Image via Erin Konsmo.
A new online database of missing and murdered Indigenous women, trans women and Two-Spirit people is aiming to not just record numbers, but to fight back by remembering the lives of the women who have been lost.
“The strength of the database will be from how it honours and remembers missing and murdered Indigenous women, Two Spirit, and trans women,” wrote Erin Konsmo, of the Native Youth Sexual Health Network (NYSHN), in an email interview with VICE. It Starts With Us – Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, a collaboration of NYSHN, Families of Sisters in Spirit and No More Silence, launched in late July. The site already features the names of 72 women who have gone missing, were found dead, or were murdered in Ontario. Another 50 will be added soon. In the coming weeks and months, the names of the hundreds of other native women who have gone missing from other regions of Canada over the last several decades.
Calls for action and public awareness of the epidemic of violence towards Indigenous women has been growing since earlier this year, said Audrey Huntley, one of the organizers with No More Silence. She's worked to combat violence against Indigenous women for about 20 years, and since February, there's been media attention like she's never seen before.
She attributes it to a kind of perfect storm that has focused the media's attention on the topic. That includes the murder of Loretta Saunders, a pregnant Inuk woman doing her masters thesis in Halifax on missing and murdered Indigenous women in February. There was also last year's unsolved death of Bella Laboucan-Mclean, a young Cree woman from Alberta who had moved to Toronto to pursue a career in fashion who fell 31 stories from a high-rise condo in downtown Toronto under suspicious circumstances (the case is still open). Then came a United Nations report calling for action, and the release of an RCMP report this past May placing the number of MMIW over the past 30 years at 1,181 (previous estimates have ranged from 500 to over 3,000—some feel that the RCMP report still downplays the severity of the issue).
Even with all this, the federal government has refused to take action. Recently, the Conservatives once again denied calls for a national inquiry into the issue. And what little resources that were given in the past for Indigenous-led efforts, such as funding to Sisters in Spirit to compile a similar national database, have been cut. When Sisters in Spirit’s funding was cut in 2010, the information they had gathered was taken by the government, and has never been made publicly accessible.
It would be easy to assume that increasing awareness would lead to less violence, but it hasn't played out that way. The RCMP's recent study reported that the proportion of native women killed, as compared to all murders of women in Canada, has grown from 18 percent in 2011 to 23 percent in 2012. In 1980 it was nine percent. While they attribute this change to the fact that fewer women are being killed in Canada, this only underscores that Indigenous women face a disproportionate amount of violence. And over the 30 years covered in the study, Indigenous women accounted for 16 percent of murder victims, while they make up only four percent of the Canadian population.
Huntley says she's seen this continued increase in violence in her own work. While public awareness may have increased, she says, the causes of violence haven't changed.
“What hasn't changed is the fucking violence and the rapes,” she said over the phone. “Not that I thought [greater awareness] would make that big of a difference. But it is alarming to notice that even though more people know about this now, it seems to be just as acceptable as always. It goes hand in hand with the austerity projects that this government has been behind, making more women more vulnerable. Increasing their poverty makes them more vulnerable,” she said.
The terrible track record of the Canadian government doesn't surprise either Huntley or Konsmo. They both make clear that the creation of the database isn't based on some recent frustration with the Conservative government, but rather the recognition that since its founding, Canada has sought to settle the land at the expense of Indigenous communities. In light of that, the only solution is to create alternative, Indigenous-led services and structures.
It Starts With US is “very much about this idea of not looking to the state for solutions, and seeing this as part of a bigger resurgence of Indigenous people taking control over their own lives,” Huntley said.
So instead, they are building something they say will reflect the community itself. The three groups originally came together through a series of workshops dedicated to building resistance to violence against Indigenous women. It was at one of these meetings with all three groups present where they met Dr. Janet Smiley of the Keenan Research Centre who specializes in Aboriginal health and helped develop the methodology for the database. This led to more discussion and the creation of the database over the ensuing months. The three groups also put out a joint statement in March 2014 calling for a wide range of actions on top of the development of a database—from developing Media Arts Justice to teach-ins to supporting people in the sex trade—in order to “foster resurgence in everyday ways to respond to gender-based violence.”
“Collaborating with other grassroots initiatives like No More Silence and FSIS are long term relationships to work to shift all the ways in which colonial gender based violence affects our communities,” Konsmo said. “Working in collaboration for us is a way of nation-building and supporting one another.”
Part of that is honouring the lives—and not just focusing on the deaths—of the women who have been killed or have disappeared. It's that belief that gave rise to the tribute section of the website, where more in-depth profiles of the lives of missing and murdered women will be featured. The launch of the site was timed to coincide with one year after death of Bella Laboucan-McLean. Working closely with Bella's family, they created a memorial page celebrating her life and accomplishments.
“I think the family feel like they got some healing by being able to tell their own story in their own way,” she said. And other families have taken notice. “Other families have been in touch with me and they are in the process of collecting the photos and writing up the stories of their loved ones, because they really want to do the same.”
Konsmo echoes this importance, and emphasized that it can help prevent future violence as well: “When we are able to tell the stories about our own bodies, that they aren’t empty and conquerable, but full of history, culture, language, and legacies of resistance we are able to resist violence,” she said.
While putting together a tribute page is a rigorous process, so is entering each name on the list. The team of volunteers makes sure that they collect not just information about how a woman died, but also about their life, details like residential school history in their family, interactions with child and family services, and whether they spent time on the street. Each life is given context, rather than superficially documenting their death.
That kind of work isn't easy though. “It's daunting, it's overwhelming, it's incredibly sad. It's incredibly hard work,” said Huntley. Volunteers try to meet face to face to support each other in the difficult work of documenting these stories. They work with elders in ceremony to help them through the at-times troubling information they often need to gather. Huntley had two weeks off during the winter and took the opportunity to enter about 70 stories into the database. She got post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from it, she said. “I got pretty sick.” No one person can take on too much of the work without getting overwhelmed, explained Huntley, so they are always looking for new volunteers, who can sign up through the website. The difficult nature of the work, though, means it can be hard to recruit. But gradually, more people from across the country are getting in touch since the site was launched.
Just focusing on the numbers would help speed up the process and make it easier on the volunteers. But in this case, the database isn't just about pumping out numbers: it's about the community, the people, and the stories it can tell.
“It's just really important for us that when we're honouring these stories, to do it in a way that's respectful,” said Huntley. “Which may make it a slower process, and we just recognize that that is the way it is. It will take us as long as it takes us... We'll get there when we get there.”
The 'It Starts With Us' Database is a trailblazer in Canada, but it's not the first database of its kind ot be organized by independent researchers. Projects like the Save Wiyabi Mapping Project, which maps missing and murdered Indigenous women across North America, are undertaking similar efforts. This article highlights one project of many, both past and present. It's a major undertaking to catalog this type of information, and VICE has an immense amount of respect for any researchers working towards similar goals.