After much prodding by the media, and the Harper government’s (Minister of Public Safety) review and approval, the RCMP finally released their report on murdered and missing Indigenous women. Although slated for a March release, in typical Conservative style, the much-delayed report was released on a Friday before the Victoria Day long weekend. The report not only confirmed the over-representation of Indigenous women as murdered and missing in Canada, but the figure of 1181 was nearly double the 600+ figure originally reported by the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC). Indigenous women suffer a victimization rate three times higher than the Canadian population and are grossly over-represented in the number of women that go murdered and missing. While homicides have declined for Canadian women, the same cannot be said for Indigenous women. Indigenous women make up 4% of the population in Canada but 11% of the missing women and 16% of the murdered women. While these numbers are high, the levels in the western provinces and northern territories are frightening. The number of murdered Indigenous women in Manitoba is 49% and in Saskatchewan its 55%.
On the positive side, the RCMP finally turned their investigative minds to this serious issue. Because the reality is, if the RCMP can’t be motivated to look into this crisis, there is little chance in getting their assistance in addressing it. We also now have additional statistics that the show that the problem is worse than originally thought which one would hope would spur the RCMP and others into emergency action. Further, it was important that the RCMP recognized that more than a police response will be needed to address this crisis and that all of the socio-economic issues must also be addressed.
That’s the extent to which I can be positive about this report. For the most part, this report just recycled information we already knew. We already knew the over-representation of Indigenous women and girls in murdered, missing and victimization rates, as well as the socio-economic conditions which make Indigenous women and girls vulnerable. Secondly, this report suffers from a glaring omission – an analysis of the RCMP’s role in this crisis. While there are many good men and women in the RCMP who believe in justice, those who do not, need to be exposed. Finally, if this report is any indication of an RCMP “action plan” – very little is going to change. If we can’t get real about the root causes of this crisis, we’ll still be talking about this in ten years.
In 1989, the Report of the Royal Commission on the Donald Marshall Jr., Prosecution concluded that Marshall had been wrongfully convicted of murder and spent years in jail simply because he was Mi’kmaw. “The criminal justice system failed Donald Marshall Jr., at virtually every turn from his arrest and wrongful conviction for murder in 1971 up to, and even beyond, his acquittal.” The report went further to investigate how prominent “White” people were treated with Mi’kmaw people when accused of crimes. It concluded that the RCMP would not pursue investigations of prominent “White” people despite the evidence which showed an “undue and improper sensitivity to the status of the person being investigated” and made “the ideal of justice for all meaningless”.
The 1991 Report of the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry of Manitoba looking into the murder of Helen Betty Osborne also concluded that despite the fact that it is well-known that Aboriginal women and girls suffer extreme rates of violence, the Justice system does not protect them. In the case of Osborne, the RCMP treated the Indigenous witnesses brutally in comparison to how they treated the “white” accused.
Just in case the RCMP forgot that there was an issue in need of attention, the United Nations Rapporteur rang the alarm in 2004 when he concluded that the over 500 murdered and missing Indigenous women in Canada had been neglected for far too long by Canada. Again in 2010, NWAC brought the issue to the public eye by releasing their research which showed there were at least 600+ murdered and missing and stated that the numbers of Indigenous women and girls that are murdered while in police custody, prisons or child welfare authorities also needed to be investigated.
Twenty years after Helen Betty Osborne’s death, a serial killer named Robert Pickton was able to kidnap and murder Indigenous and non-Indigenous women with little fear of getting caught. Why? According to Forsaken: The Report of the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry, Pickton was able to prey at will due to “critical police failures” to take reports of missing women, follow up and investigate thoroughly or in a timely way. Issues of racism, systemic bias and victim-blaming were all noted in the report.
The most disturbing of all reports is the 2013 report entitled Those Who Take Us Away: Abusive Policing and Failures in Protection of Indigenous Women and Girls in Northern British Colombia prepared by Human Rights Watch. This report concluded that Indigenous women and girls are not only “under-protected” by the RCMP but are in fact the objects of RCMP abuse. They highlighted the many allegations of RCMP officers sexually exploiting and abusing young Indigenous girls.. There are reports of confinement, rape, and sexual assault on Indigenous girls and some have led to law suits. They also reported on a class action law suit against the RCMP by its own female officers for sexual harassment and gender discrimination.
While the government and RCMP have, at times, tried to blame the victims for their own circumstances, it seems very clear that a large part of the problem is government and RCMP’s racist and sexist attitudes towards Indigenous women and girls. In addition to Canada’s discriminatory laws and policies against Indigenous peoples generally, and women specifically, the Human Rights Watch group even reports on an example of the judiciary being involved in the abuse against these girls. David Ramsay, a provincial court judge, was accused of sexually assaulting and violently abusing girls between 12 and 17 and eventually plead guilty. How are Indigenous women and girls supposed to get justice if the Justice system participates in the abuse and rape of these women?
One of the biggest impediments to moving forward is the continued failure of the federal government to have the RCMP investigated to determine the full extent to which racism against Indigenous people and sexism against women in general hamper their work. Harper’s own discriminatory attitude towards Indigenous peoples is a significant barrier to moving forward. Even the most recent United Nations report from the Rapporteur commented on how poor the relationship is between Canada and Indigenous peoples and has become worse since the last visit to Canada in 2003. The United Nations is not alone in its observation of deteriorating government relations – the Bertelsmann Foundation is the latest to note that Canada’s record on governance has declined under Harper, especially when it comes to Indigenous peoples. The UN further stated that Canada’s negative public comments about Indigenous peoples risks social peace.
We need a comprehensive emergency plan to prevent any more murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls. Multiple groups need to be brought together including (but not limited to) the RCMP, federal and provincial governments and police forces, Indigenous peoples, and experts to develop a plan of action. This plan should include many of the recommendations already noted in the commissions and enquiries outlined above (and won’t be repeated here). Addressing the chronic underfunding of basic human services like housing, water, food, and education is critical to addressing federally-maintained poverty which puts women and girls (and men) in vulnerable positions.
It is important to ensure that at the same time as the emergency action plan is being carried out, that a proper comprehensive investigation of the RCMP for any role it may have had in physically abusing, confining, raping, sexually assaulting and/or causing Indigenous women or girls to go murdered or missing is critical. This investigation should include an analysis of how many times they failed to file reports, do investigations or follow up as per their standards and procedures. The RCMP and other police forces must be accountable for their actions with a view to ending this crisis. Otherwise, little has changed from the days when the RCMP would drag our children back to residential schools and ignore their complaints of abuse in the schools.
Instead of letting another 10 years go by talking about murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls, Canada needs to take immediate emergency action on this crisis.
Instead of Canada spending so much money surveillance of Indigenous advocates who are trying to protect Indigenous families, it could use that money towards adequate housing, shelters and supports for Indigenous women and girls.
Instead of spending multi-millions to keep Indigenous peoples in prisons, Canada could use that funding to pay for k-12 and post-secondary education.
Instead of spending millions on litigation to deny treaty rights, land claims and access to natural resources, Canada could spend those funds to support Indigenous peoples access their lands and resources to support self-sufficient Nations.
Instead of trying to assimilate Indians , Canada needs to accept that we are here to stay and work together for our mutual benefit as envisioned by the treaties.
Instead of allowing those who view Indigenous women and girls as worthless to dictate their fate, we need to recognize these women and girls are the future of our Nations and protect our life-givers.