By Malou Brouwer
From vast landscapes of snow and ice to the bustling cities of Toronto and Montreal, Canada is often celebrated as a land of peace, tolerance, and respect for diversity. However, in 2004, Amnesty International accused Canada of endangering Indigenous women, putting them at continuous risk of abduction, sexual abuse and lethal violence. This is due largely to systemic racism. Add sexism to the equation and you can see that Canada has failed in protecting Indigenous women and girls.
Sexual violence as an act of colonialism
Research (Amnesty International, 2004) has shown that Indigenous women are six times more likely to become a victim of deadly violence than non-Indigenous Canadian women. Between 1980 and 2012, 1181 cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women were registered in Canada. In comparison, in proportion to the population of France, this official number equals 55.000 French women. Of these 1181 Stolen Sisters, as they are called, 1017 are deceased and 164 have disappeared.
The causes of this violence towards Indigenous women are complex and invariably interrelated. In most cases, the Indigenous women are attacked by individuals or insufficiently protected by the authorities specifically because of their Indigenous identity. Sometimes unfavorable circumstances, such as prostitution and alcohol or drug use, are at play increasing the risk of violence. It is only in very rare cases that their indigeneity plays no role whatsoever in the violence towards Indigenous women.
The idea that Indigenous identity is different and inferior to the Canadian identity – whatever that may be – is deeply rooted in colonialism. Indeed, in order to dismantle the stability of the often matriarchal Indigenous communities the colonizers needed to install a patriarchal hierarchy. Colonizers saw that as long as women held a significant amount of power it would be impossible for them as colonizers to fully conquer Canada. Since the early 1500s, the invaders made every possible effort to remove Indian women from positions of authority. In doing so, they tried to make Canadians and Indigenous Peoples forget that gynecocracy was the primary social order of most of the Indigenous communities. Even today, this patriarchal hierarchy introduced by the Europeans and forced upon the Indigenous peoples continues to exist.
The construct of this colonial patriarchy was largely based on the violence towards Indigenous women and their devalorization because of their race and their gender. Andrea Smith, Qwo-Li Driskill and many others argue that sexual violence is an explicit act of colonialism that influences personal and national identities. Through violence, physical and sexual, the invaders not only seized land and resources from the Indigenous peoples, they also stripped away their sense of being a people. To the colonizers Indigenous people did not deserve the same rights and protection as they themselves did. This dehumanization remains one of the reasons that Indigenous women are more likely to get raped or murdered and partly explains why the authorities rarely take the cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women seriously.
Gender-based and race-based violence
Dismantling matriarchal societies was not the only way in which the invaders wanted to secure total conquest. Colonial violence was also aimed against reproduction. Women having children ensured the continuous existence of Indigenous peoples thereby undermining the colonial ‘success’. As Ines Hernandez-Avila puts it, “it is because of a Native American woman’s sex that she is hunted down and slaughtered, in fact, singled out, because she has the potential through childbirth to ensure the continuance of the people”. Control of reproductive abilities and destruction of Indigenous women and their children are necessary for the annihilation of a people. Residential schools, for example, were intended to ‘kill the Indian and save the child’; instead many of the children died of diseases, insufficient medical care, neglect, abuse, and lack of food. Former students of residential schools have said that some schoolgrounds even had unmarked graveyards for babies born to Indigenous girls who had been impregnated by priests and other church officials. The high mortality rate among children in the residential schools throughout North America and the high number of Stolen Sisters in Canada attest to the persisting violence against Indigenous peoples.
If sexual violence is not just a simple instrument of patriarchy, but also a tool for colonialism and racism, entire minority communities are victims of this sexual violence. The violence against Indigenous women is impregnated by colonial, racial and gender issues. These issues cannot be separated. In fact, the abuse of an Indigenous woman is both an attack on her identity as a woman and an attack on her identity as Indigenous.
Canadian society as we know it today is a settler colonial state, a state in which the colonizers never left and are still dominant. This is one of the reasons that Amnesty International, among others, has been able to point to the disturbing connections among past policies and current issues. Residential schools, societal discrimination against Indigenous people, and deadly violence against the Stolen Sisters are all part of colonial heritage. Failing authorities are yet another one.
On November 12, 1971, on her way home after a night out, Helen Betty Osborne was stopped in the streets by four non-Native men. When she refused to join them for sex they forced her into a car where she was raped and stabbed fifty times. As punishment for Osborne’s rape and murder one of the four men was sentenced to life in prison, the second one was fired from his job, the other two got off scot-free. For a lot of these women’s relatives, this is still the painful reality: their kidnappers, rapists and murderers are seldomly arrested and convicted. Even worse is that often the police investigations are poorly conducted, and sometimes not at all. Research has shown that accurate police action could possibly have prevented Helen Betty Osborne’s death.
Not much seems to have changed over the last 50 years; there is still much discontent among the victims’ relatives about the police’s action. The family of Nadine Machiskinic, who fell down a laundry chute at the Delta Hotel in January 2015 and died in the hospital a few hours later, is not satisfied with the police and their investigation. Indeed, they argue that the investigation is marked by a series of mistakes, missteps, and missed opportunities. For example, the police were only called in 60 hours after her death, and it took a year for the police to track down potential witnesses.
