In 2007, Robert Willie Pickton, a former pig farm owner outside of Vancouver, was sentenced to life in prison for the second-degree murder of six women. Over many years, he is thought to have murdered between 20 and 43 more, many of them of indigenous descent. This serial killer was not stopped earlier for many reasons – among which is the lack of action from the Vancouver Police Department and the RCMP.
Recent developments in the Pickton case have demonstrated the need for an all-out inquiry into why the police didn’t do their job and why well over a dozen women lost their lives at the hands of this murderer. An internal Vancouver police investigation has concluded that police could have caught Pickton years earlier and prevented those deaths.
The report has remained under wraps for more than a year because of court proceedings and publication bans, and now because the government of British Columbia wants time to study its findings. The report is over 400 pages long, and while it places considerable blame on the Vancouver police, it also points the finger at the RCMP, who could have arrested Pickton much earlier on various charges, but chose not to.
The victims’ families have been calling for an inquiry for years, but the B.C. government has been reluctant to hold one. Now, the Assembly of First Nations Chief Shawn Atleo, the Native Women’s Association of Canada, the Vancouver police, the RCMP, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, and Amnesty International Canada are pressuring the province to hold an inquiry. If the province does opt for one, it might lead to a national database for missing and murdered native women across Canada – which is sorely needed to turn the tide against abusers.
Many cases of missing native women remain unsolved. And the problem is clearly systemic: in 1996 a Canadian government statistic revealed that indigenous women between the ages of 25 and 44 with status under the Indian Act were five times more likely to die as the result of violence than all other Canadian women of the same age. In March 2004, the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) launched the Sisters in Spirit campaign in response to alarmingly high levels of violence against aboriginal women in Canada. Today, the NWAC estimates that approximately 582 aboriginal women have gone missing or been murdered in the last 20 years.
The B.C. government has said that they will render a decision on a public inquiry into the Pickton case sometime this fall. We have been asking for years for a public inquiry into missing women, but our pleas have fallen on deaf ears. The international community has taken notice, too: in October 2008, the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women called on Canada to “take the necessary steps to remedy the deficiencies in the system” with respect to murdered or missing indigenous women.
Yet Canada continues to perpetuate its deficient system. Earlier this year the Harper government made available $10 million to combat violence against native women. We still don’t know where that money’s going. Subsequently, funding was cut to the Native Healing Foundation and the Montreal Native Women’s shelter. Native women need both institutions to protect themselves against abusers. Contradictions like these continue to define Canada’s treatment of missing and murdered native women.
Only when there is a national task force and database on missing and murdered native women will we be able to stem the tide of violence. And only when our government begins to respect aboriginal people will we ever be able to break down the stereotypes that keep the First Nations where they are and to bring visibility to their communities.
Irkar Beljaars is the producer of Native Solidarity News on CKUT, which airs every Tuesday night at 6 p.m. on 90.3FM. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.