“Even though the grave has silenced my granddaughter’s voice, I will continue to speak for her,” vows Renee Hess of Helyna Rivera, a Mohawk woman who was murdered in the US-Canada border city of Buffalo, NY on Aug. 10, 2011.
Hess was one of many family and community members at the 2015 Strawberry Ceremony, an annual Valentine’s Day event organized to mourn and protest the brutal rapes, killings, and disappearances of over 1,100 indigenous women since 1981. Although Native women and girls make up only 4.3 percent of Canada’s female population, they account for 16 percent of female homicides and 11.3 percent of missing women.
State indifference. For years, activists have called upon the Canadian government to address violence against indigenous women. Victims’ families demand federal action, like improving public transportation so women aren’t forced to walk long distances at night or hitchhike. But seldom are these demands taken seriously. “[An investigation] isn’t really high on our radar, to be honest,” said then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2014.
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Aboriginal Minister Bernard Valcourt justified the inaction by stating that 70 percent of indigenous women are murdered by a relative or acquaintance – therefore not the government’s problem. Though Valcourt implies a propensity to violence by Native men, the fact is 75 percent of white women are murdered by someone they know. And it is widely believed that strangers or serial killers are responsible for many of the unsolved murders, including 18 or more committed on the Highway of Tears – a section of Highway 16 between Prince George and Prince Rupert, British Columbia.
Courts have also failed to produce justice. In 2011, Cindy Gladue bled to death in a hotel bathtub from a 4-inch internal vaginal tear. Suspect Brad Barton argued that because Gladue was a sex worker, the injury was an accident during consensual “rough sex.” Though there was no evidence to support the conclusion, the jury acquitted Barton and he walked free in March 2015.
A new leaf? In December 2015, new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a national inquiry into the deaths and disappearances. This is a major victory. Trudeau’s Liberal Party government promises a two-year, $40 million commitment that will include retrying previous cases.
The government must be pressured to hold good on its promises. The last thing needed is another fruitless study: 40 have already been conducted. Of the 700 recommendations for government action that emerged from the research, 99 percent were ignored. It is clear that any inquiry must be accompanied by active follow-through. This should include scrutiny of Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) apathy toward women who file domestic violence reports, and long-standing charges of sexual harassment and violence by the RCMP against indigenous women. (The RCMP is also being investigated for treatment of women in its own ranks. Hundreds of female cops have complained of sexual harassment on the job.)
Pressure for the inquiry came from many sources, including new Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, a leader of the New Democratic Party, who decried Harper’s years of indifference and issued an official apology for generations of forced assimilation policies by the Alberta government. Notley vows to address the causes of the violence.
The historic disregard for indigenous lives spans a wide range of political issues, and these rapes and murders must be addressed within the context of the larger movement for aboriginal rights. For example, economic discrimination and lack of education hit women the hardest, and are often the reason why women like Cindy Gladue – a mother of four – are forced to become sex workers.
Silent no more. Numerous national and local groups have fought to stop the deaths and disappearances. The Native Women’s Association of Canada has a high focus on the issue and educates about how the dire status of indigenous women is rooted in colonization, cultural genocide, poverty, addiction, and limited legal rights.
No More Silence was founded in Toronto in 2011 and organizes the Strawberry Ceremony. It has brought together groups such as Toronto Sex Workers Action Project, Idle No More Toronto, Outburst! Young Muslim Women Project, and Chocolate Woman Collective to call for initiatives to protect indigenous women. These include safe spaces for sex workers; and full decriminalization of sex work, rather than current “Nordic model” laws that penalize prostitutes by outlawing their customers. Unionizing sex workers would also help them to act in their own defense.
Families of Sisters in Spirit is an autonomous, all-volunteer group that has worked with the Native Youth Sexual Health Network to hold events that draw attention to missing and murdered indigenous women, girls, trans and two-spirit people and to support their families and communities.
Other solutions that would contribute to the security of Indigenous women and all First Nations people include reparations to overcome economic inequality, initiatives to reverse cultural destruction of Native communities, and an all-out offensive against the racist sexism that dehumanizes and devalues Native women.