By: Dr. Pamela D. Palmater
Institutionalized racism in Canada is perpetuating the crisis of murdered and missing Indigenous women. Seven years ago Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized for the assimilatory residential school policy which sought to “kill the Indian in the child” and caused so much suffering for generations of Indigenous peoples. However, the following year in September 2009, Harper declared to the world, “We also have no history of colonialism.” Apparently, Harper forgot about the rape, torture, and abuse of Indigenous children in those schools. He forgot that this policy of assimilation treated Indigenous children like inmates, tied them to electric chairs, conducted medical experiments on them, and saw over 7,500 children die in those schools. If ever there was evidence of colonialism in Canada, the death camps in residential schools would be it.
But this isn’t the first instance where Canada’s Prime Minister has shown signs of a deluded reality when it comes to the disastrous effects of colonialism on Indigenous peoples. On May 7, 2014, the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous peoples noted Canada’s long history of “devastating human rights violations” and called on Canada to address the current crisis of murdered and missing Indigenous women recommending a “comprehensive, nation-wide inquiry.” Harper’s response to the numbers of Indigenous women that kept being murdered was: “We should not view this as a sociological phenomenon. We should view it as crime.” As a result, there was no commitment for a national inquiry, nor was action taken to protect our women.
In December of 2014, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) found a direct link between Canada’s discrimination against Indigenous women, their poor socio-economic status and the disproportionate rates of violence they suffer. IACHR concluded that police failures to prevent and protect Indigenous women, and Canada’s failure to address their impoverished socio-economic conditions both make Indigenous women vulnerable to violence. Harper’s immediate response was that a national inquiry on murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls “isn’t really high on our radar, to be honest.”
But Canada’s failure to act did not go unnoticed. In March 2015, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women issued a report finding Canada guilty of “grave violations” of human rights for Canada’s “protracted failure” to take action on discrimination against Indigenous women, police misconduct, impoverished socio-economic conditions, and inter-generational trauma from colonization which all make Indigenous women more vulnerable to violence. Again, Canada failed to take any substantive action on the crisis.
Sadly, even the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), Canada’s national police force, are guilty of failing to act. The RCMP issued a report on their investigation into the issue and found that the number, previously thought to be 600, was closer to 1,181. Despite being only 4 percent of the population, Indigenous women represented 16 percent of the total murdered or missing women. In provinces like Manitoba and Saskatchewan, the statistics reached as high as 49 percent and 55 percent respectively. The calls for a national inquiry and action plan increased over the following months.
Canada’s Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, Bernard Valcourt denied the need for an inquiry by stating that the problem is Indigenous men. “Obviously, there’s a lack of respect for women and girls on reserves. So, you know, if the guys grow up believing that women have no rights, that’s how they are treated,” he said.
At a meeting with the Grand Chiefs of Treaties 6, 7 and 8 on March 20, 2014, Valcourt said that the RCMP had unreleased data that shows that Indigenous men are responsible for 70 percent of the murders of Indigenous women. The RCMP refused to back up his claim citing that the RCMP is committed to biased-free policing and would not release racial data on alleged perpetrators. Within less than two weeks, however, the RCMP broke their policy on bias-free policing and alleged that “Aboriginal origin” was found in 70 percent of the cases of murdered Indigenous women. What they didn’t include in the letter were the footnotes about the flaws in their statistics that:
(1) “Aboriginal origin” is a category only used in the last couple of years;
(2) most perpetrators are identified by racial stereotypes about biological characteristics like eye and skin colour left to the discretion of Canadian police;
(3) police identification systems across 300 jurisdictions are not uniform, if they exist at all; and
(4) most “Aboriginal” people are not identified specifically as “Aboriginal” but instead identified as “non-white” or “blank.”
These factors led the RCMP to admit that “a high number of Homicide survey reports where the identity of the victim (and/or accused) remained unknown.” It’s hard to accept the RCMP’s definitive statement on the identity of the alleged perpetrators if a “high” number of them are unknown. Aside from being less than reliable, the RCMP statistics were clearly released to support the government’s agenda of victim-blaming. That is neither bias-free policing nor reflective of the integrity they espouse.
Perhaps their most glaring omission and one which hampers any real progress on addressing the police misconduct cited in so many reports, is the RCMP’s failure to include any statistics on the numbers of RCMP or provincial and municipal police who have been involved in the assaults, rapes, murders, or missing Indigenous women and girls. The United Nations cited a 2013 human rights report which documented instances of RCMP rape and assault of Indigenous women and girls that went unaddressed. Recently, one officer lost only a week’s pay for arresting, imprisoning, and then having relations with an Indigenous woman back at his house. He did all of this while being encouraged by his co-officers and supervisor. Other officers were implicated in the rapes and assaults of young Indigenous girls in British Columbia, but were never investigated. The RCMP itself has a massive class action suit against it by its own female officers alleging sexual discrimination. They come to this issue with dirty hands and have a vested interest in not publicly supporting a national inquiry that would look into their officers’ involvement in violence against Indigenous women and girls.
Though the RCMP did follow up their original report with an update released this week, it contains even less information than the first report, but shifts the focus of blaming only Indigenous men to blaming Indigenous families and communities as well. As if on cue, Minister Valcourt announced $1 million dollar online tool targeting Indigenous women and girls warning them of the dangers of violent Indigenous men and of drinking alcohol. This sort of blatant racism and victim-blaming has created a smokescreen to deflect attention from Canada’s role in this crisis. Canadian officials have tried very hard to ignore the crisis, deny the crisis, and now have shifted blame for the crisis to Indigenous peoples. They know that if they can make Indigenous peoples the cause of their own suffering that there will be little public support for an inquiry. Canada refuses to accept the findings of 58+ reports with over 700 recommendations to address the crisis; even those of the United Nations that conclude that it’s Canada’s own actions that are to blame for the crisis – not Indigenous peoples themselves. We need to shift the focus back on Indigenous women and girls and create an emergency action plan to address all of the legal and socio-economic reasons for their vulnerability. We must continue to press for a national inquiry to shed light where there is now only darkness.
Dr. Pamela D. Palmater is an Associate Professor and Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University.