Missing and murdered Indigenous women
Missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW) is an issue affecting Indigenous people in Canada and the United States, including the First Nations, Inuit, Métis and Native American communities. It has been described as a Canadian national crisis. Canadian indigenous women are disproportionately affected by all forms of violence, and are significantly over-represented among female Canadian homicide victims. They are also far more likely than other women to go missing.
The exact number of Indigenous women and girls who have gone missing or have been murdered in Canada since the 1970s is uncertain, with estimates ranging from approximately 1,000 to nearly 4,000. In response to activists, the Canadian government funded data collection on missing and murdered women, ending in 2010; the Native Women's Association of Canada has documented 582 cases since the 1960s, with 39% occurring after 2000. But aboriginal groups say that many more women have been missing, with the highest number of cases in British Columbia. Some notable cases have included 19 women killed in the Highway of Tears murders, and up to 49 women, many of whom were indigenous, murdered by Robert Pickton.
Responding to repeated calls of Indigenous groups, other activists, and non-governmental organizations, the Government of Canada under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau established the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in September 2016.
- 1 Background
- 2 Statistics
- 3 National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls
- 4 Activism
- 5 Creative responses
- 6 See also
- 7 References
- 8 External links
As a group that has been "socially, economically, and politically marginalized", Indigenous women have been frequent targets for hatred and violence. Underlying factors such as poverty and homelessness contribute to their victimization, as do historical factors such as racism, sexism, and the legacy of colonialism. The trauma caused by abuses under Canada's residential school system also likely plays a role. Indigenous women are between 3 and 3.5 times more likely to be victims of violent crime than other women, and the violence they face is often more severe.
Canada does not maintain a database for missing people, which makes it difficult to determine the rate at which Indigenous women are murdered or go missing, or to compare their data to those of other populations. In addition, various groups have collected data from different periods of time and different criteria. Available data suggests, however, that the number of missing and murdered Indigenous women is disproportionately high compared to their percentage of the total population.
Although Indigenous women and girls make up only 4% of the female population in Canada, they represented 16% of all female homicides in Canada between 1980 and 2012. A 2011 Statistics Canada report estimated that Indigenous women are seven times more likely than other women to be victims of a homicide. According to a 2007 study by the province of Saskatchewan – the only province to have systematically reviewed its missing persons files for cases involving Indigenous women – Indigenous women were found to have made up 6% of the province's population, and 60% of the province's missing women cases.
The total number of missing and murdered Indigenous women is unclear. A 2014 report by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, ordered by the Stephen Harper administration, stated 1,181 Indigenous women were killed or went missing across the country between 1980 and 2012. With government funding, the Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC) had documented 582 cases of missing and murdered Aboriginal women from the 1960s to 2010, but they believe there are many more. Of the cases analyzed by the RCMP, 67% were murder victims, 20% were missing persons, 4% were suspicious deaths, and 9% were unknown.
In 2016 Patricia Hajdu, the Canadian minister for the status of women, suggested that the total number of missing and murdered Indigenous women could be closer to 4,000. She was basing her statement on information supplied by NWAC and originally collected by the Walk 4 Justice initiative. She said that historically there had been underreporting by law enforcement of cases of murdered or missing Indigenous women.
"Gladys Radek, co-founder of Walk 4 Justice, said her group collected the names while speaking to people during a trek across Canada in 2008. They stopped collecting information in 2011." Further, "When CBC News contacted one of the activists who supplied NWAC with the information, she said "roughly 60 to 70 per cent" of the 4,000 or so people on her list were Indigenous."
CBC in 2016 investigated accounts of unsolved cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women, creating an interactive database that now numbers more than 300 persons. CBC investigated 34 cases in which families disagreed with authorities' determination that no foul play was involved; it found "suspicious circumstances, unexplained bruises and other factors that suggest further investigation is warranted".
