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Up to 4,000 native women are missing or murdered in Canada. What next?

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Blair Gable/ Reuters/ File

(Read caption) Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau embraces Elder Evelyn Commanda-Dewache during the closing ceremony of the national Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Ottawa in this June 2015 file photo. At the time, Trudeau was leader of the Liberal Party. The Commission concluded that Canada had attempted "cultural genocide" against its indigenous peoples until the late 1900s.

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Up to 4,000 indigenous women and girls may be "missing" in Canada, ministers said Tuesday, more than three times a previous estimate.

The decades-long tragedy's sudden emergence as a national concern puts pressure on the new government, which promised during its campaign to renew the historically-stained relationship between Ottawa and its native communities.

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The new estimate comes from Walk 4 Justice, a Canadian activist group, who compiled a list of native women who were murdered or had gone missing before 2011. Previously, a 2014 report from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) said 1,017 had been killed between 1980 and 2012, with another 164 women missing. Based on the earlier estimates, Canada's native women represent 16 percent of all homicide cases, reported The Guardian, although they make up just 4 percent of the country's population. 

Two ministers shared the numbers with the press on Tuesday, after wrapping up a country-wide tour to hear indigenous communities' ideas about how to design a national commission on the missing women, one of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's campaign promises to First Nations, which suffer disproportionate poverty and lower life expectancies. 

Not all of Walk 4 Justice's listed victims are definitely indigenous, and exact numbers of murdered and missing women may be impossible to pin down. But Minister of Status of Women Patty Hajdu and Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett agreed that the evidence pointed to a larger problem, exacerbated by inaccurate investigations and reporting, such as labelling suspicious deaths as suicides.

"I think it's important we look to the root causes," Minister Bennett told reporters. "The families want certain cases reopened, we heard that coast to coast to coast. But there's also the common theme of the uneven application of justice ... time and time again the family will tell you that the file is empty. There was no investigation."

For years, indigenous activists requested federal inquiries, but earlier attempts didn't make the jump from research to action, some say. It's a common theme throughout centuries of Canadian history: agreements between native and national governments have often gone ignored, although some signs point to progress. The national Truth and Reconciliation Commission, for example, which closed last June, concluded that the government had attempted "cultural genocide" against native peoples until 1996. Mr. Trudeau has promised to implement the Commission's 94 recommendations. 

To see change, activists say, the inquiry into missing women needs to be sensitive to cultural and family needs, but also heal the underlying distrust between many native communities and their neighbors, especially the police. In some cases, good policies exist, but implementation is scant, they say.

A Human Rights Watch report on police abuse of native women in British Columbia called for an independent investigation into the allegations. Police accountability has also been highlighted in recommendations from Amnesty International Canada and the Native Women's Association of Canada. 

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"A lot of the homework has already been done, a lot of the answers are out there," Mag Cywik, whose sister was killed in 1994, told the Guardian. "An inquiry can never bring my sister back. I just don’t want this to happen to my nieces, to my grandchildren, and great-grandchildren."

Police Commissioner Bob Paulson has promised to weed out racist officers, reports CBC News, and presented new policies meant to reduce the number of mislabelled or uninvestigated cases, including considering foul play until the case proves otherwise. The RCMP has said that 88 percent of native women's homicides are solved, almost identical to the number for non-native women, but activists suspect that a number of supposed suicides or natural deaths were actually murders.

Still, the inequalities and distrust go beyond police relationships. "We know Aboriginal people mean nothing to most Canadians," University of Manitoba researcher Kiera Ladner told The Christian Science Monitor in October. But a new wave of activists have managed to grab public attention through the Idle No More movement, which "is really about trying to educate Canadians," Dr. Ladner said. 

More indigenous Canadians voted in the 2015 elections, and more were voted into Parliament, than ever before. They hope that sustained engagement with indigenous issues, including the inquiry on murdered and missing women, can bring more results than previous attempts. 

Politicians and activists are still debating the focus of the inquiry, which some worry could lose its effectiveness if bogged down in specific investigations of individual cases. Others say that the missing women deserve to be properly counted. But Trudeau's initial efforts to put together the inquiry have inspired guarded optimism.

"It’s in the front of mind for a lot of non-indigenous people as well as indigenous people," Chantal Chagnon, who organized an annual march in the missing women's memory, told Calgary's CTV News. "To see that they are actively trying to repair those bonds and those relationships that have been really destroyed by years of systemic racism and violence, it's promising, it’s really promising."