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Standing in spirit


Today in Montreal, the 2110 Centre for Gender Advocacy will host the seventh annual Sisters in Spirit Memorial March and Vigil for Missing and Murdered Native Women. Direct action like this, along with similar demonstrations throughout the year – such as the annual march on Valentine’s Day – are valuable tools in raising awareness about the disproportionate violence that indigenous women experience in Canada, especially when we consider the Canadian government’s refusal to adequately address the issue.

While Aboriginal women make up only 3 per cent of the female population in Canada as of 2010, documented murders of Aboriginal women accounted for 10 per cent of all female homicides from 2000 to 2008. Additionally, there have been around 600 unsolved cases of missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada since 1980, according to the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC). NWAC and other organizations maintain that the true figure is much higher, due to unreported cases. By any account, Aboriginal women are the most at-risk group for experiencing violence in Canadian society.

Qualitative research by NWAC rightly attributes this violence to Canadian legacies of colonialism and patriarchy. European conceptions of social hierarchy undermined the preexisting Aboriginal political, social, and economic systems through colonization, and continue to influence social norms and gender relations. The outcomes of this process predispose indigenous women to drug addiction, economic insecurity, sex work, and inadequate access to justice. These dehumanizing effects stemming from racism and sexism are further apparent in the Indian Act, which bureaucratizes and compromises indigenous women’s full citizenship.

Despite the gravity of the problem, the police fail to properly address cases of violence against Aboriginal women, and in many instances further contribute to their criminalization. Nearly half of murder cases of Aboriginal women remain unsolved, while indigenous women currently comprise around 33 per cent of the female prison population, according to Public Safety Canada. The case of Robert William Pickton, who was convicted in 2002 of murdering 26 women and confessed to killing 49 in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side (a disproportionate number of whom were Aboriginal), demonstrates the apathy and inadequacy of the justice system in cases of Aboriginal violence. Both the federal Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and the Vancouver Police Department missed opportunities to prosecute Pickton, often dismissing reports of disappeared women and blaming drug use or sex work.

In light of these failures, the October 4 march also aims to pressure the government to renew funding for Sisters in Spirit (SIS), an initiative of the NWAC that conducted valuable research on cases of missing women between 2004 and 2010. SIS lost its government funding in the March 2010 federal budget, which instead diverted $4 million to the RCMP to create a general registry and support centre for missing persons. The track record suggests that the RCMP is ill equipped to deal with these cases, and while more funding for Aboriginal women’s issues is welcome, it should not be at the expense of organizations like SIS, which provide direct community action and nuanced research.

Neglect of cases of missing and murdered Aboriginal women has prompted condemnation from multiple international human rights groups, including the United Nations, which in December 2011 stated that they want to investigate the alarming situation in Canada through the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). However, the investigation has not begun, as it requires the approval of the Harper government, which has not been forthcoming.

If Canada wants to maintain its international image as a beacon of human rights, the government should address biases that permeate its institutions and take measures to ensure equal protection for all members of society, namely by supporting groups that understand Aboriginal women’s marginalization – not by cutting their funding and giving power to groups that perpetuate their victimization.