I want to start by saying this - throughout this article I use the term indigenous as it is one of the preferred terms by Indigenous peoples, however that does not mean all Indigenous peoples use or prefer this word. Some prefer the term Aboriginal or First Nations, and some still prefer the term Indian. I also want to acknowledge the many different Nations that make up the Indigenous peoples. Indigenous is an umbrella term that does not allow for the acknowledgement of the diversity of traditions that come from the many different First Nations. I am always open to feedback, so please reach out if there is any other preferred language I can use in this post. Lastly, I wanted to acknowledge that I am not an Indigenous person. I am a passionate advocate for Indigenous peoples rights, however, I know that as a settler I can get it wrong sometimes. Please look to the links at the bottom of this post to get insights directly from those who identify as Indigenous.
Between 1980 and 2012 over 1,180 Indigenous women have gone missing or been murdered in Canada.*
To give that number some perspective, Indigenous women and girls make up only 3% of the female population, but represent approximately 10% of all female homicides in Canada.** In addition, Indigenous women are almost three times more likely to be killed by a stranger than
non-Indigenous women are.**
So what is going on in Canada that we continue to allow this to happen? I am going to break out what I believe are the three main reasons for this.
1. Indigenous peoples have been systematically dehumanized by settlers° since day one.
Since the first moment settlers arrived on this land originally known as Turtle Island, there has been a belief that Indigenous people are somehow less than human (think of the song Savages from Pocahontas). This belief that they are less-human, or more animalistic, allowed settlers to commit horrific acts against them. It also set the tone for all future relations with Indigenous peoples.
Residential schools (schools Indigenous children were forced to attend) were opened in 1831 with the intent to assimilate them into Euro-Canadian culture. These objectives were based on the deeply held belief that Indigenous culture was inferior to European culture. It was infamously said that they were opened “to kill the Indian in the child”. Now keeping that in mind, it is important to know that the last residential school did not close until 1996. That is only 20 years ago.
When an Indigenous woman goes missing or is murdered, this happens within a culture that has not yet come to believe this woman is truly equal to a European woman. It happens within the culture of residential schools and unresolved racism. I believe that due to the unaddressed systemic dehumanizing of Indigenous peoples, their lives and their murders are of less concern to the average Canadian citizen and therefore less likely to be solved.
2. Indigenous woman are at a greater risk because they live at the intersection of both racism and sexism.
Women of colour are some of the most marginalized and forgotten people in Canada, and Indigenous Women are no exception to this. Indigenous women are dehumanized not only because they are Indigenous, but also because they are women.
3. Systemic racism in the police and RCMP workforce along with other Canadian institutions.
The third reason is largely related to the first two reasons. Police, RCMP Officers, and Government Officials do not live in a vacuum, but rather, they live within the context of the Canadian culture. If the Canadian Culture says “Indigenous people and women are less valuable”, than inherently the police force is going to - at a minimum - struggle with holding this belief as well. It has been shown in many different inquiries (some are linked below), that this is in fact true - Canadian police do not treat Indigenous people as well as they treat other Canadians, and definitely not as well as they treat white Canadians.
If the people assigned to solve these cases do not, at a base level, understand the humanity and innocence of their victims, how do we expect them to be solved? I am sure there are some RCMP officers who care deeply for the Indigenous community, but these officers are still working within a system that discriminates against Indigenous people.
At the very core of it, we need to be able to recognize what we have done to Indigenous people and their communities. We need to unlearn our old ways, and begin to humanize, respect, and LISTEN to Indigenous people. This is where I think healing will begin. This is when the murders will be prevented, and the ones that occur will be given the appropriate resources to actually be solved. I think laws can help, but at the core, I believe our whole culture needs to change.
If you are interested in learning more, I have added many links and resources below. There are many amazing groups working to change the cultural narrative around Indigenous people, and many Indigenous leaders patiently building bridges of understanding to settlers.
Change is possible. But we need to be willing to sit with our history, understand it, process it, and learn from it.
°Settlers - a term used to describe non-Indigenous people who and living on Indigenous land
Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC): https://www.nwac.ca/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Fact_Sheet_Missing_and_Murdered_Aboriginal_Women_and_Girls.pdf
Information on Residential Schools: http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/residential-schools/
Police Treat Indigenous People as Less than Canadian: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/thunder-bay/police-treat-aboriginal-people-as-less-than-canadian-thunder-bay-lawyer-says-1.3137773
The Aboriginal Justice Implementation Commission: http://www.ajic.mb.ca/
Unreserved (Podcast) - Anti-racist approach to education essential to address experience of Indigenous teachers and students: http://www.cbc.ca/radio/unreserved/anti-racist-approach-to-education-essential-to-address-experience-of-indigenous-teachers-and-students-1.3434523
Native Canadian Centre of Toronto: http://ncct.on.ca/
Indigenous Peoples Legal Defence Fund: http://raventrust.com/