Commentary  Break the silence


October 4 marked the Annual Day for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and the eighth year of the Sisters in Spirit March and Vigil, an international event that seeks to honour missing and murdered Indigenous women. Apart from providing an opportunity for the families, friends, and allies of these women to speak and mourn, the vigil shines light on Canada’s complete failure to address the problems faced by Indigenous women across Canada.

Indigenous women are three to four times more likely to experience violence than non-Indigenous women, according to a Statistics Canada report from 2004. There are close to 600 missing or murdered Indigenous women in Canada, as documented by the Native Women’s Association of Canada’s (NWAC) Sisters in Spirit (SIS) database. Between 2000 and 2008, NWAC’s research shows that, despite making up only 3 per cent of the female population, Indigenous women represented almost 10 per cent of all homicides against women in Canada.

Figures and statistics are only part of the picture – the underlying problem is much bigger. The ongoing colonization of Indigenous communities in Canada creates a culture of silence surrounding the issues faced by Indigenous women – and more, a culture of violence against those women. This culture of violence dehumanizes Indigenous women through racist and sexist stereotypes, colonial policies such as residential schools that separated families and impoverished communities, and the consistent inaction of the police.

The Canadian government continues to reject calls from the NWAC, premiers of provinces and territories across Canada, and the United Nations, to form a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women. The federal government defunded the SIS database in 2010 in a move that Indigenous leaders say was a concerted attempt to silence the NWAC. The government is instead directing those who seek to file missing persons reports to the RCMP, an organization that questions the number of women missing and is part of the system that continues to marginalize these women.

Earlier this year, the federal government took a step forward, and with the support of all parties, created the Special Committee on Violence Against Indigenous Women. With the recent prorogation of Parliament, however, the Committee was dissolved, and it is back to the drawing board for federal support. In the meantime, grassroots organizations  have put in hard work to raise awareness and pressure the federal government to take concrete action.

In Montreal, the Missing Justice campaign – an action group of the Centre for Gender Advocacy – pressures the government to act on this issue. Families of Sisters in Spirit (FSIS) is a not-for-profit grassroots group led by the families of the missing and murdered Indigenous women. FSIS and another organization, No More Silence, have teamed up to compile a database of missing and murdered women, to better fill in the knowledge gaps left in official data collection by Statistics Canada and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

The Daily editorialized on this same topic last year. In the intervening time, despite the hard work put in by grassroots organizations, little has been accomplished. This is an issue of enormous magnitude, far too big to be addressed solely by grassroots organizations and Indigenous communities, and needs the government’s support. A national enquiry would be the most basic step toward helping families find closure about their loved ones, and solving the persistent problem of violence against Indigenous women.

As of now, however, this basic, foundational step has yet to be accomplished, and seems to be a stumbling block for the government. More pressing at the moment is support for direct, grassroots action, and for groups like FSIS or Missing Justice. The federal government’s inaction and antagonistic approach to this issue is disgraceful but the onus for ending the culture of silence is on us all.

—The McGill Daily Editorial Board