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Seeking Justice for Canada’s 500 Missing Native Women

The trial date for Robert Pickton, who was charged in December 2003 with 15 counts of murder in what is now the largest serial killer investigation in Canadian history, is scheduled to be set this December. Of the total 22 bodies found on Pickton’s pig farm, as many as half are thought to be aboriginal women.

Pickton appeared in court on June 28, where the Canadian government and the defense agreed that a trial date should not be set until December 20.

In all, 62 women are missing from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside alone, said Beverley Jacobs, author of an Amnesty International report on Canada’s missing women. Most are still unaccounted for. The Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC), an aggregate of organizations representing First Nations and Métis women, estimates that 500 aboriginal women have gone missing over the past 30 years in Canada.

“The current media focus is on the missing Vancouver women but there are missing Aboriginal women across Canada,” writes Priscilla Campeau of Athabasca University in an article for the college’s women’s studies program. According to Campeau, dozens of unsolved cases involving missing or murdered aboriginal women are being investigated nationwide, and “countless” others are never investigated because the victims led transient lives.

Pickton’s upcoming trial will be highly scrutinized in light of recent revelations in the case of former British Columbia provincial court judge David Ramsay, who pled guilty last month to sexually abusing four aboriginal women, three of whom were minors. The girls had appeared before him in family court.

NWAC President Kukdookaa Terri Brown told the Inter Press Service that indigenous women the world over often fall victim to violence because they are marginalized in every nation. “Indigenous women are taken to cities to work; they are promised jobs but they end up in prostitution,” she said.

Some of the missing women in Canada left their communities in an attempt to escape grinding poverty. The NWAC cites several studies indicating that aboriginal women in Canada live in developing world conditions: Even within aboriginal communities, significantly more women live in poverty than men, and poverty impacts over half of all aboriginal children in Canada.

A 2001 study by Save the Children, in collaboration with the Canadian government, found that poverty and limited access to education were only part of the problem. The residential school system in the United States and Canada continued into the 1970s and destroyed the social fabric of aboriginal society by keeping children from their parents and subjecting many of them to physical and sexual abuse.

Aboriginal women also bear the brunt of an ongoing cycle of violence. According to a 1999 survey by Statistics Canada, 12.6 percent of Native women reported domestic abuse whereas only 3.5 percent of non-Natives did. Three times as many Native women reported being threatened, five times as many reported sexual assault, and seven times as many reported physical abuse.

Psychologist Douglas Brownridge, who analyzed the survey in a paper published by the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, said aboriginal families are subject to increased risk due to alcohol abuse, unemployment, large family size, common-law marriages, and limited educational opportunities, but that those factors alone couldn’t account for the difference.

“The intrusion on and destruction of our culture has resulted in people who live very violent lives,” Brown said. “We’re talking about layers upon layers of violence here: family violence is just one aspect of the problem, as is the violence against women who’ve flocked to the cities in hope of a better life.”

NWAC launched the Sisters in Spirit campaign in March as part of its attempts to increase public awareness about the rate of racialized violence against aboriginal women. “We didn’t want to just look at domestic violence because it’s not just aboriginal men beating aboriginal women,” said Sherry Lewis, executive director of NWAC. “There is racialized violence that’s going on at a far more horrific rate than a lot of the other violence.”

Robert Pickton’s case is just the most recent example of such violence. Just Another Indian: A Serial Killer and Canada’s Indifference, by Warren Goulding, tells the gruesome story of serial killer John Martin Crawford, who brutally beat and murdered Native women in 1982. The subsequent investigation was deeply flawed, media attention was scant, and public reaction almost non-existent, according to Goulding.

While Pickton’s crimes have provoked considerably more media coverage than Crawford’s, the Mother of Red Nations Women’s Council has called for more media attention to missing aboriginal women. Council spokeswoman Leslie Spillett told Oread Daily that all missing women deserve the kind of coverage and public concern afforded Dru Sjodin, a white university student who disappeared in North Dakota last November.

Lewis said that on the “Highway of Tears” between Prince Rupert and Prince George, five aboriginal women went missing between 1988 and 1995 with little or no media attention, yet “one non-aboriginal woman goes missing and all of a sudden there was a media frenzy.”

Media coverage often neglects victims of violence who are drug addicts or prostitutes, yet public awareness is a vital component of future change. “Our greatest obstacle,” said Brown, “is that the government doesn’t care, and the average Canadian on the street has never heard of this issue. I’ve been doing nothing for two solid years but talking about this problem, but we still need more exposure.”

But even the disparities in media coverage take second place to disparities in the way such cases are handled by authorities. According to Brown, there are “two layers of justice, one for non-Aboriginal people and one for Aboriginal people.”

Amnesty International said that police have sometimes responded with thorough investigations of missing persons reports, but that family members of missing aboriginal women are far too often left in the dark about what, if anything, is being done to find them.

Police were also slow to cooperate with Amnesty International’s investigation into the incidence of missing aboriginal women in Canada, said Jacobs, the report’s author, in a statement to Inter Press Service.

