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Why thousands of indigenous women have gone missing in Canada

“My sister’s murder will probably never be solved.”

Melissa Skunk, Maryanne Panacheese and Mary Skunk from Mishkeegogamang First Nation near the site where the body of missing woman Rena Fox was found in 2015, in Thunder Bay, Ontario.
Melissa Skunk, Maryanne Panacheese and Mary Skunk from Mishkeegogamang First Nation near the site where the body of missing woman Rena Fox was found in 2015, in Thunder Bay, Ontario. 
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Bridget Tolley simply wants justice for her mother.

Her life changed on October 5, 2001, when her mother, Gladys, was struck by a police cruiser and killed.

“I started asking for a public inquiry into her death,” Tolley, an Algonquin woman from the Kitigan Zibi reserve in Quebec, Canada, told Vox. “There was so much wrong with the case. They didn’t let the family identify the body. The brother of the cop that killed my mother was put in charge of the investigation.”

She paused. “Would you be okay with that?”

Tolley, who grew up poor, said this sort of tragedy is a fact of life for many indigenous people in Canada — both those who live on reserves and those who move to urban areas. She said when she was a child, her father died after shooting himself in the heart. To cope, Tolley turned to drugs and alcohol, but she became sober after her mother’s death. It was a necessary move, she said, because she was so angry with the police. They blamed her mother’s death on alcohol.

Today, Tolley is a leader in Families of Sisters in Spirit, a grassroots group led by indigenous women dedicated to seeking justice for Canada’s missing and murdered indigenous women. Though indigenous women make up just 4 percent of Canada’s female population, they represent 16 percent of women murdered in the country.

A national inquiry into the missing women, a campaign promise from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, is finally underway. But many questions remain.

What does “missing” mean in these cases?

Tolley said there are currently two women missing from her reserve. “They went missing in 2008,” she said. “For me, they’re missing. Not kidnapped. Not trafficked. Not until we know for sure.”

Canada’s government defines a missing person as “anyone reported to police or by police as someone whose whereabouts are unknown,” Annie Delisle, head of media relations for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, told Vox. “They are considered missing until located.”

If the missing person is under 18, Delisle said, she is classified as a missing child and will be considered missing until returned to appropriate care and control.

However, Magen Cywink, an Ojibwe woman of the Whitefish River First Nation, told Vox that finding these missing women has been hindered by police undercounting them in the past or treating cases dismissively. The latter happened when the daughter of one of Cywink’s friends went missing.

“They told [Cywink’s friend] she’d be home soon,” she said. “‘She’s a teenager. She’s out drunk.’ It should be the families who decide who is missing. It should be whenever it’s out of character for the woman to not be in contact.”

Her own sister, Sonya Nadine Cywink, was found murdered at an Aboriginal historic site, Southwold Earthworks, nearly 22 years ago. She was pregnant at the time. The Ontario Provincial Police said she died of blunt force trauma, and no suspects were identified.

“My sister’s murder will probably never be solved,” she told Vox. “I’m not angry. I’m not vengeful. I can’t be. I have to have a clear understanding of what needs to be done.”

Because so many cases concerning missing indigenous women have fallen by the wayside, a need for a community-led database has risen to keep track of these women. Activist groups like It Starts With Us (with which Cywink is involved) and Sisters of Families in Spirit have stepped up to count the women police haven’t identified as missing — women whose cases aren’t being investigated or who go ignored.

When an indigenous woman disappears, the reason is not always immediately apparent. Cold cases abound. Some families have been waiting for more than 20 years and bodies still haven’t turned up. “Missing” is an umbrella term that can encompass them all.

But Tolley said she prefers the term “stolen.”

“They were taken from us,” she said. “They are stolen.”

The number of missing women is difficult to define

Women protest then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper on International Women’s Day in Toronto in 2015
Women protest then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper on International Women’s Day in Toronto in 2015.
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A 2014 study by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police puts the number at nearly 1,200 murdered or missing indigenous women from 1980 to 2012. But indigenous rights groups dispute that claim.

Audrey Huntley is a paralegal working for indigenous rights in Canada. She is also the co-founder of No More Silence, a support network for activists, academics, and researchers working to stop the murders and disappearances of indigenous women. She said the RCMP’s count is much too low.

Both No More Silence and Sisters of Families in Spirit were created after the Conservative government of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper cut funding to the Native Women’s Association of Canada, a group that was documenting cases of missing and murdered indigenous women, in 2010.

