Where Are Canada's Missing Native Women?

  • by Fawzia Sheikh (toronto)
  • Inter Press Service

While the premiers promised to revisit the issue this fall, the Manitoba government announced at the provincial premiers’ conference that there would be a national Aboriginal women’s summit slated for November.

The British Columbia government is also in the midst of its own inquiry related to a local serial killer whose victims to a great extent were indigenous women.

“There’s a crisis in our land today and it has reached epidemic proportions,” said Chief Garrison Settee of the Pimicikamak Okimawin Aboriginal community in Cross Lake, Manitoba, during the Assembly of First Nations’ (AFN) annual conference from Jul. 17 to 19. “It is alarming - it’s disheartening - that 600 missing women are still unaccounted for.”

Settee, who moved the resolution stating that indigenous women are five times more likely than their Canadian counterparts to die as a result of violence, told the 633 chiefs-in-assembly that he is speaking for “those women that do not have voices anymore” because neither the federal nor provincial governments is taking adequate action.

In their resolution, the chiefs asked Ottawa to set up a royal commission on violence against indigenous girls and women tasked with generating concrete and specific national recommendations to address the problem.

The chiefs, moreover, are lobbying for a national, integrated Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and police task force on missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. The aim is to coordinate the activities of a variety of police departments, as well as First Nations’ and government officials.

Aboriginal women were among those killed and missing on Highway 16, which runs from Manitoba to the Pacific Ocean through Northern B.C. and is known as the “Highway of Tears”, according to a Native Women’s Association of Canada briefing paper this year. The organisation’s research formed the basis of the resolution passed by chiefs during the AFN conference.

Indigenous women, too, accounted for many of the 60 missing residents of the Downtown East Side of Vancouver, which is Canada’s poorest neighbourhood, notes the paper.

Roughly half of the Vancouver victims were linked to convicted serial killer Robert Pickton, a B.C.-based pig farmer who kidnapped, sexually assaulted and killed women over several years and buried them on his property. Pickton’s brutal crimes trained a spotlight on the plight of the most vulnerable women in the country.

At the Aboriginal conference, another delegate argued that the federal government’s funding cuts to communities struggling to provide shelter, education and health care initiated the predicament of indigenous women. As a chief, he said he is hard-pressed to offer the necessary resources for his people, including young women, and they end up in cities as a result.

In reaction to the AFN’s request for the creation of a joint police task force, including government and First Nations’ officials, to probe missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls, Sgt. Julie Gagnon, an RCMP media relations officer, pointed to the many initiatives already in place or underway to respond to crimes against indigenous people.

Last December, for example, the RCMP and AFN signed an agreement to collaborate on issues related to missing and murdered Aboriginal people, including the ability to resolve historical and contemporary cases and enhance crime prevention initiatives and communication with victims, families and communities.

The RCMP is already leading, or involved in, a number of joint task forces with other provincial and municipal police forces addressing the issue of missing and murdered Aboriginal women, Gagnon wrote in an email to IPS.

“These task forces, while spread across the country, work collaboratively to address this important issue, and are also developing best practices relating to information sharing, file management, file coordination and disclosure that can be shared with other investigative units or implemented in similar initiatives across the country,” she noted.

RCMP officers from each province and territory regularly meet to discuss operational issues of “national significance” such as this one, she added.

What is more, the Mounties are creating the National Centre for Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains within the Canadian Police Centre for Missing and Exploited Children. It is an effort to provide police, medical examiners and chief coroners with more detailed information on these cases across jurisdictions.

An experienced Aboriginal police officer working in the centre will ensure a focus on indigenous people who have disappeared. The database will launch in 2013.

As well, a national public website containing information on missing persons and unidentified remains cases, which will allow the public to offer tips on missing persons and unidentified remains, is slated for debut later in 2012.

To help capture pertinent data on missing persons and unidentified remains cases which can be shared across jurisdictions, changes were made last year to the Canadian Police Information Centre allowing for extended description fields, skeletal inventory, biological and cultural affinity.

Julie Di Mambro, press secretary for Rob Nicholson, the justice minister and attorney general of Canada, said that the federal government “attaches great importance and urgency” to the matter of missing and murdered Aboriginal women.

Canada dedicated an overall 25-million-dollar investment between 2010 and 2015 to this initiative, Di Mambro wrote in an email.

In addition to funding the new RCMP undertakings, the money will be channeled toward the development of school and community pilot projects aimed at diminishing young Aboriginal women’s “vulnerability to violence”; ensuring victim services are culturally appropriate for indigenous people; developing a comprehensive list of best practices to help communities, law enforcement and justice partners in future work; collaborating with Aboriginal communities to develop local safety plans; and creating public awareness materials to help end “cycles of violence” affecting communities.

However, government dollars and promises did not dissuade First Nations’ chiefs from approving their resolution.

The ruling includes other notable elements like designating Oct. 4 as an annual national day of remembrance for the women; selecting Oct. 18, 2012 as a national day of action on behalf of these women including national and regional activities; urging broader AFN support of the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women inquiry procedure regarding disappearances and murders of Aboriginal women and girls; and advocating that the AFN convene a national forum and special chiefs’ assembly on justice and community safety.

What is not lost on some observers is that the violence facing native women also has internal dimensions.

Maureen Chapman, the hereditary Chief of Skawahlook First Nation in B.C.’s Fraser Valley, recalled hallway conversations during the annual meeting with women leaders “who are struggling to try to get their voices heard, who are ganged up on when they try to speak up” within their communities.

Describing the behaviour as “lateral violence within our organisations”, she advised male delegates supporting the anti-violence resolution to speak to their male counterparts because “they’ve stopped listening” to women voicing similar grievances.

© Inter Press Service (2012) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service