Lorelei Williams wants an inquiry.
A First Nations woman from the Skatin Nation, Williams’ aunt, Belinda Williams, has been missing since 1977. Although some information has been anonymously submitted in recent years, the Williams’ family still doesn’t know what became of their daughter, sister, aunt. As Lorelei Williams reflects, 36 years is a long time to be missing.
By the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s own figures, there have been nearly 1,200 cases of missing or murdered Indigenous women in Canada since 1980. As Belinda Williams’ unsolved case dating back to 1977 shows, the real total is likely higher.
Ms. Williams does know what happened to her cousin, Tanya Holyk.
Ms. Holyk went missing from Vancouver’s downtown eastside in 1996. Holyk’s mother, Dorothy Purcell (now deceased), contacted police and began searching her daughter’s neighbourhood, asking friends and contacts for information regarding her possible whereabouts.
In a letter of complaint written to Vancouver police in 1997 about the missing persons unit clerk handling the case, Purcell claimed the clerk accused her of not caring for her daughter because she hadn’t been calling the police regularly to check on the case’s progress. Purcell responded that this was because she had been out searching for her daughter on the streets. The accusation of negligence was ironic considering Vancouver police waited for over a year just to interview the missing woman’s own mother.
Four years later when police executed a search warrant for illegal firearms on Robert Pickton’s pig farm, they found identification belonging to some of Vancouver’s other missing women, as well as bloodied clothing. In the massive forensic investigation that followed, Tanya Holyk’s DNA was found along with that of 33 other missing women.
Robert Pickton was eventually charged and convicted of six counts of second-degree murder, and will finish his days in jail serving six concurrent life sentences.
Now, fuelled by a viral social media campaign, Lorelei Williams and other Indigenous women are calling on the Canadian government to hold an inquiry into Canada’s missing and murdered Indigenous women, by asking Prime Minister Stephen Harper a question: Am I Next?
The campaign was begun last month by Holly Jarrett of Cornwall, Ontario, when she posted a photo of herself online holding a sign reading ‘Am I Next?’, and then called on other Indigenous women around Canada to do the same. Jarrett has also started a petition at change.org where people can add their voices to the call for an inquiry. To date, the petition has nearly 325,480 signatures.
Although Jarrett has been working with national Aboriginal and Inuit organizations since the early 1990s, the events that moved her to start the Am I Next? campaign are more recent, and deeply personal.
In February of this year, Jarrett’s cousin Loretta Saunders was reported missing from Halifax, Nova Scotia, where she was a graduate student at St. Mary’s University. Saunders had been writing her thesis on Canada’s missing and murdered Indigenous women.
On February 26, Saunders was found, murdered. Her body had been dumped in a thinly wooded highway median in the neighbouring province of New Brunswick. She was three months pregnant.
Unable to make it to their hometown of Labrador to attend her cousin’s funeral, Jarrett said in a CBC Radio interview that she started the campaign because she wanted to move forward with her cousin’s desire for a public inquiry into Canada’s missing and murdered Indigenous women.
She expressed doubts regarding whether or not her campaign alone can change the government’s mind: she says the key is to bring about change in other people.
While comprising only 4% of the population, a recent study by the RCMP found that Aboriginal women account for 16% of female homicide victims, and 11% of Canada’s missing women.
In spite of all this, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper does not see a pattern. Having repeatedly rejected calls from all sides for a government inquiry into Canada’s missing and murdered Indigenous women, Harper commented on the August 2014 murder of yet another young Aboriginal woman, Tina Fontaine, ‘We should not view this as a sociological phenomenon.’
The comment has appalled many Canadians, and opposition party politicians have been swift to weigh in. Federal Opposition leader Thomas Mulcair of the New Democratic Party says he has pledged to launch an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women within the first 100 days of an NDP government. Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau has said that Harper is ‘not just out of touch with Canadians on this issue, but also on the wrong side of history.’ The provincial premiers have also endorsed the call for an inquiry.
Harper’s comment also directly contradicts the evidence collected by his own government. Throughout 40 studies collected between 1996 and 2013, the legacy effects of residential schools, colonialism, cultural dispossession and social marginalization were repeatedly cited by study authors or participants as being major factors contributing to the dangers facing Indigenous women in Canada.
The Conservative government’s response to the pressure to hold an inquiry has been consistent in its deflection, even if their response’s two primary talking points are somewhat contradictory. Prime Minister Harper’s comment that this is not a sociological issue is evidence of the first talking point: the assertion that these are self-contained crimes and should be dealt with on a case by case basis, that is to say, after a crime has occurred. The Conservatives’ other tactic has been the rather more sinister approach of characterizing an inquiry as something that would delay action on the problem (the very problem whose existence they otherwise dispute).
When Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt announced that the government would consider participating in a roundtable with provincial premiers on Canada’s missing and murdered Indigenous women, he stated:
‘We would certainly consider this, but it has to be more than just talks. Because they have been advocating for talks and talks and talks and we have been acting.’
That action includes setting up a national missing persons DNA database, and justice and safety initiatives designed to help Indigenous women.
As Métis writer and educator Chelsea Vowel has pointed out, asserting that an inquiry will only divert funds from addressing the problem ‘plays wonderfully into divide and conquer tactics.’
President of the Ontario Native Women’s Association Dawn Harvard acknowledges the most common argument against an inquiry, agreeing that there exists substantial research on the sociological causes, but says she still supports the call for an inquiry. Harvard says that the benefit would be to identify specific policies and initiatives that could tackle the underlying issues.
Michelle Audette of the Native Women’s Association of Canada describes the potential value of an inquiry as ‘an accountability exercise in a non-partisan forum.’
Thinking of Lorelei Williams’ family, there is much for Canadians to be held accountable for.
We are accountable for Tina Fontaine.
At 15, Tina Fontaine was the same age as many of the young women who have posted photos of themselves in the Am I Next? campaign. Fontaine will not get that chance.
From the Sagkeeng First Nation, Fontaine had a difficult background and a history of running away: she was officially in the care of Manitoba Child and Family services and had been in Winnipeg for only a month when she went missing on August 8, 2014.
On August 17, while police were searching the Red River for a man who had been seen struggling in the water, they found Fontaine’s body, wrapped in a plastic bag. Winnipeg police homicide investigator John O’Donovan said she was found in ‘a condition she couldn’t have put herself in.’
Three months before, in the neighbouring province of Saskatchewan, homeless First Nations woman Marlene Bird was attacked in a parking lot—her face slashed, and her legs so badly burned they had to be amputated.
There is a pattern here.
Canada offers its Indigenous women a quality of life degraded by disproportionate danger, fear, and aggression. As a country we must hold ourselves accountable for this caustic legacy of colonialism—for too long Canada has been on the wrong side of history.
An inquiry into our missing and murdered Indigenous women would be an important step towards accountability, and a chance to plan effective, preventative action. Until we do this, we will have little in the way of a response when these women ask ‘Am I next?’