Indigenous women in crisis
OTTAWA, Ontario - Over the last two decades, some 500 indigenous women in
Canada have been murdered or are missing and feared dead, according to
"Stolen Sisters", a report recently released by Amnesty International.
"Discrimination and violence against indigenous women is Canada's untold
human rights issue," said Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty
The yearlong process of researching and writing the report included a
healing ceremony at the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario for those who had
lost daughters, sisters and mothers. "Elders there shepherded us through
the two-day process," Neve said. "Many families felt betrayed by government
and had little reason to trust outsiders or officials. We wanted to proceed
in a way that was conscious of their needs."
No one knows exactly how many women have disappeared or died, according to
Beverley Jacobs, Mohawk, president of the Native Women's Association of
Canada (NWAC), which cooperated in the preparation of "Stolen Sisters."
This is partly because Canada keeps incomplete records of the ethnicity of
victims and perpetrators of crimes, and partly because indigenous people
have become so suspicious of the police that they do not necessarily report
incidents. Government statistics do estimate, however, that indigenous
women between 25 and 44 are five times more likely than other Canadian
women of the same age to die as the result of violence.
"It's a broad, systemic problem with historic roots," said Neve. "It
encompasses policing practices, social and economic policy, land claims,
and the redressing of past harms, such as the placing of children in
A flood of Canadian media coverage followed the release of "Stolen
Sisters", said Celeste McKay, Metis, a strategic-policy analyst with NWAC.
Vigils and meetings took place across the country, and about 4,000 people
signed an Amnesty International online petition. "Overwhelmingly, the
response was that this is an alarming issue that must be addressed," said
THE SHORT ARM OF THE LAW
In the interviews Amnesty International Canada conducted with the victims'
families, police appear to have repeatedly failed both to protect
indigenous women and to investigate crimes against them thoroughly or
promptly. Officers have at times waited days to follow up on reports of
missing women, even when they vanished under suspicious circumstances; one
family found the police had lost the file on their relative's
In one case, 16 years lapsed between crime and conviction. According to the
Manitoba Justice Inquiry, an exhaustive 2001 government study that is cited
in "Stolen Sisters." Helen Betty Osbourne was abducted in 1971 by four men
who were cruising the streets of The Pas, Manitoba, in order to pick up a
Indian woman for sex - an activity tolerated by the local detachment of the
Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). "A number of officers told us ... it
was not the RCMP's practice to stop the cars to see if the girls were of
age or if they were going willingly," the Manitoba commissioners wrote.
The four came upon Osbourne walking home. The 19-year-old Cree had left her
home, Norway House Indian Reserve, to study to become a teacher. The men
forced her into their car. When she fought back, she was stabbed in the
head and torso 50 times, apparently with a screwdriver, her face and skull
were smashed, and her near-naked body was dragged into the bush.
Despite physical evidence - including blood, hair and clothing fragments in
the car - and tips from townspeople who heard some of the men bragging of
their actions, they were not brought to justice until 1987. At that time
two were charged. One was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.
He's now on parole. To help him better understand what he did, Osbourne's
family brought him into a traditional healing circle, according to Craig
Benjamin, who coordinates Amnesty International Canada's Indigenous Rights
Benjamin contends the police generally have little interest in such cases.
"I just spoke to the daughter of Deborah Ann Sloss, an indigenous woman who
was found dead in Toronto in 1997," Benjamin said. "The family went to the
police for the records. The file had two pages, and the cause of death
hadn't even been determined."
The RCMP doesn't see it that way. "A murder is a murder in Canada, and we
investigate them all in the same manner," said Danis Lafond, spokesperson
at the force's headquarters in Ottawa. He added that working with
indigenous communities is a top priority of the RCMP, which for years has
had programs like cultural-sensitivity training for new officers and an
effort to recruit indigenous cadets.