According to Amnesty International cases of missing, raped or murdered Indigenous women are too often not taken seriously by Canadian authorities, both on the local and national level. It seems that even the authorities discriminate against Indigenous women, both for their identity as women and for their identity as Indigenous people.
Deborah Anna Sloss died under suspicious circumstances on August 24th, 1996 in Toronto. When closing a healing ceremony for Deborah, elder Dan Smoke, her brother-in-law called to honor the Stolen Sisters: “It is important to honour the missing and murdered women. It is unacceptable to marginalize these women. The Creator did not create garbage. He created beauty.” Dan Smoke is not the only one to draw attention to this painful issue that has long been ignored by the Canadian government. In their search for justice, families of the Stolen Sisters often organize protests in the streets of various cities to get attention for the disappearance of their mothers, sisters and daughters.
It took a long time however for them to be heard. Until 2013, the feminicide remained relatively unknown in Canada. Only a handful of people – supporters of Idle No More, family members of the missing and murdered women, Amnesty International activists, and a few politicians – were interested in the subject. However, since then Canada’s collective consciousness seems to be slowly changing: different newspapers report regularly on the Stolen Sisters, others publish testimonies by family members, and in 2015 the feminicide was an important topic during the Canadian elections.
In August 2016, the Canadian government launched a nationwide inquiry aimed at bringing an end to the “ongoing national tragedy” of the thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Through a close collaboration with the Indigenous peoples the Canadian government aims not only to find a solution for the disappearance and the murder of Indigenous women. They also hope to improve the relation between the Indigenous population and the rest of Canada. The three main domains of the inquiry are prevention and conscience, common security, and culturally relevant policy measures. The inquiry is still ongoing and has received both praise and criticism. Even more recently, in February 2018, Prime Minister Trudeau announced that his government would ask Indigenous Peoples in Canada how to change the law to better protect their rights. According to his plans, fundamental changes should be made by fall 2019.
On the way to solutions
The accusation from Amnesty International is not unwarranted: the issue of missing and murdered women is about the violation of the United Nation’s ‘Declaration on the Right of Indigenous Peoples’. According to this declaration, the land, the resources and the right to self-determination of the Indigenous population should be protected. Moreover, Indigenous knowledge, cultures, languages and traditions should be respected. Article 22 states that Indigenous women and children should be completely protected from all forms of violence and discrimination. The issue of the Stolen Sisters shows clearly that this is not (yet) the case.
Since the problem of violence against Indigenous women is deeply rooted in colonialism, there is an important need for systemic and profound changes that reach to the core of the problem: the continued colonizer-colonized relationship between Canada and Indigenous Peoples. Therefore, according to many, the issue not only requires the condemnation, prevention, and punishment of the violence against Indigenous women. It also asks for specific measures to deal with the causes of this gender and race-based violence, such as specialized shelters and social services for the victims. After these first steps, there is also the need to cure the men from their violence and to counter the social and cultural patterns of conduct that legitimize violence against women. These solutions should be developed in a reciprocal relationship between Indigenous Peoples and the non-Native population.
There is still a long way to go until all families will have received answers and justice for the missing and murdered Indigenous women. And it will probably be an even longer journey until social and cultural patterns are countered. But, as the Cheyenne say “a nation is not conquered until the hearts of the women are on the ground”.
Want to know more?
On October 20th, 2017 the documentary “Stolen Sisters” aired on Canadian television (at Global Television Network). This documentary highlights different perspectives concerning the disappearance and the murder of Indigenous women in Canada. It tells the stories of the missing women and follows their families in their attempt to find their loved ones. The documentary also gives insight in a case in which the authorities failed. This documentary makes the Stolen Sisters visible.
Emmanuelle Walter too gives the Stolen Sisters a voice. In her journalistic novel Soeurs Volées she interprets the statistics by telling the stories of two young missing girls, Maisy Odjick and Shannon Alexander. Both are from Quebec and have been missing since 2008. Through official documents, journalistic articles, testimonies, and interviews Emmanuelle Walter brings the Stolen Sisters to the attention of a larger public. Soeurs Volées has been translated into English as Stolen Sisters.
Malou Brouwer holds a Bachelor’s degree in French Language and Culture, and two Master’s degrees; in Francophone Literature and Literary Studies. Fascinated by questions related to the female body and eroticism, and to women’s writing, her research master’s thesis examines how erotic, Indigenous women’s poetry allows for reimagining sovereignty. She is currently working as translator and writing a PhD-proposal.
Amnesty International, (2004), « A Human Rights Response to Discrimination and Violence against Indigenous Women in Canada », 2004.
Leo, Geoffry, “Unresolved: Nadine Machiskinic”, June 30, 2016, http://www.cbc.ca/missingandmurdered/mmiw/profiles/nadine-machiskinic (consulted May 10, 2018).
Smith, A, (2015). Conquest : Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide. Durham: Duke University Press.
Walter, E, (2014). Soeurs volées. Enquête sur un feminicide au Canada. Montreal: Lux Editions.