Photos by Nicky Young
Last week, we attended an Idle No More protest centred on the problem of missing and murdered native women in Canada. While sitting in a drum circle for a peace pipe ceremony on the lawn of a police station, exhaling pipe smoke, a white Astro van was parked nearby with the faces and names of murdered women collaged on the side.
The Idle No More Toronto demonstration departed the police station and marched to Highway 401 for a banner drop, designed to call attention to the recent deaths of two native women. The protest was organized Idle No More activist John Fox, whose daughter, Cheyenne Fox, a young mother, was recently found dead at the bottom of a 24 floor apartment tower after an alleged violent encounter. John Fox told APTN that “police (division 33) had contacted him the next day and written the death off as suicide.”
The marchers had signs calling attention to another case of a native woman’s “unsuspicious” death, Terra Gardener’s face is also affixed to the Astro van. It’s a face that was well known and racially discriminated against by police officers of the downtown area. She was a key witness in the murder investigation of Leo Buswa, and had been threatened by police to provide testimony against Blake Paul, or be held in custody until trial. Street pastor Doug Hatlem from The Sanctuary, a homeless outreach center Terra frequented in downtown Toronto, gave APTN this statement;
“They did not give her adequate protection for testifying…in a major murder trial where she is being called a rat and being threatened and we had to literally beg to get her a second night in a hotel and she was testifying for five straight days….They just wanted to give her the first night. She’s homeless. She’s vulnerable.”
Gardner was receiving death threats prior to being hit by a freight train while at a secluded drinking hangout by the tracks in Toronto’s affluent Yonge and Summerhill area. Two other people were believed to have been with her at the time of her death.
Unfortunately native women in Canada have considerably less chance than white folk at a proper murder investigation. While the tradition of ignoring the murders of native women may not get much attention in Toronto, elsewhere it has gotten more attention.
A branch of the hacktivist collective Anonymous has launched Operation Thunderbird to call attention to a hate crime in Thunder Bay, Ontario. A 36-year-old native mother was abducted and sexually assaulted by two white men and told that she does not deserve her treaty rights, the attack is believed to be in retaliation to the growing momentum of Idle No More. A source close to the victim told CBC, “that this had been done before by these two men and she was told that this was not going to stop, they're gonna do it again.”
There is any number of arguments as to why Canadians investigators tend to put inquiries into the deaths of native women at the bottom of the pile. Perhaps it’s due to an unfortunately lasting apathy towards those formally oppressed by the state. Perhaps abnormally high rates of suicide among the native community provide the perfect distraction from properly examining these deaths.
Then there are the horrors of Robert Pickton’s “Piggies Palace”, a pig farm where the remains of dozens of missing women – many of them aboriginal – were found. The farm was operated by Robert Pickton until 2002 and associated with the Hells Angels, yet had been known to Vancouver police and RCMP since the late ‘90s. Pickton was eventually arrested by a Junior Officerfor illegal firearms on a search warrant unrelated to a special unit assigned to missing and murdered women. Five years earlier Pickton was acquitted of an attempted murder charge because the victim was a deemed drug user illegitimate as a witness.
When inquiries into why both the RCMP and Vancouver police failed to follow up on years of tips that Pickton was behind the epidemic of disappearing sex workers, the two law enforcement bodies simply pointed fingers at each other. Vancouver police had enough evidence to conduct a search warrant in 1998, and in 1999 an RCMP employee saw one of the missing women at one of Pickton’s parties.
As for the protest last week, the Idle No More supporters did not go as far as blocking Highway 401—like they blocked a CP rail line at a uranium processing facility in Toronto a few months earlier—as they were largely out-numbered by police, highway RCMP, and a mounted division, who all of a sudden found all the time and resources in the world to dedicate to native policing. But aside from a heavy down pour of rain mixed that seemed to evaporate the moment the banners were dropped above the highway, the day went off with out a hitch.