Missing and murdered Indigenous women

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The Missing and murdered Indigenous women epidemic (MMIW) is an issue currently affecting Indigenous people in Canada and the United States, including the First Nations, Inuit, Métis (FNIM) and Native American communities.[1][2][3][4] It has been described as a Canadian national crisis.[5][6][7] Indigenous women are disproportionately affected by all forms of violence,[8] with 84% of Native American women experiencing violence in their lifetime[9] and are significantly over-represented among female Canadian homicide victims.[10] They are also far more likely than other women to go missing.[11] What is most unusual about violence against Native American and FNIM women is that, unlike other demographics where perpetrators are most likely to be from the victim's own community and ethnic group, Native women are more likely to be sexually assaulted, stalked and preyed-upon by non-Natives.[4]

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.[12] 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 advocacy 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 from the Vancouver area, 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.[13]


As a group that has been "socially, economically, and politically marginalized",[14] Indigenous women have been frequent targets for hatred and violence.[15] 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.[8][16] Indigenous women are between 3 and 3.5 times more likely to be victims of violent crime than other women,[17][18] and the violence they face is often more severe.[19]

Statistics for Canada[edit]

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.[20]

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.[8] A 2011 Statistics Canada report estimated that Indigenous women are seven times more likely than other women to be victims of a homicide.[21][22] 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.[23]

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.[24] 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,[25] 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.[24]

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."[26][27][28][26]

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.[29] 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".[30]

Details of 2014 RCMP investigation and update[edit]

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.[31] 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.[32]

Highway of Tears[edit]

The term "Highway of Tears" refers to the 700-kilometer stretch of Highway 16 from Prince George to Prince Rupert, British Columbia, which since 1969 has been the site of the murder and disappearance of a number of mainly Indigenous women.[33][34][14] Government organizations and Indigenous organizations have different estimates of the number of victims along the highway, with police identifying 18 murders and disappearances, 13 of them teenagers, and other organizations placing the number as closer to 40.[35] A reason for this numerical discrepancy is that for a disappearance or murder to be included in the RCMP’s E-Pana project statistics, the RCMP requires for the crime to have happened within a mile of Highway 16, 97, or 5; their count rejects all cases that take place elsewhere along the route.[35]

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.[36] 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.[citation needed]

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.[37]

Canadian National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls[edit]

Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, giving a speech on missing and murdered Indigenous women in front of Parliament in Ottawa in October 2016.

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.[38] 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.[39]

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.[40] 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.[41]

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.[42] Evidence was taken from 50 witnesses during the first hearings at Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, over three days in May 2017.[43]

In July 2017 the Assembly of First Nations asked the Federal Government to reset the inquiry, revisit its mandate, and extend its timeline to allow more data gathering.[44] Throughout 2017 a number of key staffers left the inquiry.[45][46] Executive director Michèle Moreau announced in June that she would leave her position at the end of July 2017.[47] 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.[48][49]

On August 8, 2017, Waneek Horn-Miller, the inquiry's director of community relations, stepped down,[50] and on October 8, 2017, CBC News reported that the Inquiry's lead lawyer and research director had also resigned.[51]

In October 2018 the Inquiry announced the last of its public hearing dates, following which the commissioners will write a final report and submit recommendations to the Canadian government by April 30, 2019.[52]

Statistics for the United States[edit]

Similar to Canada's situation, specific data on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) in the United States has also been difficult to gather. Contributing to this difficulty is the fact that many times when Indigenous women and girls go missing, or when Indigenous murder victims are unidentified, forensic evidence has not been accurately collected or preserved by local law enforcement. Cases have been allowed to quickly go "cold", and crucial evidence has been "lost", or never forwarded on from local law enforcement to the appropriate agencies.[53]

Between 1992-1996, even though Indigenous women experienced similar or more rates of assault and crime, they were less likely to be reported [54]

As these cases go unreported, it allowed violence and murder to be inaccurately represented in statistical data against Indigenous women, but it has also allowed aggressors to go unpunished.[55] Multiple groups have attempted to represent more accurate statistic or bring to light the lack of record keeping by law enforcement, such as the Bureau of Justice Statistics.[54] However, numbers are still skewed today as they were 2 decades ago.

