Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Canada
Missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada (MMIWG, formerly MMIW) refers to a human rights crisis that has only recently become a topic of discussion within national media. Indigenous women and communities, women’s groups and international organizations have long called for action into the high and disproportionate rates of violence and the appalling numbers of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada. Prior to the launch of the national public inquiry on 8 December 2015, these calls were continually ignored by the federal government. Described by some as a hidden crisis, Dawn Lavell-Harvard, former president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, refers to MMIWG as a national tragedy and a national shame. In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada supported the call for a national public inquiry into the disproportionate victimization of Indigenous women and girls.
The Missing and Murdered: Statistics and Demographics
There is a lot of disagreement about the number of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) acknowledged in a 2014 report that there have been nearly 1,200 missing and murdered Indigenous women between 1980 and 2012. Indigenous women’s groups, however, document the number of missing and murdered to be over 4,000. The confusion about the numbers has to do with the under-reporting of violence against Indigenous women and girls and the lack of an effective database, as well as the failure to identify such cases by ethnicity. (See also Indigenous Women’s Issues).
The Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) has drawn attention to figures from Statistics Canada documenting high rates of violence against Indigenous women. For example, Indigenous women 15 years and older were 3.5 times more likely to experience violence than non-Indigenous women, according to the 2004 General Social Survey. Violence against Indigenous women and girls is not only more frequent but also more severe. Between 1997 and 2000, the homicide rate for Indigenous women was nearly seven times higher than the rate for non-Indigenous women.
The demographics give a sense of the extent of the violence that Indigenous women and girls face across this country, but they fail to tell the stories of the deep trauma that this violence has on entire communities or the stories of children who have lost their mothers to senseless violence. The statistics cannot reflect the experiences of the families and communities who have lost a loved one. The missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls were mothers, daughters, sisters, aunties, cousins and grandmothers. Many were students completing post-secondary education, such as Loretta Saunders, an Inuk woman murdered at age 26 in 2014, who was completing her honours thesis on this very issue at the time she went missing. Some were only children, such as 14-year-old Azraya Acakabee Kokopenace and 15-year-old Tina Fontaine — who were both in the child welfare system at the time — or 16-year-old Delaine Copenace. This ongoing tragedy affects all Indigenous women and girls from all walks of life and throughout many communities and cities across Canada. Although some perpetrators are known to the victim, many are strangers.
Historical Context: Colonialism, Racism and the Sexualization of Women
Nick Printup, director and producer of the documentary Our Sisters in Spirit, stated in a 2016 interview that “to begin to understand the severity of the tragedy facing Indigenous women today you must first understand the history.” The issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada is as old as the development of Canada itself and must be understood within the historical context of settler colonialism that has led to the ongoing racialization and sexualization of Indigenous women. Historically, Indigenous women were sexualized and held against dangerous cultural attitudes and stereotypes that permeate many facets of Canadian society today.
The late Mohawk poet Tekahionwake (E. Pauline Johnson) wrote about these stereotypes 125 years ago. In an essay entitled “A Strong Race Opinion: On The Indian Girl in Modern Fiction,” which was originally published in the Toronto Sunday Globe on 22 May 1892, Johnson spoke out about the images of the “Indian squaw” that were presented in mainstream literature. Similarly, in her book, Iskwewak — Kah’Ki Yaw Ni Wahkomakanak: Neither Indian Princesses nor Easy Squaws (1995), author Janice Acoose also drew attention to the racialized and sexualized legacy of settler colonialism that has led to an acceptance of violence. As Acoose noted, these colonial attitudes have justified many of the legally sanctioned policies that have targeted Indigenous women and families, such as the Indian Act and residential schools. Other examples include the pass system (a process by which Indian agents approved passes for First Nations people to leave the reserve for whatever reason) and forced sterilization (see Eugenics). All of these policies severely limited Indigenous women’s livelihood by severing community ties and preventing Indigenous women’s access to community resources and safety networks. Colonial attitudes also justified the mass removal of Indigenous children through policies of state apprehension, such as the Sixties Scoop, and this continues today in what is now referred to as the “Millenium Scoop.” Violence against Indigenous women and girls in Canada today cannot be understood without first examining the effects of Canada’s deep history of settler colonialism on Indigenous families and communities.
Amnesty International: A Call to Action
In October 2004, Amnesty International released a report entitled Stolen Sisters: A Human Rights Response to Discrimination and Violence against Indigenous Women in Canada, in response to the appalling number of Indigenous women who are victims of racialized and sexualized violence. This report was positioned as a call for action. Amnesty highlighted the stories of nine women, including Helen Betty Osborne (a Cree woman abducted and killed at the age of 19 by four white men in The Pas, Manitoba, in 1971) and her 16-year-old cousin Felicia Solomon, whose remains were found in the Red River in 2003. Amnesty shared some stories of the missing and murdered to bring clarity to the severity of the violence faced by Indigenous women. The report also noted a lack of comprehensive reporting and statistical analysis, and called for more police accountability, stating that Indigenous women are both overpoliced and underprotected. Amnesty documented the social and economic marginalization of Indigenous women, noting that racism, poverty and marginalization, along with a lack of police protection, heighten Indigenous women’s vulnerability to violence.
Tragically, since 2004, the numbers have continued to rise. Five years after the initial report, Amnesty International released No More Stolen Sisters: The Need for a Comprehensive Response to Discrimination and Violence against Indigenous Women in Canada. This report highlighted the following five key issues as reasons for the continued national tragedy of violence against Indigenous women:
- The role of racism and misogyny in perpetuating violence against Indigenous women
- Sharp disparities in the fulfilment of Indigenous women’s economic, social, political and cultural rights
- The continued disruption of Indigenous societies caused by the historic and ongoing mass removal of children from Indigenous families and communities
- Disproportionately high numbers of Indigenous women in Canadian prisons, many of whom are themselves the victims of violence and abuse
- Inadequate police response to violence against Indigenous women as illustrated by the handling of missing persons cases.
