Canada is not often seen as a place where widespread human rights violations against the Indigenous population occur on a regular basis. Much of the international community’s perception of this country is still that of pristine nature and polite inhabitants with health care.
In fact Canada’s Indigenous population is over policed and under protected, both men and women are over incarcerated at rates much higher than the non-Indigenous population and face police violence and deaths in custody all too often. But our own mainstream media is finally no longer able to ignore one of this settler-colonial project’s best-kept secrets: ongoing genocidal violence against the Indigenous population - and more specifically the targeting of Indigenous women, girls, trans and two-spirited people.
Never before has the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women commanded public and media attention to the degree that it has in the last year with demands for a national inquiry coming from multiple actors: community leaders, family members of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, as well as opposition parties. Various reports from national and international human rights organizations have cast light on the complicity of Canadian police and not only their failure to adequately prevent and protect indigenous women and girls from killings, disappearances and extreme forms of violence, but also to investigate and solve these crimes and in some instances be themselves the perpetrators of the violence.
In February 2013, Human Rights Watch, a US based human rights group, released its alarming report on the relationship of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Indigenous women and girls in Northern BC, entitled, Those Who Take Us Away: Abusive Policing and Failures in Protection of Indigenous Women and Girls in Northern British Columbia, Canada. Some of the examples of human rights violations committed by members of this national police force in towns across the north documented include: pepper-spraying and tasering of young girls, strip-searches by male officers, a 17-year-old punched repeatedly by an officer who had been called to help her; a 12-year-old attacked by a police dog and injured due to excessive force used during arrest. “Human Rights Watch heard disturbing allegations of rape and sexual assault by RCMP officers, including from a woman who described how in July 2012 police officers took her outside of town, raped her, and threatened to kill her if she told anyone”.
In 2014, after Dr. Maryanne Pearce shared research she had gathered over a 7-year period entitled an Awkward Silence, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police released their won National Operational Review report on the issue of "Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women". They put the numbers of murdered Indigenous women between 1980 and 2012 at 1,017, and cited another 164 as missing under suspicious circumstances, with some cases dating back to 1952. Activists and community members believe these numbers to be low and point out that inadequate tracking of ethnicity of victims and problems with RCMP methodology in identifying Indigeneity, indicate that many women would not have been recognized as such. While Indigenous women make up only 4.3 % of the total female population, they represent 16 % of all female homicide victims over more than three decades according to the report.
More recently, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), which is affiliated with the Organization of American States, also weighed in publishing a damning 127-page report in January 2015 that named police failure and systemic discrimination against Canada’s Indigenous community as contributing to the plight of missing or murdered indigenous women, and that poverty is at the root of the violence.
This scrutiny on the part of international organizations goes back to the grassroots organizing efforts of community groups in the country in particular in British Colombia that have been working to raise awareness on the issue for over 25 years.
It was the deafening quiet in mainstream society around this crisis that prompted the founding of No More Silence in Toronto, Ontario over 10 years ago. I was approached by Barbara Williams, a white woman ally, and we formed the coalition in 2004. Having lived and worked in Vancouver’s downtown eastside in the late 90s when serial killer, Robert Picton, was on his rampage, I was inspired by the many grannies and aunties who had been working in the Women’s Memorial March organizing committee since 1991. The march affords an opportunity for the community to come together and grieve while holding ceremony at the sites where women were killed or disappeared from. When Picton, who had been arrested and released in 1997 and had then gone on to kill 18 more women, was facing trial on 33 murder charges, the Toronto group began to hold a ceremony on February 14th at police headquarters in solidarity with the Vancouver march, and to point out that serial killers like Picton are far from aberrations and that state complicity - and a culture of impunity - are real and ongoing factors in this crisis. We understand the violence to be rooted in ongoing colonization, land theft and termination policies. The same attitudes that prioritize destruction of the land and natural environments to facilitate resource extraction are at the heart of the racism and sexism that result in the deaths and disappearances.
Our first call stated: "On February 14th we will come together in solidarity with the women who started this vigil 15 years ago in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, and with the marches and rallies that will be taking place across this land. We stand in defense of our lives and to demonstrate against the complicity of the state in the ongoing genocide of Indigenous women and the impunity of state institutions and actors (police, RCMP, coroners’ offices, the courts, and an indifferent federal government) that prevents justice for all Indigenous peoples."
February 14th Strawberry Ceremony for missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, trans and two-spirit. Photo: Peter Kernaghan
No More Silence chooses to be at police headquarters in order to highlight the impunity that Canada affords killers of poor and marginalized women – women not deemed worthy of state protection, and Indigenous women who are targets of the genocidal policies inherent to a settler state.
"We do not ask for the state’s permission in doing so
and instead honour the sovereignty of the Indigenous peoples that have shared
the caretaking responsibilities of this land for thousands of years. Family
members are given the opportunity to share and Wanda Whitebird (Bear Clan and
member of the Mi’kmag Nation) leads the community in a strawberry and water
ceremony. No More Silence chooses to practice ceremony in honouring our missing
sisters both as an act of love for those who are gone and those who remain
behind to mourn as well as an assertion of sovereignty."
The Canadian government has consistently refused demands for a public inquiry, which would acknowledge the gravity of the crisis. An inquiry or commission could at the very least establish a public record, and if led and informed by family members and Indigenous women themselves, examine more than the root causes that are already known but go a step further and shed light on why the almost 700 recommendations made on this subject in over 40 reports have not been implemented. More importantly, however, in my view is the need of family members for answers in unsolved cases. The under-investigation and police negligence in their duty of care needs to be revealed for what it is, and can only be done so if records are shared.
All of us in No More Silence are well aware that the violence inherent to settler colonialism will only end with decolonization and thus prioritize community capacity and relationship building to this end. Collaborating with the Native Youth Sexual Health Network and Families of Sisters In Spirit we have created a community-led database. Read more about our values here.
Audrey Huntley will be speaking at the Nobel Women’s Initiative conference on the Defence of Women Human
Rights Defenders, 24-26 April. 50.50 will be reporting live from the conference. Read more articles by participants and speakers.