Details of 2014 RCMP investigation and update
In late 2013, the Commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) initiated a study of reported cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women across all police jurisdictions in Canada. The 2014 report found that there were 1,181 incidents of female homicides and unresolved missing Indigenous females. Of these 1,181 incidents, there were 225 unsolved cases between 1980 and 2012; 80% of all female homicides (Indigenous and non-Indigenous) are solved. RCMP statistics were updated in 2015, showing murder rates and the percentage solved (80%) to be essentially unchanged. The RCMP does not collect figures from the 300 non-RCMP police agencies in Canada.
Highway of Tears
The term Highway of Tears refers to the murder and disappearances since 1969 of mainly Indigenous women along the 700-kilometre stretch of Highway 16 from Prince George to Prince Rupert, British Columbia. Government organizations and Indigenous organizations have different estimates of the number of victims along the highway, with police identifying 19 murders, 13 of them teenagers, and other organizations placing the number as closer to 40. Many people hitchhike along this stretch of highway because they do not own cars and there is a lack of public transit. The Highway of Tears murders has led to initiatives by the British Columbia government to dissuade women from hitchhiking, such as billboards along the highway warning women of the potential risks. Numerous documentaries have focused on the victims associated with this highway. The Canadian media often refer to the highway in coverage of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and Two-Spirit people in Canada.
The RCMP in British Columbia launched Project E-PANA in 2005, in response to the Highway of Tears crisis. It initiated an investigation of 9 murdered women, launching a task force in 2006. In 2007 it added an additional 9 cases, which include cases of both murdered and missing women along Highways 16, 97 and 5. The task force consists of more than 50 investigators, and cases include those from the years 1969 to 2006.
National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls
After the 2015 Canadian federal election, the Liberal Government upheld their campaign promise and announced the initiation of a national inquiry on December 8, 2015. The Canadian government had pre-inquiry meetings with a variety of people including families, front-line workers, representatives of the provinces and Indigenous organizations from December 2015 through February 2016, in order to determine how to structure the inquiry. The mandate of the inquiry and the projected length of time of the inquiry were published August 3, 2016. The estimated cost is $53.8 million. In addition, the government announced $16.17 million over four years to create family information liaison units in each province and territory.
The inquiry was established as independent from the Government of Canada, and five commissioners were appointed to oversee the independent inquiry process: Marion Buller (chief commissioner), Michèle Audette, Qajaq Robinson, Marilyn Poitras, and Brian Eyolfson. An interim report was expected from the Inquiry in November 2017. The initial conclusion date for the inquiry was set as December 31, 2018; however, in May 2017 the Chief Commissioner of the inquiry said the inquiry might seek an extension from the federal government.
After the first public hearing in April 2017, complaints by observers started to arise about the inquiry's terms of reference, its composition and administration, and a perceived lack of transparency. Evidence was taken from 50 witnesses during the first hearings at Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, over three days in May 2017.
Throughout 2017 a number of key staffers left the inquiry. Executive director Michèle Moreau announced in June that she would leave her position at the end of July 2017. In July 2017 Marilyn Poitras resigned as a commissioner. She said in her resignation letter to the Prime Minister,
It is clear to me that I am unable to perform my duties as a commissioner with the process designed in its current structure ... I believe this opportunity to engage community on the place and treatment of Indigenous women is extremely important and necessary. It is time for Canada to face this relationship and repair it.
On August 8, 2017, Waneek Horn-Miller, the inquiry's director of community relations, stepped down, and on October 8, 2017, CBC News reported that the Inquiry's lead lawyer and research director had also resigned.
Indigenous activists have been organizing protests and vigils relating to missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit individuals for decades. The Native Women's Association of Canada was one of many organizations that created a database of missing and murdered Indigenous women. The community-based activist groups Families of Sisters in Spirit and No More Silence have also been gathering the names of missing and murdered Indigenous women since 2005. In 2015 the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada's Calls to Action also called for the federal government to establish a public inquiry into the issues of MMIW. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the inquiry in December 2015.
Women's Memorial March
The first Women's Memorial March was on February 14, 1991, in Downtown Eastside, Vancouver, which had numerous missing or murdered Indigenous women. The march was in response to the murder of a Coast Salish woman. The annual marches were intended to commemorate Indigenous women who have been murdered or have gone missing to build support for a national inquiry and program of response. In 2016 the government announced it would undertake such an inquiry. During the Vancouver march, the committee and public stop at the sites where the women were last seen, or murdered, holding a moment of silence as a sign of respect. The committee has drawn attention to the issue locally, nationally and internationally. The committee is made up of family members, front-line workers, close friends, and loved ones who have suffered the losses of Indigenous women during recent decades.