“A huge chunk of what we do is data collection,” Huntley said. “We have to. We look at every single case.”

The organization has been working on a database in Ontario for about three years, Huntley said.

Another motive behind a community-led database is the lack of hard data on all fronts for indigenous people in Canada. Police crime records are scattershot, and police forces do not systematically collect ethnicity data. Police officers are not required to collect information on the race of suspects, and a study published in the Canadian Journal of Law and Society says Canadian law enforcement agencies suppress collection of racial data. Adding to this is the underreporting of domestic abuse, and general mistrust of police in indigenous communities.

Huntley also stresses that trans people, two-spirit people, and sex workers are undercounted in these statistics.

So for a more accurate representation of the crisis, indigenous activists have turned inward toward their own communities before the police.

Indigenous women are alarmingly vulnerable to attack

There is no clear profile of a person who kills or kidnaps indigenous women — attackers run the range from sex traffickers to serial killers, rapists, and even family members. There is no “typical” scenario. Instead, both indigenous activists and police point to systemic vulnerability.

Indigenous women are vulnerable in all the ways other women in Canada are, only, to the extreme.

“It’s the socioeconomic conditions that colonization and genocidal institutions that have made them vulnerable,” Huntley said. “Perpetrators know who they’re going to get away with killing or not.”

Indigenous activists point to the legacy of colonialism in Canada for creating this environment — disenfranchisement from wealth, the push to put indigenous people on poor, isolated reserves, and the ongoing acts of cultural genocide against indigenous people.

The following are just some of the problems aboriginal people suffer from disproportionately:

  • Incarceration rates: A 2014 report says approximately half of aboriginal offenders enter the Canadian criminal justice system under the age of 30, compared with 36 percent of non-aboriginals. They also receive longer sentences and are more likely to be sent to high-security institutions.
  • Suicide rates and mental health challenges: Aboriginal people are much more likely to die by suicide than non-aboriginals in Canada, with some communities suffering from a suicide “epidemic.”
  • Substance abuse: Approximately 75 percent of residents in First Nation and Inuit communities say alcoholism is a problem in their communities. The myth that aboriginal people are more genetically susceptible to alcoholism has been debunked, but systemic issues such as poverty, trauma, and lack of access to health care contribute to addiction.
  • Poverty: Based on data from the 2006 census, half of First Nation children lived in poverty. For some communities, like those in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, the rates rise to 62 and 64 percent, respectively, of children living below the poverty line.

According to the RCMP, a common thread among many of the cases is sex work.

“The natives who move off isolated reserves,” Cywink said, “have trouble finding jobs. They are very poor. They get involved with sex work. They’re the ones who are most vulnerable.”

Cywink’s sister Sonya turned to sex work after she moved to London, Ontario, from the reserve. She, like many women exploited by sex traffickers, faced sexual abuse early in life.

Aboriginal women also experience dramatically higher rates of violent victimization and sexual abuse in the home, with some 24 percent reporting assault from a current or former spouse.

“It seems like the women who get murdered on reserves are killed by domestic partners,” Cywink said. “Those are the murders that do get solved.”

This isn’t just a problem on indigenous reserves

Where in Canada is this happening? The short answer: anywhere that indigenous women live, whether it’s in a big city or on a far-off reserve.

“If you’re in a remote community and a woman goes missing, then it’s likely someone from that community,” Huntley said. “But in the city, that’s violence from strangers.”

Huntley also noted the link between the presence of non-indigenous labor forces on indigenous land and higher instances of rape and murder.

“It’s about the land,” she said. “You tend to see a skyrocket in rapes and STDs and HIV where things are being built.”

She points to the areas where a dam is being built in the Peace River Valley region in British Columbia, where many First Nation and Métis people live, as a place of high activity of violence against indigenous women. Amnesty International has also pointed to the site as a violation of the rights of indigenous people.

“Where the land is violated, women are violated,” Huntley said.

“If you look at the big cities — at Vancouver or Winnipeg — there are urban Indians there,” Cywink said. “Murders happen more often in those cities. Poor natives move off reserves to live there, and they are at high risk.”

The hacker group Anonymous created a map of the missing and murdered indigenous women in 2013 using police data.

Map of missing indigenous women as of 2013 Indian Country Today/Anonymous/Google Maps

Each case of a missing or murdered woman is represented with a red dot. Huntley notes that the police data is somewhat unreliable, but it does illustrate how dispersed the cases are throughout the country.

