On September 25, 2013, in Regina, Saskatchewan, Kelly Goforth’s body was found, inside a hockey bag, at the bottom of a dumpster. Goforth’s killer, a white male named Clayton Bo Eichler, also killed Richele Bear, another Indigenous woman, and Goforth’s family suspects he may have murdered others. These are not isolated incidents in Saskatchewan, one of many areas in Canada struggling with a shameful history of abuse, neglect, and indifference toward its First Nations women and people.
The Saskatchewan Association of Chiefs of Police estimates that 51 percent of missing women in Saskatchewan are Indigenous, though they make up only 16.1 percent of the population. In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that Canada was guilty of committing cultural genocide against Indigenous people—the impact of which has been intergenerational and gendered. The 1.67 million Indigenous people living in Canada—First Nations, Métis, and Inuit—experience high levels of poverty and are plagued by addiction, family breakdown, and some of the highest suicide rates in the world. Yet women and girls continue to face the brunt of a systemic racism prevalent throughout the country.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police estimated that between 1980 and 2012, around 1,200 Indigenous women were murdered or went missing. The Native Women’s Association of Canada argues that these numbers could be as high as 4,000, because many cases that police classify as unsuspicious—drug overdoses, natural causes, suicide—may have been foul play according to victims’ families. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised an independent national inquiry into the issue during his campaign in 2015, but it didn’t begin until August 2016, and it took until May 2017 for the first public hearing to start. Its stated mandate is to “examine the systemic causes of all forms of violence against Indigenous women, girls, and members of the LGBTQ2S community in Canada.”
The two-year process has less than a year left and has been met with delays, disappointment, and controversy. According to the Canadian Broadcast Corporation, more than 180 family members and 80 supporters have signed a letter requesting Trudeau to reboot the inquiry. The inquiry has faced more than 20 resignations and layoffs, including high-profile resignations from the commissioner Marilyn Poitras and the executive director Michèle Moreau. Communication issues and lack of transparency are increasing frustrations among families seeking justice.
After 15 years away, I returned to Saskatchewan, my home, and spent the month of April 2017 traveling across the province. I wanted to portray the families of missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW) in a way that wasn’t desensitized—with natural portraiture, as well as evidential landscapes, that told their stories in a humane and intimate manner. I photographed only women and documented them in their most emotional spaces: the places where they felt closest to their loved ones. What I found is a community of strong tradition and incredible resilience.