This event has expanded and as of 2017, was held annually on Valentine's Day in more than 22 communities across North America. The march aims to break down barriers and raise awareness about racial stereotypes and stigmas that contribute to the high rate of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada.
Sisters in Spirit Vigils
In 2002 the Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC), Amnesty International Canada, KAIROS, Elizabeth Fry Society, and the Anglican Church of Canada formed the National Coalition for our Stolen Sisters, an initiative designed to raise awareness about the MMIW crisis in Canada. In 2005 Indigenous women founded Sisters in Spirit, a research, education and policy program run by Indigenous women, with a focus on raising awareness about violence against Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit persons. Sisters in Spirit collected the details of almost 600 cases of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in Canada, including some historical cases that were not accepted by police, and cases where police closed the book on a woman's death despite lingering questions from family members. This was the first database of its kind in Canada in terms of its detail and scope, however the federal government stopped funding the program in 2010. Critics of the cut say it was meant to silence the Native Women's Association of Canada, the group behind the database. However, Sisters in Spirit vigils continue to be held across Canada every year on the 4th of October.
Bridget Tolley founded the Sisters in Spirit vigils in 2005 to honour of the lives of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and two-spirit persons. This annual event is organized in partnership with the NWAC. In 2006, 11 vigils were held across the country and in 2014, there were 216 vigils. The annual Fort St. John, British Columbia vigil has been taking place since 2008, honouring missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in northeast British Columbia. Sisters in Spirit continue to hold an annual, national vigil on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.
Families of Sisters in Spirit
In 2011 Bridget Tolley cofounded Families of Sisters in Spirit (FSIS) in response to the funding cuts to Sisters in Spirit. FSIS is a grassroots group led by Indigenous women dedicated to seeking justice for missing Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit persons through public awareness and advocacy. FSIS differs from Sisters in Spirit insofar as FSIS is fully autonomous, all-volunteer, and accepts no government funding. Tolley is Algonquin from the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation. Her activism began after her mother, Gladys Tolley, was struck and killed by a Sûreté du Québec police cruiser while walking across a two-lane highway on the Kitigan Zibi-Anishinabeg First Nation on October 5, 2001. A police investigation into her death revealed no wrongdoing and deemed the case an accident. However, Tolley claims police failed to inform her family that her mother's case was closed, and that Montreal police were brought in even though the local Kitigan Zibi police department had jurisdiction over the scene and should have been called to secure it. Bridget Tolley has since campaigned for justice for her mother, demanding her case be reopened and subject to an independent investigation by the Province of Quebec. She remains a committed activist for social justice regarding police violence, education, housing, and child welfare.
The REDress Project is based in Canada and is a public art commemoration of the Aboriginal women known to be missing or murdered. The installation consists of red dresses, which are placed to hang or flat in public spaces. Canadian Jaime Black (Métis) began the project in 2000. She told CTV News that "a friend of hers, who is also an aboriginal, explained that red was the only colour spirits could see. 'So (red) is really a calling back of the spirits of these women and allowing them a chance to be among us and have their voices heard through their family members and community.'" The REDress Project has been displayed at the campuses of the universities of Winnipeg, Saskatchewan, Kamloops, Alberta, Toronto, and Queen's University as well as the Manitoba Legislature, and the Canadian Museum of Human Rights.
Walking with Our Sisters
Walking with Our Sisters is a community-based art installation, commemorating murdered or missing women and children from Indigenous communities. The project is community-led, from the creation of the piece to the facilitation of the exhibit at different sites. The hope is to raise awareness on this issue and create a space for dialogue-based community discussions on this issue. It is a solely volunteer initiative.
