Naomi Sayers, Vice-President (Women) – February 14, 2012 will mark the twenty-first memorial march for missing and murdered women in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Since these marches have gained the international attention of such organizations as Amnesty International and the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), gatherings have been held across Canada in cities such as Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal to name a few.
In 2005, the Liberal Party of Canada created the Sisters in Spirit initiative through the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC). The Liberal Party committed more than $5 million over five years to this project. This funding was used by the Native Women’s Association of Canada to gather data on missing and murdered women. Since then, NWAC has found that “more than 600 aboriginal women have gone missing or have been murdered since 1990, and it believes there may be many more.” Further, the 2010 Sisters in Spirit Research Findings also indicated that “… Aboriginal women and girls are as likely to be killed by an acquaintance or stranger [and] represented 17% of the homicide victims…” but yet make up only 3% of the total Canadian population. In October 2011, an inquiry was established to take a closer look at the number of missing and murdered women in British Columbia and the mishandling of the Robert Pickton case by police. The main question that the inquiry aimed to address was whether “society’s most vulnerable women are being treated the same as other citizens by the police and the law.” Surprisingly and not shortly after, on November 3, 2011, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that the Sisters in Spirit initiatives would no longer receive funding. Additionally, much of the recommendations proposed by Amnesty International in 2004 and United Nations CEDAW in 2008 have yet to be implemented. To this date, the inquiry into missing women in British Columbia and why Robert Pickton was not stopped sooner cites “high-level policing failures.” Also, NWAC has recently announced that the UN will conduct its own inquiry into the missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada. Aboriginal women, despite domestic efforts, are continuously overlooked.
Both in the past and the present, Aboriginal women are a group within Canadian society that has been and continues to be systemically and institutionally discriminated against. As stated earlier, Aboriginal women represent 3% of the total Canadian population, 17% of all homicide victims and regrettably, 32% of the federal institution population. Aboriginal women, according to the Elizabeth Fry Society, … “are more over-represented than Aboriginal men in the criminal justice system.” Even though section 218.2(e) of the Criminal Code of Canada and the Supreme Court Decisions in R. v. Gladue “… set out the parameters… regarding the sentencing of offenders, and in particular, Aboriginal offenders.” Aboriginal women are more likely to be placed on high-security classification and serve time in federal institutions at higher incidences in comparison to non-Aboriginal women and Aboriginal men. Through the residential school legacy, Aboriginal men and women experienced forced removal of their children on the sole basis that they were deemed “unfit parents.” The 2008 residential school apologies by various political parties proved to be a step forward in the right direction towards reconciliation between Aboriginal people and Canadian society. However, with the creation of Bill C-10 , PM Harper’s omnibus crime bill, demonstrates a major step backwards for Aboriginal people, specifically Aboriginal women. Tracey Booth, directory of Elizabeth Fry Society of Manitoba, highlights that this bill will greatly affect Aboriginal people and female prisoners. Even with all the apologies and the amendments to the Indian Act, Aboriginal women continue to face an uphill battle when it comes to equal treatment as persons within Canadian society.
The state of Aboriginal women in Canada is a perfect example of how its own government falls short on a national scale. This entire group of women are neither able to seek refuge from the legal system, nor from within the legal system. Further, while considering Conservative MP Rob Clarke’s recommendation to scrap the Indian Act without consulting First Nations, it will be difficult to see how that change, along with the Conservative government’s paternalistic approach to Aboriginal issues, will have any real impact in the lives of Aboriginal women.
On this, the twenty-first annual march to commemorate missing and murdered women, we must never forget that the fight for the rights of First Nations, Metis, and Inuit people must always include the fight for the humane treatment of Aboriginal women within Canadian society.
For more information, please visit: Families of Sisters in Spirit on Facebook for up-to-date information on missing/murdered Aboriginal women and other initiatives/campaigns for justice for Aboriginal women.
For information on Sisters In Spirit and facts on Missing or Murdered Aboriginal women, visit the Native Women’s Association of Canada site here.