From 2010 to 2018, in the US urban communities where most incidents occur, 71 communities were observed and data gathered. In those 71 cities 506 cases were reported. Of the 506 cases, 128 or 25% were reported missing, 280 or 56% were murdered, and 98 or 19% are still unknown.[56]

US Initiatives[edit]

Activism and proposed legislation has drawn the issue of MMIW to the attention of some lawmakers.[1] In 2018 and 2019 many US states, including Washington, Minnesota, and Arizona have begun to take steps toward passing legislation to increase awareness of this issue and take steps toward building databases to reflect accurate statistics regarding missing and murdered indigenous women and girls.[57][58][59]

Currently, the federal laws surrounding violent crimes create difficulties in dealing with non-Native perpetrators on native lands.[60][1][61]

According to the Supreme Court ruling in Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe (1978), tribal courts do not hold any jurisdictional powers over non-American Indians and Alaska Natives, and therefore cannot prosecute or punish them for their crimes on reservations. Additionally, the Indian Civil Rights Act (1968) limits the maximum punishment for any crime to a $5000 fine and up to one year in prison.[61] All violent felonies committed on tribal lands are prosecuted by the federal government through the FBI, because of the federal government's relationship with the sovereign tribal nations. Local state and county authorities do not have jurisdiction on reservations. Bachman believes that this split in authority creates problems as law enforcement departments compete over jurisdictional powers based on the nature of the crime. This lowers the overall effectiveness of law enforcement, and provides enough immunity to non-citizens of the tribes (usually members of the dominant culture) for such crimes to have become commonplace.[61] As noted in the movie, the FBI does not keep data on missing indigenous women.

National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls[edit]

The US declared May 5, 2018 as a national day of awareness in order to raise concern for the crisis, and refocus attention on issues affecting Indigenous women. It hopes to improve relations between the federal and tribal governments.[62]

Washington State House Bill 2951[edit]

Effective May 7, 2018, this bill orders an inquiry into how to increase rates of reporting for missing Native American women in the state of Washington.[63] The state highway patrol has a deadline of June 1, 2019 to report to the legislature its results of the study. This includes analysis and data on the number of missing women in the state, barriers to use state resources, as well as recommendations how to overcome them.[64]

House of Representatives Bill 1585[edit]

On March 7, 2019, Congress introduced this bill in the House of Representatives and this bill was to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 and other specific reasons.[65]

Arizona State House Bill 2570[edit]

On March 11, 2019, the Arizona State Legislature, House of Representatives passed Arizona House Bill 2570 “ESTABLISHING A STUDY COMMITTEE ON MISSING AND MURDERED INDIGENOUS WOMEN AND GIRLS.” If approved in the Senate, the bill would seek to “establish a study committee to conduct a comprehensive study to determine how the State of Arizona can reduce and end violence against indigenous women and girls…”[66] The study committee would establish methods for tracking and collecting data, reviewing policies and procedures, reviewing prosecutorial trends, gather data on violence, identify barriers to providing more state resources, propose measures, as well as propose legislation to address the issues identified.

Savanna's Act[edit]

This bill was initially introduced in Congress in October 2017 by former Senator Heidi Heikamp, but later reintroduced in January 2019 by Senator Lisa Murkowski.[67] The purpose of Savanna's Act is to increase cooperation and coordination between “Federal, State, Tribal, and local law enforcement agencies” as this has been one of the major barriers to developing an accurate database. This bill would also implement training for Tribal agencies from the Attorney General as well as improve tribal access to databases (including the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System). In addition, data collection will be increased so that statistics more accurately represent missing and murdered indigenous women. This bill was read twice in Congress and referred to the Committee on Indian Affairs where it currently sits.[68]


