News  Memorial March for Missing and Murdered Women joins call for UN inquiry

“No comprehensive picture” of scale of violence against First Nations women, say activists

Correction appended, Feb. 17, 2012

Over 600 people gathered on Tuesday for speeches, music, and a march down Ste. Catherine from Cabot Square to Phillips Square for the Memorial March for Missing and Murdered Women.

The march is part of the Justice for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (or “Missing Justice”) campaign, initiated by the Montreal-based 2110 Centre for Gender Advocacy. It is the third annual Memorial March to take place in Montreal, though others have been held each year since 1991 in cities across Canada.

Performers and speakers included the drum group Tiohtiake Drum; Michèle Audette, the president of Quebec Native Women (QNW); Moe Clark, an artist and spoken word poet; and Joey Shaw, a poet and hip-hop artist.

43-year old Norman Achneepineskum, who performed with Tiohtiake Drum at Phillips Square, described lifelong experience with female native survivors of violence while growing up on a reserve in northern Ontario. “I spent much of my young life bringing women to Thunder Bay, to a women’s shelter. I learned [about the issue] when I was young, because my mother harbored women in our home,” he said.

This year’s march took place in the context of the federal government’s cessation of support for the Sisters in Spirit initiative. The initiative produced a database of cases of violence against Aboriginal women and held workshops to raise awareness of the high rates of such violence in Canada. Funds are being shifted away from research activities to an RCMP database of missing persons, which many have pointed out would not reflect the high rate of violence specifically perpetrated against indigenous women.

Also under discussion were efforts to spur a United Nations public inquiry into violence against native women in Canada. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, composed of 23 independent experts from around the world, wrote a letter to the federal government last December concerning the issue of missing and murdered aboriginal women, Status of Women Minister Rona Ambrose has denied that an official investigation is underway.

Aurélie Arnaud, communications officer for QNW and a participant in the march, said that one of this year’s goals for many of those attending the march was to pressure the government into publicly cooperating with a UN inquiry. “The more we put pressure on the government, the less they can ignore the issue. If they say no [to the inquiry], they’re saying they don’t care about it,” she said.

Maya Rolbin-Ghanie, one of the March’s organizers, believes that the official statistics compiled by Sisters in Spirit were still a low estimate of cases of violence against native women in Canada, since much of the information relied on RCMP and media reports.  “They’re seen as doing groundbreaking research, even though the numbers are inaccurately low,” said Rolbin-Ghanie.

Rolbin-Ghanie blamed unreliable and inconsistent police procedure for much of the gap in statistical records, citing a highly critical Amnesty International report. The report specifically notes, “significant gaps in how police record and share information about missing persons and violent crimes means that there is no comprehensive picture of the actual scale of violence against Indigenous women.”

Statistics Canada recorded cases of violence in 2009 at a rate three times higher among Aboriginal women than non-Aboriginal women. Some at the Memorial March said that native women were five times more likely to die violently than non-native women.

Missing Justice plans to conduct panel discussions and direct action, and to push for curriculum change in Canadian schools to include the issue of violence against indigenous women. Activists will also be lobbying the UN and federal government to proceed with a public inquiry.

In an earlier version of this article, it stated that participants in the March numbered around 200 people, and that it has taken place since 2005. In fact, the March numbered over 600 people and has been held since 1991. The Daily regrets the errors.