In February, the frozen body of 26-year-old Loretta Saunders, a pregnant Inuit woman from Labrador, Canada, was found dumped onto a highway median in New Brunswick. Saunders, a student at Saint Mary's University in Halifax, had been writing her thesis on missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada – in a tragic twist, she became one of the subjects of her own research, the latest in what is estimated to be hundreds of murders and disappearances of indigenous Canadian women. Just this month, the head of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police told reporters that 1,186 aboriginal women had been murdered or went missing over the past 30 years.
The sad irony of Saunders's death shed light on a human rights issue that has been quietly brewing for years in Canada, a progressive country that is generally known for treating its citizens – including most women – well. The Canadian government doesn't collect data on the race and ethnicity of missing persons, but a new database compiled by independent researcher Maryanne Pearce documents 4,035 cases of missing and murdered women and girls, 883 – or nearly 25 percent – of which involve aboriginal women. That's a shocking statistic, considering that aboriginal women make up just 2 percent of the population in Canada. While some of the cases date back to the 1950s, the majority took place between 1990 and 2013.
"This is part of a larger phenomenon of violence against women, period," Pearce said. "It's such a complicated issue. We have to look at every layer, with a special focus on systemic racism. There isn't one answer – there isn't one person or group who can address this. It has to be everybody – the First Nations governments, the provincial governments, the police forces, and the national government. And the Canadian public has a responsibility too."
Despite the overwhelming numbers, the Canadian government has been slow to respond to the crisis. Earlier this year, a much-anticipated parliamentary report looking into the problem of violence against women was tabled by Canada's ruling Conservative Party. The report made 16 recommendations to address violence faced by aboriginal women, but stopped short of calling for a national plan of action to deal with the growing problem of missing and murdered women and girls in a meaningful way. And while the report notes that "the scope of violence is not fully understood, nor is it quantified", Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government has so far resisted calls for a national inquiry, despite pressure from native organisations, international human rights groups and all of Canada's provincial premiers.
The parliamentary report was "basically a slap in the face" to indigenous people, said Shawn Brant, a First Nations activist whose community, the Mohawks of Tyendinaga, has launched a campaign of civil disobedience in Ontario to force the government to address the high numbers of missing and murdered aboriginal women. In March, the group blockaded train tracks and halted service between Toronto and Montreal. "It was a rubber stamp for what the government calls it's 'action plan', but the government can't develop an action plan if it doesn't even have the numbers," Brant said. "How it can create an action plan when it doesn't know the extent of the problem is a joke in and of itself.
"I think it's fair to say that government is engaged in a cover-up of the truth of what is happening to indigenous women," Brant added. "I believe that if the truth of what is happening to First Nations women were exposed, there would be an uprising in Indian country. I believe that First Nations people would be absolutely devastated."
In the absence of a national inquiry, it's hard to know why so many aboriginal women in Canada have been murdered or gone missing. According to a Human Rights Watch study released last year, at least part of the problem appears to stem from the broken relationship between indigenous women and girls and the Canadian justice system. That report found that many indigenous women have suffered mistreatment and abuse by law enforcement officials. The result, said lead researcher Meghan Rhoad in a statement, is an environment of mistrust and insecurity that is heightened by a lack of adequate police oversight and complaint mechanisms.
"The status quo is a state of constant insecurity for the indigenous women and girls who face threats to their lives and feel they have nowhere reliable to turn for protection," Rhoad said.
According to Canada's Human Rights Commissioner David Langtry, the issue of violence against aboriginal women in Canada can also be attributed, at least in part, to the country's historical relationship with indigenous communities, including the residential schooling system, a program by which 150,000 aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their families and sent to government-subsidised English-language-only religious schools where they were frequently abused by nuns and priests. Although the last residential schools closed in the 1990s, systemic abuse and government-sanctioned racism has left Canada's indigenous groups – and particularly women and girls – more vulnerable to violent crime, homelessness, substance abuse and other social ills than the rest of the population.
"This is a problem that has tremendous complexity and deep roots in Canadian history," said Langtry, who has joined in the calls for a national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women. "We believe that the conditions of disadvantage faced by aboriginal people are among the most pressing if not the most pressing human rights issue facing Canada today."
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