Skip to main content

Canada’s dirty little secret

  • Author:
  • Updated:

TORONTO – Bernie Williams calls it Canada’s dirty little secret – the racist violence that targets aboriginal women, along with the institutional indifference that allows the crimes to go undetected and unpunished.

Her mother and two of her sisters were killed in separate incidents in the 1970s in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and no one was ever charged. Williams, now a frontline worker in the notorious Skid Row area, never knew her mother or sisters, having been raised in foster homes and residential school.

But they are in her thoughts as she completes a 3,106.9-mile, coast-to-coast journey to draw attention to missing and murdered aboriginal women, one of 14 members of the Walk4Justice that was scheduled to reach Parliament Hill in Ottawa Sept. 15.

“It’s been an emotional, hard journey because we’ve come up against racism,” Williams said. The walkers have been followed and subjected to racial slurs. “I thought Vancouver was bad,” she added, “but I tell you, Toronto has got to be the worst.”

Williams met Gladys Radek when the Gitxan Wet’suwet’en woman from northern British Columbia was looking for clues to the whereabouts of her niece, Tamara Chipman, 22 and the mother of a 2-year-old child. Chipman went missing in 2005 while hitchhiking on Highway 16, east of Prince Rupert.

It’s a stretch of road that’s become known as the Highway of Tears because nine women had either disappeared from it or been found killed. They were all aboriginal except for one, Nicole Hoar, a 25-year-old tree-planter from Red Deer,

Photo courtesy Native Women's Association of Canada The Walk4Justice brought Aboriginal women together to help raise awareness and draw attention to what many see as Canada’s dirty little secret. Known as the Highway of Tears, Highway 16 has become a place where aboriginal women end up missing or murdered without answers.


Hoar’s disappearance in 2002 brought national attention to the Highway of Tears. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police insisted there was no evidence of a serial killer, but a year ago, another nine names were added. The list of the mysteriously missing or dead now dates back to 1969. Many suspect a serial killer, though police have not found evidence to support the theory.

Radek said she has 44 names on her list of women killed or vanished from the Highway of Tears. In Vancouver, Williams was the only one that would listen to her, she recalls. “I started working with her after that.”

The Downtown Eastside is where one of Canada’s most notorious serial killings took place. Starting in 1983, a total of 60 women disappeared, 16 of them aboriginal.

Police ignored tips and pleas for families for 15 years – a familiar pattern in cases where the victims are dispossessed, female and of a different race. Finally, an investigation began in 1998. Last year, pig farmer Robert Pickton was convicted of second-degree murder in six of the cases, all aboriginal.

For Williams, that contrasts painfully with the manhunt that was launched when a Burnaby millionaire’s son was kidnapped in 2006. More than 100 officers worked on the case for a week. “They found him,” Williams said. Graham McMynn was rescued unharmed from his captors.

No such effort was made for the women whose remains were found at the Pickton pig farm. And no such effort was made for the dead or missing women whose pictures are pasted to the side of the van that has accompanied the Walk4Justice.

“I’m not a racist person,” said Williams, who is of Haida and Coast Salish descent. “But, man, I get angry when I see these poor people. They get forgotten. It’s a crime to be poor and it’s a crime to be homeless.”

Williams, Radek, Vikki Peters and Nicole Tait founded Walk4Justice, which left Vancouve r on June 21, National Aboriginal Day, to alert Canadians to the peril faced by aboriginal women. A 1996 Canadian government study found that women aged 25 to 44 with status under the Indian Act were five times more likely than others the same age to die as the result of violence.

The Native Women’s Association of Canada, through its Sisters in Spirit initiative, has documented 487 cases of aboriginal women missing or murdered since 1957 – 15 percent in the 1980s, 34 percent in the 1990s and 47 percent in this decade.

In a document on the NWAC Web site, association president Beverly Jacobs notes that more than 50 percent of the women were under 25 years and 22 percent were between 25 and 34. “There is a grave concern that young aboriginal women are at great risk.”

Walk4Justice participants have traveled over five provinces, and through talking to people along the way have collected the names of 3,000 women, aboriginal and non-aboriginal, who are missing or whose killing has not been solved.

That list is to be presented to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Radek said. The timing of their arrival was arranged so there would be a chance of meeting Harper to ask for a public inquiry into the deaths and disappearances.

“We know that someone is responsible for the deaths of these women and we want accountability,” she said.

But on Sept. 7, Harper called a general election and it seemed unlikely that he would take time out from campaigning to meet with the walkers.

There are potent reasons why he should.

It’s been almost 37 years since 19-year-old Helen Betty Osborne, a Cree high school student from Norway House, was abducted by four white men in the town of The Pas in northern Manitoba. She was sexually assaulted and brutally killed. The identities of those involved were widely known but it took 16 years for just one of them to be convicted.

A 2004 Amnesty International report, titled “Stolen Sisters: Discrimination and violence against indigenous women in Canada,” cited Osborne’s case as an example of a continuing problem and called on the Canadian government to address the issue of violence against aboriginal women in non-aboriginal communities.

“It is Amnesty International’s view that the role of discrimination in fueling this violence, in denying indigenous women the protection they deserve or in allowing the perpetrators to escape justice, is a critical part of the threat faced by indigenous women.”

Similar calls have come from the 1999 Aboriginal Justice Inquiry of Manitoba, the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, and various United Nations human rights bodies looking into Canada’s record.