Last week’s discovery of the body of Loretta Saunders, an Inuit student who disappeared while working on a thesis about missing and murdered Native Canadian women, sparked calls across the country for action. NGOs say violence against Aboriginal women and girls is reaching epidemic levels — and around half of the murder cases remain unsolved.
On February 13, NWAC delivered a petition to the House of Commons, signed by over 23,000 Canadians in support of the call for a national inquiry.
The Canadian government already put such an action plan into place in 2010. But advocates cite a few reasons why the government’s plan hasn’t worked. Mainly, it has taken funding away from some of the most important research being done.
NWAC spent years working on a comprehensive study of missing and murdered native women and girls, called Sisters In Spirit. As numbers increased and awareness of the problem grew, the government cut off NWAC’s grant.
“We thought we would be conducting the research another five years and it didn’t happen,” said NWAC President Michèle Audette.
Cheryl Maloney, of NWAC’s Nova Scotia chapter, says the government was blatant in its efforts to silence the outspoken group: “The stipulation was that you couldn’t use Sisters In Spirit as the name of the project. They said unless you’re following the new rules, you won’t get any funding.”
“It was Prime Minister (Stephen) Harper forcing us to be quiet about the issue,” Maloney said.
Status of Women Minister Kellie Leitch told VICE News that the 2014 budget includes $25 million over the next five years to “directly address the issue.” It’s unclear at the current time where exactly this money is going.
The dire situation compelled NWAC to create a community resource guide leading people through the missing persons process. It also cites worrisome statistics — most victims are under 30.
“The NWAC stats are all anyone has to go on, because police forces in Canada do not routinely collect ethnicity data,” Human Rights Watch researcher Meghan Rhoad told VICE News. “I think it’s very problematic that the government didn't renew the designated funding for the NWAC data collection. They haven’t replaced it with anything comparable.”
According to the Canadian Department of Justice, Aboriginal women and girls — from Inuit, Métis, First Nations, and other tribes — are three and a half times more likely to become victims of violence. In 2010, the government directed roughly $10 million into missing persons databases, best practices training for law enforcement, community safety plans, and victim’s funds.
But Canadians aren’t satisfied that Prime Minister Harper, leader of the Conservative Party, has done enough. VICE News attempts to contact Harper for comment were unsuccessful.
A February 27 video shows MP Megan Leslie of Halifax standing before the Canadian parliament and saying, in a shaking voice: “Over 800 indigenous women have gone missing or been murdered since 1990 and it’s time for us to acknowledge this crisis and for us to act. So will the government establish a national action plan on violence against women?”
A standing ovation followed her statement.
Leitch responded: “We have taken action. We encourage the opposition members to join us in that action.” But while the minister spoke, cries of protest, and calls for order, could be heard in the background.
“If the government doesn’t recognize the magnitude of this problem, anything they do put in place won’t be effective. Any inquiry, the scope and mandate, has to be directed by the Aboriginal people,” Maloney told VICE News.
Maloney believes the Saunders case “changed it for Canadians.” Previously, she explained, many thought the high rates of violence could be attributed to risky behaviors like sex work and drugs. Saunders was a successful, well-liked student from a caring family.
“In the past two weeks, people stood with us,” recalled Maloney, “They put up posters, donated food, and they weren’t Aboriginal. They were all walks (of life), all religions, all colors.”
But the fact that Saunders, a light-skinned blonde whose Inuit ancestry may not have been readily apparent, stood out to the Canadian public might serve to demonstrate a racism problem against indigenous people. A 2013 Human Rights Watch study of the relationship between police and indigenous women in British Columbia revealed decades of antagonistic relationships.
“In the ‘60s many indigenous children were put into foster care or adopted into non-indigenous families,” Rhoad said, “Many of the residential school survivors experienced physical and sexual abuse — they came away with trauma. Police officers acted essentially as truant officers. That is something that has created a deep historical wound and has had a very tangible intergenerational impact.”
The book Stolen From Our Embrace estimates 20,000 native children were forcibly taken from their families and put into foster care, residential schools, or adopted by white families.
“In Carrier (a First Nations language from British Columbia), the word for police translates as “those who take us away,” said Rhoad.
Maloney adds: “Every Aboriginal child that comes into the world now is at higher risk of being in the welfare system and in the justice system. We’re at higher risk of being missing and murdered. It’s because of socioeconomic issues.”
The NWAC representatives plan to rally this Wednesday on Parliament Hill at noon, hoping the Harper administration will be forced to listen to them.
On Friday, Parliament’s Special Committee on Violence Against Indigenous Women will present their findings in a report.
NWAC President Audette told VICE News she will be at Parliament then and has plans for “something big.”
“We want real protections for Aboriginal women and girls, every one,” Audette said. “That takes not just a few programs over here and there, but a major investment. We need a real political and social commitment.”