Dozens of indigenous women have also disappeared along Highway 16, which bisects British Columbia and passes many native reserves. Indigenous communities dubbed it the Highway of Tears because so many women have gone missing there. Signs warning against hitchhiking have been put up, as women hitchhikers are the most common target along the highway. It’s gotten so bad that a bus route is being planned to address the needs of women traveling along the highway — 10 years after a bus route was initially proposed.

And how long has this been happening? “Since 1492,” Huntley said, referencing Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas.

Huntley and other indigenous activists point to Canada’s legacy of anti-aboriginal institutions, particularly the traumatic history of residential schools. They were created for the forced assimilation of indigenous people into Euro-Canadian culture. They were also sites of frequent physical and emotional abuse; as Cywink put it, they were made to “kill the Indian to save the man.”

Human rights groups have called the residential schools — the last of which closed in 1996 — institutions of cultural genocide. As many as 6,000 indigenous children have died there after generations of rape, abuse, and suicides.

Last year, Justice Murray Sinclair, the first aboriginal judge appointed in Manitoba province in Canada and the current chair of the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said in a report that these schools share a “devastating link” with large numbers of missing and murdered aboriginal women. One element at play was the systemic lack of attention for victims of abuse.

Why is a national inquiry only happening now?

A national inquiry into the missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada was a key campaign pledge from Prime Minister Trudeau, which he fulfilled at the end of 2015. He also promised to increase funding for programming and to review laws affecting aboriginal communities.

Last month, Trudeau met with indigenous leaders in Vancouver to discuss the much-anticipated inquiry. In June he became the first sitting prime minister to be interviewed by an aboriginal media network, and he acknowledged the role of preserving indigenous culture in improving the mental health of indigenous people.

It’s yet another small step forward for a government that has historically ignored the problems facing its indigenous peoples.

But if this has been happening to indigenous women since European colonialism began on the continent, then why now?

Part of it is increased media attention. In 2014, a particular case involving a murdered child made headlines across Canada.

The body of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine was pulled from the Red River near the Alexander Docks in Winnipeg. Her body was wrapped in a bag. For many Canadians, her death was their wake-up call. This, paired with the shift in government from Prime Minister Harper to the liberal Trudeau, opened the opportunity for an inquiry.

“Harper … was never going to do this from the get-go, and he was in office for 12 years,” Cywink said. “They’ve asked for an inquiry since the early ’90s. It’s fallen on deaf ears.”

It was after Fontaine’s case that Harper made a statement on the missing and murdered indigenous women, saying he opposed a national inquiry and that the situation was best handled by police.

But ultimately, it was the tireless work of indigenous rights activists that finally brought the issue to light.

“Over a quarter of a century, do you believe that?” Cywink said. “That’s half of my life that I’ve been marching. Why now? They should have done this a long time ago. We needed it 25 years ago.”

The inquiry will commission research and testimony on the missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada. It’s meant to yield recommendations on how to remedy the situation.

But while there was a hard push for the national inquiry and it received the support of most Canadians, most are cynical about its outcome.

According to a poll conducted by the Angus Reid Institute, 79 percent of Canadians supported the inquiry, but 48 percent of those polled were pessimistic about the outcome of the inquiry; 35 percent called the problem “basically unresolvable.”

Cywink shares this skepticism. She attended an event in Winnipeg before the formal inquiry process kicked off. She described it as, “basically a sham.”

“Not many families got to share their stories,” she said. “We were put at a table with a bunch of bureaucrats.”

She says if the inquiry does not work closely with the families of the victims, the government might as well “flush it down the toilet.”

Meanwhile, the groups that rose up to continue the work — Families of Sisters in Spirit, It Starts With Us, and No More Silence — remain directly involved with the families of victims. Indigenous activists say it’s the families, not the government, who will lead the way to addressing this problem.

Donations to these groups assist in much-needed data collection, paying legal fees of family members, and tracking new cases.

As the national inquiry inches forward, indigenous activists said they hope to be consulted on every part of the process. But recommendations from past inquiries on aboriginal communities have not been heeded, and so doubt remains.

A legacy of colonialism has ravaged Canada’s aboriginal communities — yet they survive to this day. And the advocates involved say they maintain hope for answers.

“If I didn’t have that tiny bit of hope,” Bridget Tolley said, “I wouldn’t be able to go on.”

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