Sandra Gagnon, a Kwakwaka'wakw woman living in Vancouver whose sister went
missing in 1997, praised individual officers she dealt with, but criticized
the police force as a whole. Gagnon's sister, Janet Henry, was one of
nearly 70 women - indigenous and white, including sex-trade workers - who
have disappeared from the city's squalid Downtown Eastside slum since the
early 1980s. "They didn't take it seriously, because all those women were
missing from Downtown," Gagnon said. "If they were missing from any other
neighborhood, something would have been done in a second."
Signaling official doubt that foul play was involved, the mayor of
Vancouver suggested in 1999 that the city offer $5,000 rewards to missing
women who came forward. The number of disappearances mounted and families
continued to demand action. Meanwhile, the Vancouver Sun published a series
of stories describing the seriousness of the situation and the ineptness of
the police investigation, which the newspaper found was plagued by
infighting, computer problems, lack of resources and other issues.
In 2001, city police and the RCMP formed a joint task force. The following
year, its investigation led officers to a pig farm in nearby Port
Coquitlam. There they found clothing, other belongings and DNA from 63
women, whose bodies the farm's owner, Robert Pickton, had fed to the pigs.
Pickton will likely stand trial in 2005 or 2006 on at least 22 murder
Though Henry's DNA was not found at the farm, her family worries that she
died there. Henry's daughter, a 20-year-old college student, gave blood
samples as part of the investigation. "My Auntie Sandra is doing so much -
putting up posters and speaking out," she said. "Right now, my job is to
finish school and do well. I know my mom would have been proud of me."
REFUGEES IN THEIR OWN LAND
To understand the vulnerability of Canada's indigenous women and why they
might end up in the country's slums, one can look to 19th century laws that
transformed the nation's largely matriarchal, egalitarian tribes into
patriarchies. Once able to act autonomously and take leadership positions
in their communities, indigenous women became chattel - like their white
counterparts, who were themselves not declared "persons" in Canada until
1929. The tribes' loss of their land base and traditional livelihoods - and
the economic devastation that followed - exacerbated the situation.
Under certain circumstances, the laws also extinguished status as an Indian
(that is, legal standing as a tribal member, with treaty and other rights),
according to McKay. Indigenous women were more likely than men to be
affected; for example, marrying a non-indigenous man caused a woman to be
stripped of her status and banished from her reserve. In some cases, such
women were allowed to return home for just 48 hours at a time.
At the same time that the women were being uprooted, their children were
being sent to brutal church-run residential schools, where, according to
the 1996 report of Canada's Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, rapes,
beatings and other abuses were common. During the 1980s, the residential
schools were phased out, and legislation restored status to some who had
lost it. However, the new law also created its own mechanisms for
eliminating status. "They gave with one hand and took with the other," said
McKay. "It's estimated that by 2060, there will be no more people with
Other inequities remain as well. To this day, indigenous women on reserves
are not covered by matrimonial-law protections. If an indigenous couple
divorces, the husband frequently retains the couple's house, while the wife
becomes homeless, said McKay.
JUSTICE SYSTEM FAILURES
With little education or job opportunities, some indigenous women have
nothing to turn to but the sex trade - a very dangerous occupation - to
support themselves and their children. Then, when these women come in
contact with the justice system, they are treated as second-class citizens.
In an example cited in "Stolen Sisters", Ted Malone, the judge presiding
over the 1996 trial of two men charged with beating to death Pamela Jean
George, a Saulteaux mother of two from Sakimay First Nation, instructed the
jury to keep in mind that George was "indeed a prostitute," while the men
had done "pretty darn stupid things." The Saskatchewan trial's outcome -
six and one-half years for manslaughter for both men - was met with local
protests and vigils across the nation. Both men were paroled in 2000.
"Aboriginal women and their children suffer tremendously in contemporary
Canadian society [and] the justice system has done little to protect them,"
the Manitoba Justice Inquiry declared. In fact, the women are likely to end
up behind bars. At one point, the commission noted, indigenous women made
up 85 percent of the province's female prisoners, though they constituted
about 12 percent of the female population overall.
Change may be forthcoming, said McKay, who believes Canada's current
administration has the political will to take action. Neve agreed, adding:
"On this issue, Amnesty International Canada is lobbying government at all
levels, but we'll be looking to the federal government to take the lead."