W hen asked what she perceived to be the biggest challenge facing indigenous women in Canada, Aimee Louw, an activist with the Missing Justice: Justice for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women campaign, asked if I wanted her to be honest. She then replied that the main problem was that we, as a system and as a society, “just don’t value aboriginal women.”
The statistics are staggering. Since 1980, the official number of indigenous women who have gone missing or been murdered is 521, according to the Native Women’s Association of Canada. In many cases, however, the police simply do not record the ethnicity of the crime victim or of the missing person, one cause of the lack of data on the actual number of missing and murdered indigenous women. Other sources, such as Walk 4 Justice, suggest that the actual number is as high as 3,000.
Of the official 521 cases, more than 300 remain unsolved. Sixty per cent of the known perpetrators are white and male. Indigenous women as a group are five times more likely to die as a result of violence than other women in Canada. Institutionalized abuse
What we do know is enough cause for alarm. There are clearly systemic forces at work here. Economic and social marginalization, disenfranchisement of the aboriginal peoples in Canada, racist and sexist government policies, and a lack of access to services and programs tailored to aboriginal people’s needs – these are but a few factors that combine to drastically increase the vulnerability of indigenous women. This situation is further aggravated by racist and sexist attitudes of individuals within the police, the public service sector, the media, and the general public.
Canada has a bad track record with regard to aboriginal peoples. Entire communities are still devastated from past racist, sexist, and colonialist policies, such as the atrocity of the residential school system. To this day, systemic discrimination continues to destroy people’s lives. For example, aboriginal children are four to six times more likely to be taken away from their families and communities by the state than other children.
Let’s add economic marginalization to that picture. On average, off-reserve indigenous women earn $5,500 a year less than their non-indigenous sisters. They are over-represented in sex work in many Canadian cities. In fact, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has expressed concern that in Canada, indigenous children and youth “in disproportionate numbers, end up in the sex trade as a means of survival.” Participation in sex work, because of its clandestine nature, the associated social stigma, its dubious legality, and the resulting reluctance to seek police protection, increases one’s exposure to violence. Indeed, sex work has often been used to rationalize the most brutal acts of misogyny.
In addition, racial stereotypes about aboriginal peoples ensure that they are “over-policed and under-protected,” according to the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry of Manitoba. While some of the families of the missing and murdered women were grateful for the efforts of the police in finding their grandmothers, mothers, daughters, and sisters, many found their interactions with the police wanting.
What is racial and gender discrimination?
It is being beaten when you dare speak your native language in a residential school. It is being called a “dirty Indian,” “Indian whore,” “Indian hooker,” “squaw slut,” and other sexually-charged racial slurs as you exit a bar one night with some friends.
It is the police officer who refuses to begin looking for your loved one until it is too late because he believes she ran away, as indigenous women do sometimes, disregarding your protests that you know her, and know that she wouldn’t neglect to call her family.
It is the white judge and the all-white jury that tried the two 20-year-old white men who were responsible for beating Pamela Jean George to death on April 17, 1995. As the jury was considering whether she consented or not to sexual activity, the judge commented that they should remember that Pamela Jean George “indeed was a prostitute.”
It is the indifference and apathy of Canadian officials, the media, and society at large, so that when an indigenous woman disappears, there is little or no coverage of the story and the efforts to find her are limited to family and friends.
It is the contrast between the lethargy of the system in many cases involving indigenous women and the generally swift response of government officials, the media, and entire towns when a white girl goes missing.
It is a widespread, categorical denial of the greater trend of violence, exploitation, and sexual predation of what seems to be white men preying on indigenous women. In fact, the impunity with which the violence against indigenous women is perpetrated suggests that these women were targeted because the perpetrators expected to get away with it. So far, most of them have.
Sheetal Pathak is a U3 International Development Studies student. Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information, visit Missing Justice at missingjustice.ca and the Native Women’s Association of Canada at nwac-hq.org. The First Annual Woman’s Memorial March for Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women is this Sunday, February 14, at 1:30 p.m. It starts at Parc Émilie-Gamelin (Square Berri).