The Canadian Department of Justice reports that Aboriginal females are more than three times as likely to become victims of violent crimes than any other segment of society. Indigenous women are four times as likely to be murdered than their non-Native counterparts. Over 800 Native women have simply disappeared or been found murdered since the year 1990, and the epidemic shows no signs of slowing down.
According to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), the majority of the violence experienced by Aboriginal women is at the hands of community or family members. The Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) cites that the majority of the victims are under 30 years of age. On February 13, 2014, the NWAC presented Canada’s House of Commons with a petitions calling for a national inquiry that was signed by more than 23,000 citizens.
Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Failure to Support Efforts to End Violence Against Aboriginal Women
Unfortunately, the Canadian government has historically made little effort to seriously address the issue. In 2010, a plan of action was implemented with the goal of addressing the epidemic of violence perpetuated toward indigenous women and girls, but funding was cut drastically when the program began to produce tangible results. In particular, grants funding a comprehensive study of murdered and missing Natives entitled ‘Sisters in Spirit’ were cut off. The project was the first one in Canadian history to provide an official tally concerning the number and identities of Native women who had gone missing or been found murdered.
Conservative former Prime Minister Stephen Harper seemed determined to cut the project off in its tracks, and his administration managed this through a series of maneuvers, to effectively bring the project to a standstill and stipulated that further monies designated to the cause would not be forthcoming if the name ‘Sisters in Spirit’ was used. Stephen Harper served as the Canadian Prime Minister from 2006 through 2015, and during his time in office, roughly 300 Aboriginal woman went missing or were killed. Nonetheless, Harper made it clear that a national inquiry into the situation was an unnecessary expenditure of public funds that he would not support.
Before Stephen Harper was elected, the efforts of the NWAC were off to a pretty good start, but Harper’s administration managed to erode any progress that they made. Sherry Lewis, the execute director of the NWAC from 2003 through 2007, describes the change as “night and day” after Harper took over the government operations. Harper claimed on state television that a national inquiry into the high murder rate of Native women “really isn’t high on our radar,” even though the United Nations had been calling for such an inquiry for a number of years.
Root Causes of Violence Toward Native Women and Girls
This epidemic of violence against Aboriginal women and girls has its roots in the European expansion into the Americas. In the book ‘Stolen From Our Embrace,’ authors Suzanne Fournier and Ernie Grey explore the forced erosion of the traditional family structures of First Nation communities. Native children were routinely removed from their homes by force by the RCMP and local police departments, placed with white families, and sent to government-run schools designed to remove all traces of their culture from their memory. Beaten by teachers and members of their foster families for so much as uttering one word of their own language, these children frequently grew up as completely powerless victims.
Sexual assault and other types of violence were not uncommon in the Indian residential schools and adoptive homes. The children had no means of fighting back and no way to obtain legal justice. This cultural indoctrination took place for 100 years, beginning with the passage of the Civilization Act of 1857 through the 1970s and severely impacted First Nations culture as a whole as well as damaged the majority of individuals who were affected.
Over a century of systemic cultural genocide has created adverse conditions that continue to reverberate through the lives of Aboriginal families and communities. Addiction and family violence rates are high among First Nations peoples, and poverty is rampant. The majority of Native women and girls murdered in Canada are killed by men whom they know, often their spouses or other relatives. The connection between domestic and family violence is strong and unmistakable. Rebuilding families and communities is an essential component of reducing instances of violence toward indigenous women and girls.
What’s Being Done
In 2014, the Canadian government released a five-year action plan designed to investigate and address the issue. The plan will invest over $200 million dollars in concrete actions designed to prevent violence against Aboriginal women and girls, including outreach services, the creation of more domestic violence shelters, and programs aimed at increasing economic opportunities. Law enforcement training and improvements to the justice system are also on the agenda.
Because violence toward Native women and girls has become so ingrained in society, many people find it difficult to take efforts to change the situation seriously. However, strong, healthy Native communities are essential to a well-functioning country, and every woman and girl needs and deserves to feel safe, especially within their own homes and communities.
How You Can Help
Those desiring to make a positive difference in the lives of Aboriginal women and girls at risk of becoming victims of violence currently have many options. Canada Amnesty International provides several ways for members of Canadian communities to help with volunteer opportunities including becoming a youth leader, a community activist, organizing and helping with fundraising events, and volunteering to work in the office. NWAC’s Sisters in Spirit also offers abundant opportunities to get involved. Even those without a great deal of time can help by making tax-deductible donations. You can also take part in Canada’s Red Dress movement, which consists of donated red dresses being hung in public spaces to provide a stark reminder of the women who have disappeared.
Sue Caribou was among the last batch of Aboriginal children to be forcibly removed from her home by Canadian authorities. Taken to a Catholic boarding school where she was physically and sexually abused by missionaries for the next seven years, Caribou was forbidden to have contact with her family or to speak in her native tongue. By the time she was released from the school in 1979, her parents had both been murdered. She has since lost three female relatives to homicidal violence. Her niece, Tanya Nepinak, disappeared while on her way to Winnipeg to pick up a pizza. Very few Native families exist who have not been affected in some way by gender-based violence.
The discovery of the body of Loretta Saunders in the median of the Trans-Canada Highway’s Route 2 in early March of 2014 prompted renewed calls across the country for a national inquiry into the epidemic of homicidal violence against Native women. Saunders was a 26-year-old Inuit student at St. Mary’s University in Halifax who was crafting a thesis about murdered and missing Native women in Canada. She was killed for rent money two months before she was slated to graduate by roommates Victoria Henneberry and Blake Leggette. The two were sentenced by Judge Josh Arnold of the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia to 10 and 25 years respectively before they can be eligible to apply for parole. The grief of Saunder’s family members was palatable in the courtroom as the two were sentenced, and Judge Arnold called the murder “despicable, horrifying and cowardly.” Loretta Saunder’s younger sister, Delilah, left the courtroom in tears screaming that the two had stolen her sister.
Delilah Saunders has since vowed to carry on her sister’s work. She is also writing a book about the challenges of coping with the untimely loss of her sister to senseless greed and violence. As you read her story, keep in mind that this could have been your sister, mother, daughter, friend, or even the woman behind your in line the last time you shopped at a supermarket.
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