Indigenous activists have been organizing protests and vigils relating to missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit individuals for decades.[69] The Native Women's Association of Canada was one of many organizations that created a database of missing and murdered Indigenous women.[70] 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.[71] 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.[72]

Women's Memorial March[edit]

The first Women's Memorial March was on February 14, Valentine's Day, 1991, in Downtown Eastside, Vancouver, an area notable for having numerous missing or murdered Indigenous women.[73] The march was in response to the murder of a Coast Salish woman.[73] The annual marches were intended to commemorate Indigenous women who have been murdered or have gone missing in order to build support for a national inquiry and program of response.

In 2016 the government announced it would undertake such an inquiry. During the annual Vancouver march, the committee and public stop at the sites where the women were last seen, or known to have been murdered, holding a moment of silence as a sign of respect.[74] The committee has drawn attention to the issue locally, nationally, and internationally.[75] 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.[73]

This event has expanded. As of 2017, it was held annually on Valentine's Day in more than 22 communities across North America. The march intends to break down barriers among populations and raise awareness about the racial stereotypes and stigmas that contribute to the high rate of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada.[76]

Sisters in Spirit Vigils[edit]

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.[77] 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.[78] 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.[79] Critics of the cut say it was meant to silence the Native Women's Association of Canada, the group behind the database.[78] However, Sisters in Spirit vigils continue to be held across Canada every year on the 4th of October.[80]

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.[81][82] 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.[83] 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.[84] Sisters in Spirit continue to hold an annual, national vigil on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.[85]

Families of Sisters in Spirit[edit]

In 2011 Bridget Tolley cofounded Families of Sisters in Spirit (FSIS) in response to the funding cuts to Sisters in Spirit.[86][87] 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.[88] FSIS differs from Sisters in Spirit insofar as FSIS is fully autonomous, all-volunteer, and accepts no government funding.[89] Tolley is Algonquin from the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation.[90] 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.[91] A police investigation into her death revealed no wrongdoing and deemed the case an accident.[92] 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.[93] 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.[93] She remains a committed activist for social justice regarding police violence, education, housing, and child welfare.[92]

Creative responses[edit]

REDress Project[edit]

The REDress Project is based in Canada and is a public art commemoration of the Aboriginal women known to be missing or murdered.[94] The installation consists of red dresses, which are placed to hang or flat in public spaces.[95][94] 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.'"[96][97] The REDress Project has been displayed at the campuses of the universities of Winnipeg, Saskatchewan, Kamloops, Alberta, Toronto, the University of Western Ontario and Queen's University as well as the Manitoba Legislature, and the Canadian Museum of Human Rights.[97][98]

Walking with Our Sisters[edit]

Walking with Our Sisters exhibition in the Shingwauk Auditorium at Algoma University in 2014

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.[99]

Faceless Dolls Project[edit]

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.[100] 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.[101] 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.[100][102]

Female inuksuit[edit]

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.[103] 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".[104]

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.[105] In December 2015 Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced he would initiate such an inquiry.

In February 2016, Lucy Annanack (Nunavik) and a team of women built and placed another 1,200 inuksuit in Montreal, Quebec.[106]

Missing & Murdered[edit]

In October 2016 journalist Connie Walker and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation launched a podcast[107] titled Who Killed Alberta Williams?[108] 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.[109]

In 2018, another season of the series profiled the case of Cleo Nicotine Semaganis.

Big Green Sky[edit]

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,[110] Chair of the Aboriginal Commission on Human Rights and Justice, and President of the Institute for the Advancement of Aboriginal Women. Venne's report[111] 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."[111]

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.

Quiet Killing[edit]

Documentary filmmaker Kim O'Bomsawin released the documentary film Quiet Killing (Ce silence qui tue) in 2018.[112] The film won the Donald Brittain Award for Best Social or Political Documentary Program at the 7th Canadian Screen Awards.[113]

See also[edit]


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