Across the world, Valentine’s Day is celebrated with love; in Canada, it is also a day when people march to remember hundreds of missing and murdered Aboriginal women.
Following the first march in 1991, campaigners have assembled every year on 14 February in cities across Canada, to draw attention to a problem that the Canadian government largely refuses to address.
As of 31 March 2010, The Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) estimates that 582 Aboriginal women are missing or murdered. Of the 582 cases, 115 (20%) involve missing women and girls, 393 (67%) involve women or girls who died as the result of homicide or negligence, and 21 (4%) fall within the category of "suspicious death"—incidents that police have declared natural or accidental, but that family or community members regard as suspicious. There are 53 cases (9%) where the nature of the deaths remain undetermined.
The real figures are likely to be far worse. Six out of ten incidents involving violent crimes against Aboriginal people go unreported. From reported incidents, it is clear that Aboriginal women are three times more likely to face physical spousal violence, three times more likely to face psychological spousal violence, and eight times more likely to be murdered than non-Aboriginal women.
Moreover, Statistics Canada’s General Social Survey, from which these figures are gathered, was conducted by telephone and only in English and French; Aboriginal women living in remote communities without access to telephones or unable to speak English or French fluently could not participate.
In Saskatchewan, the only Canadian jurisdiction that gathers the Aboriginal status of every missing person’s case, 59 percent of missing women and girls are of Aboriginal ancestry.
Those present at the Montreal Valentine’s Day march were consistent in their replies as to why the government has failed to address the problem of missing Aboriginal women.
“Ultimately, it comes down to racism and sexism,” said Molly Swain, a Metis woman from Alberta. “The government, historically as well as in contemporary times, thinks that native women’s lives are worth less than other lives, and that the women who go missing are drug addicts, prostitutes or runaways and so don’t deserve the time or money necessary in order to keep them safe.”
Lisa Gagner, a Saulteaux woman from Saskatchewan, stated that “female native women are often subject to racism because of people’s ignorance.” Gagner believes most Canadians are particularly unaware of the “trauma and inter-generational abuse that native women face daily.”
In fact, Aboriginal women are more likely to be sex workers. In Vancouver, despite making up only two percent of the population, Aboriginal women account for 30 percent of the city’s sex workers.
Sex workers are undeniably vulnerable women, likely to suffer abuse and violence. Despite the gross inequalities between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal women, Swain noted that “when you look at [the numbers of] organisations that are specifically geared towards helping and supporting native women versus the organisations that are geared towards helping non-natives, you can’t make a comparison.”
The numbers support Swain’s claim. The Canadian government announced $10 million to combat violence against Aboriginal women in the March 2010 budget, but closer inspection shows that not all of this money is earmarked for strictly Aboriginal issues.
Of the amount, $4 million will go to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Force (RCMP) to establish a support centre for, and to create a registry of, missing persons. Other amounts are dedicated to generic “community safety plans”, with only a broad stipulation that these services cater to Aboriginal women. By law, all Canadian public services must cater to people regardless of ancestry, so these stipulations amount to nothing. Furthermore, the allocation of funds within the $10 million was decided without consultation with NWAC.
In the same budget, the Government informed NWAC that it would no longer fund Sisters In Spirit, an organisation created in 2004 as a research, education and policy initiative. Sisters In Spirit collected information about missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls across Canada, and constructed an essential, reliable database of information.
The Government has entrusted this work to the RCMP, but the RCMP lacks the expertise demonstrated by Sisters in Spirit and is limited by policy and expertise from collecting data about Aboriginal identity. It will also take several years for an RCMP database to be fully functional, even if it is adequately funded.
For Swain, the Government has simply taken fiscal “resources out of [Native women’s] hands and given it to the very institutions that are allowing [the abuse] to continue.”
At the march, Louis, who asked to only be identified by his first name, agreed: “The government needs to develop solidarity amongst communities, particularly between urban Aboriginals and those who have chosen to stay on reserves.”
Sisters In Spirit was committed to building not only urban-rural links, but links between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal women. “The government needs to stop turning a blind eye to this issue,” added Louis, “and prioritize programmes that build solidarity.”
The issue has attracted international attention. The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) announced in December that it will conduct an inquiry into the case. The Committee is the UN’s main authority on women’s human rights and is composed of 23 independent experts from around the world. Its members believe that very serious violations of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women have taken place in Canada.
The investigation has not properly begun, although the CEDAW called on Canada in 2008 to “develop a specific and integrated plan for addressing the particular conditions affecting Aboriginal women, both on and off reserves,...including poverty, poor health, inadequate housing, low school‐completion rates, low employment rates, [and] low income.”
The Canadian government has, until now, stopped short of addressing the “specific” needs of Aboriginal women, but the organisers of the Valentine’s Day march, and women and Aboriginals throughout Canada, hope that international attention will finally force the Canadian Government to address this long-running issue.