Violence against native women is linked to larger problems and racist provisions in the Canadian judicial system, speakers said at two talks on missing indigenous women this week.
According to a 2004 Amnesty International report, entitled “Stolen Sisters,” 510 native women have disappeared or been murdered in Canada since 1980.
In a panel discussion at the Atwater Library on Tuesday, relatives of missing and murdered women denounced the Canadian justice system for having failed First Nations communities. The speakers decried malpractice and negligence on the part of the police.
When Gladys Tolley was killed in a collision with a Quebec police officer in 2001, an independent investigation was not conducted until long after the incident, according to Tolley’s daughter, Bridget. Though the case fell under the jurisdiction of the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg police force, the Sureté du Québec took control of the case. Bridget Tolley recounted incidences of misconduct, including a coroner’s report being filed though the coroner never saw the body, and the brothers of the perpetrator being the officers in charge of the scene.
Lack of support and neglect in bringing perpetrators to justice was a common theme in the speakers’ accounts.
After the murder of Susan Martin’s daughter Terry, there was a marked lack of police support. “The only suspect is walking the streets free,” Martin said. “It’s happening every day, unfortunately. We have to wake up our justice system; we have to wake up our government.”
Police are often slow to act on the cases of missing women, labelling them as runaways and telling families to wait for them to return, according to Ellen Gabriel of the Quebec Native Women’s Association. Laurie Odjick’s daughter has been missing for six months. “I believe no thorough investigation was held because of the early assessment that Maisy was a runaway,” Odjick said, adding that Maisy left all her belongings, including her purse, behind.
Odjick pointed to racial discrimination in the handling of her daughter’s case, both on the part of the police and the media. “No one showed up…asking for our story – why? Was it because my child is native?” She recounted how painful it was to see the strong response to disappearance cases involving white victims, which often included helicopter and ground searches.
The speakers pointed out that the Montreal area is built on Mohawk land, and that much of Canada’s natural resources are drawn from contemporary First Nations territory. “We are all concerned about the economic crisis, the energy crisis…and where do you think all that energy is coming from? It’s coming from indigenous territories,” Gabriel said.
In her Monday talk, Beverly Jacobs, an aboriginal rights lawyer and the Native Women’s Association of Canada president, linked the trend of violence against native women to Canada’s colonial policies, including the creation of the Residential Schools, and certain provisions of the Indian Act – first enacted in 1876, although amended at least 18 times since.
“In my opinion, [the Indian Act] is one of the most racist pieces of legislation in the world,” said Jacobs.
Until the act was amended in 1985, women lost Indian status by marrying a non-Indian. Paternal, not maternal band membership is indicated on compulsory identification cards.
According to Jacobs, imposing a patriarchal registry system has undermined the social fabric of native communities, in which status is traditionally passed down through the female line. “Women were forced to leave their own territory and move to the man’s, were forced to be registered to his territory,” Jacobs said. “In international law that’s called forced displacement….and that’s generations – this has been since 1876.”
The formation of male-dominated Band Councils also disrupted communities in which women were previously major decision-makers. Forming these bodies to decide where government money is allotted within communities also created internal tension in communities, Jacobs said.
She described the Residential Schools as a mechanism for systematically stripping a generation of their culture, in which children were beaten for speaking their language or had needles put through their tongues.
Gabriel called on the federal and provincial governments to institute policies that will alleviate systemic problems leading to violence, like poverty and lack of access to affordable housing, which can render communities vulnerable to violence – both from within and from outsiders.
The speakers said that there needed to be concrete missing persons policies put in place, and increased cross-cultural awareness training among police officers.
Family members and survivors of abuse should make their anger constructive by engaging in grassroots community activism and giving each other needed support, the speakers added.
Tuesday’s talk was followed by a candlelight vigil in Cabot Square to honour the missing and murdered women.
Gabriel stressed the responsibility of the Canadian government to take these cases seriously. “The government of Canada apologized, but they continue the status quo. Nothing has changed in that relationship, so that apology remains empty.”