The art project is a collection of vamps from moccasins. A vamp is the extra layer of leather for the top lip of the moccasin. The installation has more than 1763 pairs of adult vamps and 108 pairs for children. Each pair is authentic and custom made for each individual woman reported missing. The vamps represent the unfinished lives of the missing or murdered women.
The project began in 2012, with a call to action issued on Facebook. People were asked to design and create moccasin tops. By July 2013, the project leaders had received 1,600 vamps, more than tripling their initial goal of 600. Men, women, and children of all races responded to the call and became active in the project.
This installation consists of vamps placed on the floor of a public space. It travels to select galleries and art exhibition halls. Patrons are asked to take off their shoes and walk alongside the vamps in the gallery, to ensure that the people they represent are not forgotten and to show solidarity with the missing or murdered women. Booked until 2019, the installation is scheduled for 25 locations across North America.
Faceless Dolls Project
Begun by the Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC) in 2012, the Faceless Dolls Project consists of making dolls to represent missing and murdered women, and those affected by violence. The dolls are designed as "a process of reconstructing identity" for women who lose individuality in becoming victims of crime. The first dolls were made to commemorate the 582 MMIW documented by the Association. They are intended as an artistic reminder of the lives and identities of the affected women and girls. NWAC has brought this art project to universities and communities across Canada, where participants join in making dolls as a form of activism and raising awareness of the issue of MMIW.
Since late 2015 Kristen Villebrun, a local activist in Hamilton, Ontario, and about ten other Indigenous women have been constructing inuksuit on the Chedoke Radial Trail. This trail connects to the Chedoke Creek, a watercourse in Hamilton. An inuksuk is a man-made stone structure commonly used for navigation or trail markers. Inuksuk translates to "in the likeness of a human".
The women began the project in October 2015 when they noticed that shadows cast by previously constructed inuksuit on the trail were lifelike and reminiscent of women. These activists saw an opportunity to use these structures as a way of drawing attention to the issue of the missing women. They have constructed 1,181 inuksuit, working for six hours a day, four days a week. The project has attracted many questions, with hundreds of people stopping to inquire about the inuksuit. The women welcomed the questions, and they announced their intention to continue to build the female inuksuit until the government undertook an official inquiry into missing Indigenous women. In December 2015 Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced he would initiate such an inquiry.
Missing & Murdered: Who Killed Alberta Williams?
In October 2016 journalist Connie Walker and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation launched a podcast titled Who Killed Alberta Williams? The eight-part podcast examines the missing and murdered Indigenous women crisis in Canada though the lens of a specific case, the murder of Alberta Williams in 1989 along the Highway of Tears in British Columbia. The series was nominated for a Webby Award.
Big Green Sky
Big Green Sky is a social justice play commissioned and produced by Windsor Feminist Theatre, which debuted in May 2016 in Windsor Ontario. It was prompted by the outrage over the acquittal of Bradley Barton in the trial of Cindy Gladue's murder. This play is a direct result of reaching out to Muriel Stanley Venne, Chair of the Aboriginal Commission on Human Rights and Justice, and President of the Institute for the Advancement of Aboriginal Women. Venne's report was submitted to United Nations rapporteur James Anaya. Venne created her report because she wanted to 'influence decision makers who have become very complacent and unconcerned about the lives of Indigenous women in our country."
The playwright has created his heroine to be a Nigerian woman who moves to Northern Canada to see the Northern Lights and immerses herself in aboriginal culture. In this sense, members of the audience who are non-aboriginal are invited to take part in the journey of this "outsider" as she learns and uncovers the mysteries of murdered and missing aboriginal women. The title Big Green Sky comes from the display of the aurora borealis or Northern Lights. Aboriginal interpretations include that the Northern Lights represent the spirits of the departed who are communicating with their loved ones. The play will be gifted by WFT to any organization or individual wishing to bring awareness to this issue, and distributed without royalty fees, providing that all revenues/fundraising efforts be donated to local First Nations, Inuit or Métis women's initiatives.
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In 2016, North Dakota alone had 125 cases of missing Native women reported to the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), compared to 5,712 total Native women cases reported in the United States. However, the actual number is likely much higher, as cases of missing Native women are often under-reported and the data has never been officially collected.
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