By Sophie des Beauvais
Last February, 26-year-old Loretta Saunders was found dead two weeks after she disappeared, while she herself was working on a thesis on missing and murdered Inuit women in Canada. She was the third Native woman killed that year, and five others were found later last autumn. Her death has sparked calls for a wider public inquiry into the high rate of missing and murdered indigenous women throughout the country.
A recent study from the Royal Canada Mounted Police (RCMP) from May 2013 indicates that aboriginal women in Canada are murdered or disappear at a rate four times higher than their representation in the population, which stands at a modest 4.3 percent. Perhaps more alarming is the fact that the proportion of female victims is particularly high in Nunavut where Inuit make up the highest share of the population, even though they represent only 0.2 percent of the overall population of Canada.
Yet the tragedy must also be understood within a social context. According to Dr. Dawn Harvard, Vice-President of the Native Women Association of Canada (NWAC), these are not just random crimes and aboriginal women are particularly vulnerable. As part of the most socially and economically disadvantaged and discriminated group in Canada, Native women are uniformly subject to typically disparate economic ills such as overcrowding or the lack of safe housing and proper education.
Data from the RCMP report also indicates that Native women in Canada are less frequently employed and are more often on some form of social assistance than others. Moreover, their offenders are more likely to have a criminal record (71 percent, versus 45 percent) and are more likely to have consumed an intoxicating substance (71 percent, versus 31 percent). Canadian authorities identify root causes that contribute to the risks these women face through economic poverty—: a history of discrimination that began with colonization and residential schools continues today through laws and policies. Residential schools, which were closed in 1996, were commonly overcrowded and lacked medical care, and were the locale of rampant physical and sexual abuse. This created a long-lasting cycle of trauma that continues to affect families today.
Abuse prevention, along with the expansion of Inuit-specific support and resources required in remote and isolated communities, have been among the Inuit Pauktuutit association’s top three priorities since 1984. In fact, according to the association, “Mental health has been identified as the primary health issue facing Inuit, including issues related to violence, abuse and unresolved trauma, but the lack of sustained resources has meant that change is painfully slow.”
The Inuit-specific organization leads various projects on an annual basis to address violence in Inuit communities. Pauktuutit also supports the joint action of larger groups, such as NWAC and Amnesty International, who have both helped to raise international and national awareness on the issue.
However in August 2013, Prime Minister Stephen Harper showed he was reluctant to strongly engage in ending these crimes, telling an audience at Yukon College he thinks that “we should not view this as sociological phenomenon. We should view it as crime […] We brought in laws across this country that I think are having more effect, in terms of crimes of violence against not just aboriginal women, but women and persons more generally.”
Yet according to groups focused solving the issue, nothing short of a national inquiry and coordinated plan of action will effectively fight not only violence against women but specifically against natives, as it is directly related to the well-being and well-functioning of entire communities: these crimes are not racists and most of the time, women are killed by people from their own communities.
Although the Inuit community represents only a small fraction of British’ Columbia’s indigenous population, The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), a branch of the Organization of American States, has joined forces with Native women. The commission notes in a recent report that “the historic and continuing racism and sexism within Canadian society is likely to be reproduced in discriminatory policies and practices within law enforcement, unless steps are taken to actively work toward bias-free policing.”
The report also indicates that the British Columbian police continuously failed to report crimes between 1993 and 2002. For some Natives, it took up to nine attempts and seven years for the police to report their missing family member. On their first attempt, some families were told to wait 72 hours, regardless of whether the person missing was a child. Without cooperation from police authorities and no reason to believe discrimination will rescind, Native women in Canada will continue to go missing.
In turn, Native women associations argue they cannot lead the process only by themselves. According to Dr. Dawn Harvard, such a process must be collectively led by the Canadian government, Native women, and third parties. Women’s associations are active on a local and provincial level, among the populations they represent. Even if their actions are coordinated among larger groups like the NWAC, they have access to very limited resources − especially financial − and lack the necessary momentum to stage larger scale actions. In other words, the nation-wide persecution of aboriginal women in Canada cannot be so simply addressed on a local basis.
The government, on the other hand, has the financial resources for such an effort but must be willing to take bolder action. Integrating Native women in the process would be helpful, as the problem cannot be fixed without their inclusion in policy decisions. Further, women’s associations may have intimate knowledge of the specific vulnerabilities aboriginal women face, but can not merely be treated by potential partners as tokens of diversity. For Dr. Dawn Harvard, “it needs to be a genuine partnership.”
If violence against Native women must be considered a national tragedy in Canada, ending it will require a holistic plan of action–one that involves all parties, including both women’s and Native women’s groups. It also requires relentless effort against interpersonal discrimination and racism toward Native populations. A concerted effort is needed to truly make a difference.
Sophie des Beauvais is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.