There was a time when Colleen Cardinal could not talk about her family without choking on her grief.
"It took me a long time to talk about what happened to my sister," said Cardinal, from Saddle Lake Cree First Nation in central Alberta. “I'm a family member who lost two women to murder.”
Her eldest sister, Charmaine Desa, was murdered in downtown Edmonton in 1990. And Cardinal's sister-in-law, Lynne Minia Jackson, was found in a field in 2004 in Wetaskiwin, about 45 miles south of Edmonton.
Cardinal's story is not unique, and this puts her among the legions of family members fed up with a lack of progress in getting to the bottom of the issue of violence against aboriginal women in Canada. She is part of a movement to take control of matters affecting not only her family but also thousands of others. Born of their determination is a newly launched community-based database of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, compiled by the victims’ families themselves.
Two grassroots organizations in Canada, No More Silence and Families of Sisters in Spirit, have teamed up to compile the database, which was launched on September 12. The database will record the date of disappearances and deaths of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. It will hold details such as date of birth, nation, childhood and family background, education and work history, level of permission for use of data, and primary contact information.
The need for the database is twofold, organizers said. Andrea Smith, an author, scholar and Native American anti-violence activist from southern California, recalled a time not so long ago when the issue of violence against indigenous women received little visibility. It wasn’t until women raised awareness about the issue that government funding began to shed light on the problem. But that didn't come without its own price.
"We found that government support often becomes a trap. We start to become dependent on it, and then when we step out of line as we saw with Sisters in Spirit, we suddenly get defunded," said Smith.
Sisters in Spirit was the first database of cases of missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada. Canada's federal government stopped funding the program in 2010. Critics of the cut say it was meant to silence the Native Women's Association of Canada, the group behind the database.
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Smith has seen this happen in the U.S too. When the Violence Against Women Act was passed, with it came a mandate that Native American tribes developing curricula dealing with sexual violence were forbidden to use the word 'colonization,' said Smith.
"It's okay to support anti-violence work as long as your framework is about pathologizing Native communities, [implying] that we're inherently dysfunctional with mental health issues,” she said, adding that that makes it all the more crucial for organizations and community groups such as No More Silence and Families of Sisters in Spirit to resist being co-opted and to seek ways to fund their own work. Their newly launched database will be a testament to this. The group does not intend to ask for government funding—or permission.
Previous attempts have been made to compile statistics on violence against aboriginal women, as columnist Carol Goar noted in an opinion piece in the Star on September 23. Goar details attempts by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women that ran into a shortage of data. She describes the scattershot crime statistics kept by police, Status of Women Canada and the resource-hobbled Native Women’s Association of Canada, as well as individual women’s shelters.
“The difficulty of collecting data about violence against women has been a barrier,” Kate McInturff, who authored a study for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, told Goar. “However, the data that do exist tell us three things very clearly: This problem is big, it comes at a high cost, and we are making little or no progress in putting a stop to it.”
The online activist group Anonymous compiled an interactive map of missing and murdered indigenous women in both the U.S. and Canada last February, but that does not contain much more than a dot marking where the person was last seen alive. This new database will fill these knowledge gaps, its creators hope.
"All that we're doing now with the database is taking matters into our own hands," said Audrey Huntley, co-founder of No More Silence. Alluding to traditional indigenous knowledge, she noted, "We’ve always known how to keep track, we've always been amazing counters.”
Dr. Janet Smylie, a Métis physician and research scientist, is helping design the database, whose methodology draws upon both traditional and western practices. The team has created filters in order to conduct database searches, and soon names of missing and murdered loved ones will be added. Families of missing and murdered women and girls are encouraged to contact No More Silence and Families of Sisters in Spirit if they would like to add loves ones’ names.
"As soon as we get information, it will go public," said Bridget Tolley, co-founder of Families of Sisters in Spirit. Unlike the Native Women’s Association database, the product will be available to the public, and more important, Tolley said, to family members.
"Why have a database when nobody can see it?" said Tolley. "People have a right to know."
Without funding, the Native Women’s Association of Canada was forced to close its own database in 2010. By the time it did so, the association had reported close to 600 indigenous women and girls gone missing or murdered in the country over several years. Since then many more have vanished or been killed, and according to Tolley their names are not being recorded in a central location.
Earlier this year the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) questioned the Native Women’s Association total, saying that of the 118 names shared with the RCMP’s National Aboriginal Policing Services, only 64 of them could be confirmed in a police database. An RCMP spokesperson also said there are concerns over the 500 possible victims recorded in the association’s database. Indigenous communities find this hard to believe given that these deaths are still occurring.
"In Toronto in the last few months, there have been three violent deaths of indigenous women, and sadly there wasn’t much societal response to that," says Huntley.
Cardinal also comes from a family torn apart by adoption, severe physical abuse and alcoholism. It's a history she details in Stolen Dream, a documentary produced in 2012. Her second film, The Sixties Scoop: A Hidden Generation, to be released in 2014, will examine the adoptions of indigenous children that took place from the 1960s through the 1980s. She said she can now talk about her past because she understands the historical context of colonization in which it occurred.
The combination of personal and political has led Cardinal to work with Families of Sisters in Spirit. She sees the need to pick up where that group left off, given the lack of not only information but also the political will to gather it.
“I think the only people that can keep track of our women and what's happening to our women, is our women," Cardinal said.