As September 30, the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, approaches, we cannot forget that Indigenous communities across so-called Canada continue to face colonial violence and oppression. Indigenous women are especially vulnerable to this violence. According to Statistics Canada, six out of ten Indigenous women experience violent victimization – meaning physical or sexual assault – in their lifetime, compared to about a third of non-Indigenous women. Indigenous women are also twelve times more likely than non-Indigenous women to be murdered or reported as missing, according to the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
The violence experienced by Indigenous women in Canada is a direct consequence of colonization. Through racist policies such as residential schools and the Indian Act, Indigenous communities have experienced extreme abuse at the hands of government authorities. Moreover, these policies were designed to destroy Indigenous culture and community structures as a form of genocide. In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that most children forced to attend residential schools were severely abused by staff and punished for speaking their language or practicing their culture. This attempted destruction of Indigenous cultures and ways of life has also made it challenging for Indigenous communities to obtain culturally appropriate support and resources to heal from past and ongoing traumas.
Indigenous women rightfully mistrust the Canadian judicial system, which was designed to work against rather than with them. Many are afraid to report disappearances and violent crimes, and others are not taken seriously when they do. Even when police respond to disappearances and violent crimes, their inappropriate conduct can cause further harm: Indigenous testimonies report that police often use slurs and stereotypes and fail to provide families with information and updates.
The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, a four-year investigation that examined the role of the federal government in perpetrating violence against Indigenous women, concluded that: “human rights and Indigenous rights abuses and violations [were] committed and condoned by the Canadian state [and] represent genocide against Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people.” The Canadian government has recognized these findings and declared its intention to end the national tragedy of murders and disappearances of Indigenous women.
Following this acknowledgment, the government developed a Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA+ People National Action Plan. Since its creation in 2021, the Plan has been criticized due to its exclusion of important Indigenous groups, such as the Coalition on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. Furthermore, groups that contributed to the development of the plan have spoken out against the federal government’s slow progress. The chair of the National Family and Survivors Circle (NFSC) has said that the state of the action plan is “a national shame.”
The continued lack of effort and accountability from the Canadian government is unconscionable. As a recent example, in Winnipeg, the families of Morgan Harris and Marcedes Ryan have been calling for a search of the Prairie Green Landfill, where they believe the women’s remains, as well as the remains of Buffalo Woman (or Mashkode Bizhiki’ikwe), lie. The city police have refused their request; however, a study funded by the federal government concluded two months ago that despite potential health risks for workers searching the landfills, it would be more harmful for the victims’ families if a search was not conducted. There is no telling when, or even if, a search will be conducted.
Winnipeg’s decision reflects a systemic issue: the federal, provincial, and local governments ignore violence against Indigenous women despite having the resources to address it. This issue persists despite the governments’ supposed commitment to reconciliation, a process that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) defines as “establishing and maintaining a mutually respectful relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in this country.” As long as governments ignore the concerns and demands of Indigenous women, their suffering will only continue.
Indigenous communities, and especially Indigenous women, continue to face extreme violence due to the inefficacy of the federal and provincial governments and ongoing settler-colonial abuses. It is important to keep informed of local or national protests that advocate for missing and murdered Indigenous women. You can support the calls to search the landfills in Winnipeg by signing a petition started by Travis Brady. For those of us who are settlers, we should take time to listen to the stories of Indigenous women to deepen our understanding of these wrongs. Finally, you can take local action by supporting organizations such as the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal and the Indigenous Health Centre of Tiohtià:ke.