But police are not the only culprits in this lax pursuit of justice. In the case of former judge Ramsay’s trial, The Vancouver Sun reports that rather than demanding the maximum sentence, prosecutor Dennis Murray focused on Ramsay’s quick resignation, guilty plea, and contributions to the community. British Columbia Supreme Court Associate Chief Judge Patrick Dohm ignored a plea bargain and gave Ramsay seven years in prison, two more than the prosecution asked for—but Ramsay could serve as little as 22 months.

“All of this judge’s past court cases should be re-investigated,” said Telquaa Helen Mitchell, spokesperson for the Bear Clan Families of Maxan Lake.

Perhaps worst of all is public indifference to the missing and murdered women. “It is appalling that these issues do not matter to the larger community just because the victims are Aboriginal women,” writes Denise Cook, a member of the NWAC Youth Council.

Doug Cuthand’s statement in Regina’s Leader-Post echoes her sentiment. “This is a lifestyle that most people can’t understand or chose to ignore,” he said. “For us, it is a part of the sad reality of being Aboriginal in Saskatchewan. Indian women can be beaten up and killed with very little public outcry. Somehow they are not important.”

Despite this history of neglect, some positive steps are being taken to address violence against aboriginal women. Besides the Sisters in Spirit campaign, which receives CAD$22,000 (U.S. $16,808) annually in government funding, NWAC is pursuing “a number of court challenges in the Canadian justice system with regard to the oppression of aboriginal women,” said Lewis.

The Aboriginal Women’s Council of Saskatchewan is working with Child Find Saskatchewan, the Prince Albert City Police, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) on the launch of the Woman Find Project, which entails creating identification kits to be kept as part of a database intended to help police locate and identify missing women.

Meanwhile, the Alberta RCMP has announced a task force to investigate 83 cases of murdered and missing women dating back to 1982.

Government response has also been more encouraging. In a statement on May 21, Minister of State Jean Augustine said, “High rates of violence against aboriginal women highlight an urgent problem that demands action of government, voluntary sector organizations, and the private sector.” She confirmed a CAD$20,000 (U.S.$15,280) grant to NWAC to develop a proposal for a project to document the circumstances around the disappearance of missing or murdered aboriginal women nationwide, and to create a national registry and toll-free hotline.

Brown said the grant was “a step in the right direction.”

By itself, though, it isn’t enough. “We don’t even know for sure how many women are missing,” Lewis said. “There’s a lot of research to be done.”

Amnesty International’s report documenting a number of cases in detail and identifying the circumstances that put so many indigenous women at risk was released in August. “The project is an important part of an international campaign Amnesty International has recently launched, demanding that the global horror of violence against women be stopped,” said Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada.

Jacobs said the report will give a “human face to the aboriginal women who are either still missing or who have been murdered.”

Public education is another important step to stemming the tide of violence. In an open letter to Prime Minister Paul Martin, NWAC said it would like to see educational workshops on the missing women and their families.

Education must also be a priority within aboriginal communities. “There is a complete lack of culturally sensitive programs for young aboriginal women both on-reserve and off-reserve on how to possibly avoid the risks of being a victim of violence,” said Nicole Eshkakogan of the Aboriginal Youth Network.

Brown said that the NWAC cannot “continue to rely on grants from Status of Women Canada because they don’t have the resources to support the work that must be done.” She said they need support from Indian Affairs and Health Canada and from provincial education departments, all of which are implicated in the problem of violence against aboriginal women.

“Because violence is now an intergenerational problem among aboriginal communities, we need an awareness campaign within the schools,” Lewis said.

Reform within the justice system is another important objective. “Through our research it has also become apparent that much more has to be done to educate police, justice officials, and others to ensure that effective action is taken to stop violence against indigenous women,” Neve said.

RCMP Inspector Conrad Delaronde of the National Aboriginal Policing Services told Canadian Press that the police welcome any measures intended to help them do their jobs. He said the RCMP take each reported disappearance seriously.

Much remains to be done. In the meantime, the families of those women still missing are trying their best to cope. Relatives of the 62 women missing from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside gathered in memory of their loved ones at the Carnegie Library in Vancouver last Valentine’s Day. CBC News reported that many of those who spoke had just been informed that their relatives’ DNA had been found on Pickton’s pig farm.

The day Pickton’s trial date is set will be a “significant day for women and for aboriginal women, specifically,” Brown said. “After many years of lobbying, every level of government will finally be faced with the reality of the situation.”

Meanwhile, Native leaders have done what they can to spiritually cleanse the site where the women were murdered, according to CBC News. “If we truly want to make change,” Lewis said, “we have to do it in a way that we are not banging their heads against the wall saying ‘stop being so violent.’ We have to make them understand that the way of peace is a much more gentle way that will strengthen the entire nation.”

Deidre d’Entremont is a graduate student at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. She is a former managing editor of Cultural Survival Quarterly.

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