Breaking the Silence 2: Violence Against Aboriginal Women

Every woman who has gone missing is someone’s daughter, someone’s mother, someone’s aunt or someone’s sister. We must never lose sight of the fact that they were loved and deserve to be valued.”

– Sandra Gagnon, whose sister Janet Henry went missing in Vancouver in 1997.

Canada is the land of my birth, and the place which I call home. It is a country that has a bilingual and multicultural history. That history is stained with atrocities against the Aboriginal peoples who lived here before the Europeans came. Residential schools are only one example of how the Canadian government at one time adopted a policy of assimilation because they assumed that one way of being was superior to another. The way people think has a very direct connection to what they choose to do.

Attitudes of racism and sexism are used by some to justify violence against Aboriginal women. When I first started to research the topic I had no idea how tragic the consequences of these attitudes were for these women. The Native Women’s Association of Canada launched the campaign Sisters in Spirit in March 2004 to raise public awareness of the alarmingly high rates of violence against Aboriginal women in Canada. It is estimated that between 500 to 1000 Aboriginal women are missing or murdered here in Canada.

Below you will find videos where the families are speaking about their missing or murdered loved ones. These women all matter regardless of their race, gender or whether they were involved in drug addiction or in the sex trade. Those who fall into the latter circumstances often do not have the opportunities to prevent those vulnerabilities. Lack of public attention by the media, and delays in investigating these cases lead to many of them remaining unsolved.

These are only a few examples of the many cases that I found of missing and murdered Aboriginal women:

Diane BigEagle

Lori Whiteman

Pauline Muskego

Sandra Gagnon

One of the most disturbing things that came out of my research is that the families have to stay on the police in order for the cases to continue to be given attention. The families of these women are not giving up hope that justice will be done. Amnesty International has also been doing its part to raise awareness, and to promote change through its campaign Stolen Sisters. Amnesty International’s mission is to defend those who are denied justice or freedom, and there are 3 million people around the world who are involved in campaigns like these. It is only through changing how people think that changes in behaviour and government policy can occur.

“There’s still a double standard when it comes to Aboriginal woman and girls. When is the government going to take action to make sure that every case of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls is thoroughly investigated?”

– Laurie Odjick, whose 16-year-old daughter Maisy disappeared from Maniwaki, Quebec in September 2008 along with her friend Shannon Alexander.

As of July 2011 the Canadian Federal Government has:

  1. Dedicated $10 million to be spent over 5 years to address violence against Aboriginal women and girls. In reality the money is being spent on initiatives to improve the tracking of missing persons not on what it was intended for.
  2. Delayed funding to the Native Women’s Associations of Canada’s “Sisters in Spirit” initiative that the government itself has said has been vital in drawing attention to violence against Aboriginal women.
  3. Failed to implement a comprehensive national plan to stop violence against Aboriginal women and girls.

In October 2010, the Native Women’s Association of Canada, the Assembly of First Nations, the National Association of Friendship Centres, KAIROS, Amnesty International, and many others joined together to call for a comprehensive national plan of action.

Such a national plan of action must:

  • Ensure Indigenous women’s access to justice, including effective and unbiased police response to all cases of missing and murdered women.
  • Improve public awareness and accountability through the consistent collection and publication of comprehensive national statistics on rates of violent crime against Indigenous women.
  • Provide adequate, stable funding to the frontline organizations to provide culturally-appropriate services such as shelters, support and counseling to help Aboriginal women and girls escape from harm’s way.
  • Address the root causes of violence against Indigenous women, including by closing the economic gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. Impoverishment and marginalization has pushed many Indigenous women into environments and situations where the risk of violence is greatly increased.

There are those out there like Amnesty International, the Native Women’s Association of Canada, the Assembly of First Nations and many others who are working to break the silence surrounding this issue. It is only through this courageous work that the government will finally respond to change things.

Relatives, like Darlene Osborne, who lost Felicia Solomon and Helen Betty Osborne, have the right to an answer:

“When will the Canadian government finally recognize the real dangers faced by Indigenous women? Families like mine all over Canada are wondering how many more sisters and daughters we have to lose before real government action is taken.”

The families, and the communities of these missing and murdered women are waiting for a satisfactory answer, so change can occur. Every one of these women and girls mattered to someone regardless of their gender, race, or their situation. When one thinks back on history is it not time to make these stories count to make a better future for these women and their children?


(c) 2012 Amanda Wilson


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