attended by hundreds of people, the vigil honoured Saunders’ memory, and pressed the government for the inquiry that so many have demanded. Loretta Saunders’ cousin Holly Jarrett spoke eloquently for those in attendance, asking: "In memory of Loretta's heart and her kindness and her courage, please stand behind me and demand answers from our government."

Activist Shawn Brant is one of many who have been demanding answers since before Loretta Saunders’ tragic death. Brant, a Mohawk from Tyendinaga near Belleville, Ontario declared that if the federal government did not open an inquiry by the end of February 2014, then a series of actions would be launched. The day after it was announced that there will be no inquiry, Brant and several others occupied a Canadian National (CN) rail crossing in Ontario, resulting in the suspension of traffic on that line. Brant was charged with mischief, with two other people facing charges as well.

While it is discouraging that acts of protest can be so swiftly handled by law enforcement while multiple acts of violence go unanswered, Brant is a controversial figure, even among those supporting his cause. The managing editor of Belleville-area paper The Intelligencer wrote an editorial on Friday condemning Brant’s actions towards Intelligencer reporter Jason Miller that afternoon, while Miller was covering a protest to which Brant was party. Following another Intelligencer reporter having written an article critical of some of Brant’s actions, editor Bill Glisky stated that Brant reacted to Miller’s presence at their protest with intimidation and the threat of violence. Social chaos indeed.

Yet despite the chaos, and despite the fact that eight more Aboriginal women have been killed since Autumn, Justice Minister Peter Mackay and the government for which he speaks insist that an inquiry is not necessary because the government is already doing something: "What we're doing in here regularly [is] passing laws that bring in tougher sanctions, that hold people accountable, that put more tools in the hands of police," Mackay stated when the report was released. Presumably, the documents he threw on the floor contained evidence of these laws, sanctions, and tools. But what of the evidence of women gone missing? What of the pain, festering distrust, and feelings of abandonment found all over the country? Is that not evidence that something more needs doing?

Friday March 7th - the day before Loretta Saunders’ funeral - CBC host Jian Ghomeshi announced the People’s Choice Winner of the popular Canada Reads contest - an annual week long broadcast where five panelists debated to establish ‘the one novel that could change Canada’. The People’s Choice Winner was The Orenda - the same novel that had been chosen the day before by the panel - written by Joseph Boyden, and skilfully defended through four days of debate by Aboriginal journalist and hip hop artist Wab Kinew. Kinew successfully argued that this 17th Century-era story of family, conflict and colonization as experienced by Canada’s First Nations could be a catalyst towards ‘reconciliation’ between a famously humanitarian nation, and the injuries on which it was founded - injuries so clearly felt to this day. That The Orenda was also selected by popular vote would seem to suggest that Canadians want this reconciliation, and that we acknowledge that meaningful reconciliation must involve opening ourselves to stories that may make us uncomfortable, when they speak the truth.

A month before that, and a week before Loretta Saunders disappeared, controversial online activists Anonymous released a map that tracks cases of missing and murdered Aboriginal women. The map was made using publicly available police crime maps and can be kept up to date with the aid of the public, who can report new information to a site administrator.

As many of the most potent tools to fight this tragedy continue to come from the (unpaid) efforts of private citizens, it is no wonder that there are relatives of missing and murdered Aboriginal women who have little faith in what an inquiry could do. If we believe that we can be taught - changed, even - by a novel, then we must ask ourselves why we cannot be moved to action by 825 lost women.

This article was first published in March 2014. It is republished here in 50.50's series on 16 Days: Activism Against Gender-Based Violence 2014

About the author

Elizabeth Grant is an artist and freelance writer who recently completed the Masters of Letters in Fine Art Practice at the Glasgow School of Art.

She was a finalist for the RBC Canadian Painting Competition, and has been supported by the Canada Council for the Arts, and the Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation. Follow her on twitter@LitszenGrant

Her work can be seen here.


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