In 2014, Amnesty presented a report to the Special Parliamentary Committee on Violence Against Indigenous Women entitled Violence against Indigenous Women and Girls in Canada: A Summary of Amnesty International’s Concerns and Call to Action. This submission urged the federal government of Canada to take immediate action through a comprehensive approach to addressing violence against Indigenous women and girls in Canada.
Amnesty International has been instrumental in the push to launch a national public inquiry alongside Indigenous communities, women’s groups and grassroots movements.
Native Women’s Association of Canada: Sisters in Spirit Initiative
The Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) secured funds in 2005 from Status of Women Canada to research and provide awareness about violence against Indigenous women. With this funding, the Sisters in Spirit Initiative was launched. NWAC also developed a national database to track cases of violence against Indigenous women. Their work culminated in a final report entitled What Their Stories Tell Us: Research Findings from the Sisters in Spirit Initiative.
The report includes a framework for addressing and preventing violence against Indigenous women along with the stories of missing Indigenous women and recommendations for policy development. NWAC’s prevention and safety policy includes tools for educating young Indigenous women and girls on safety issues, and looks at risk factors that make Indigenous women vulnerable to violence, including poverty, homelessness and lack of affordable housing. (See also Social Conditions of Indigenous Peoples and Economic Conditions of Indigenous Peoples).
The need for police accountability and transparency, cultural sensitivity training and forming good relationships with Indigenous communities are other key areas highlighted in the report. NWAC also expressed a need for more research and awareness about various forms of violence, particularly violence perpetrated by strangers or acquaintances. The need for improvements in tracking and identifying cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women was another key area identified in the report. NWAC articulated that the violence experienced by Indigenous women is much higher than reported in government statistics and police-collected data. The report noted that about six out of ten incidents of violent crimes against Indigenous people go unreported and that demographic information is not always collected. (See also Demography of Indigenous Peoples).
The Legal Strategy Coalition on Violence Against Indigenous Women
The Legal Strategy Coalition on Violence Against Indigenous Women (LSC) was formed in 2014 following the murder of Inuk student Loretta Saunders. The coalition is a Canada-wide advocacy group that supports a national inquiry and seeks to bring justice to the families of missing and murdered Indigenous women. In February 2015, the LSC released a report in which it argued that over 700 recommendations made in 58 reports on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls have been largely ignored by police and government.
RCMP Reports on Violence against Indigenous Women
In 2013, the commissioner of the RCMP called for a report on missing and murdered Indigenous women to help guide operational planning. In May 2014, the RCMP released Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women: A National Operational Overview. This report documented a total of 1,181 people — 164 missing Indigenous women and 1,017 Indigenous female homicide victims between 1980 and 2012. An updated report was released in 2015, entitled Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women: 2015 Update to the National Operational Overview. This update documented an additional 11 Indigenous women identified as missing since the 2014 overview was conducted.
Prior to these reports, the RCMP’s investigations of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls had included a stretch of British Columbia’s Highway 16, known as the Highway of Tears. While the RCMP acknowledges 18 murders and disappearances (mostly of Indigenous women and girls) in its list of Highway of Tears cases, dating from 1969 to 2006, Indigenous groups argue that this number is misleading because it reflects only the disappearances and murders that have happened in a specific geographic area, and that the real number in northern British Columbia exceeds 40.
Critique of RCMP Reports
Groups including Amnesty International and the Legal Strategy Coalition on Violence against Indigenous Women (LSC) critiqued the RCMP report for having critical gaps in the data. Amnesty noted that the 2015 update only included cases within the RCMP’s own jurisdiction. Over 300 non-RCMP police agencies were included in the original 2014 report, but these were excluded from the update. According to Amnesty International, this means that missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Ontario and Québec, for example, were not included in the update. This is concerning given the mistrust and violence that has historically characterized Indigenous-police relationships. In the fall of 2015, eight officers from the Sûreté du Québec were suspended as a result of 14 allegations of abuse of power, sexual assault and other forms of assault against Indigenous women.
The LSC criticized the 2015 report for highlighting intimate partner violence as a risk factor, which places blame on Indigenous men and communities while failing to point out that many of the perpetrators are acquaintances or strangers.
Response from the Federal Government
Despite the ongoing push from Indigenous women and communities and human rights groups such as Amnesty International, the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action, Human Rights Watch and the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, the federal government continued to dismiss the need to launch a national public inquiry. In fact, former prime minister Stephen Harper, speaking at Yukon College in Whitehorse in August 2014, following the death of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine — who was killed after she left her foster home — stated that violence against Indigenous women and girls in Canada should not be viewed as “sociological phenomenon.” In other words, the Fontaine case was not part of a larger crisis resulting from a variety of racial, sexual and colonial abuses or socio-economic issues. Several months later, on 17 December 2014, during an interview with CBC chief correspondent Peter Mansbridge, Stephen Harper stated that a national inquiry on missing and murdered Indigenous women wasn’t “really high on [the government’s] radar.”
Following the change in government in 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the government of Canada launched a national public inquiry.
National Public Inquiry
On 8 December 2015, the Government of Canada announced plans for the launch of an independent national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. The government pledged $53.86 million over the course of two years for the inquiry, and held a “pre-inquiry” to seek input from stakeholders across Canada. The commission of inquiry is due to provide a final report by 1 November 2018, outlining its findings and recommendations for steps forward.
The first step of the investigation was a pre-inquiry process, which took place between December 2015 and February 2016. The goal was to receive input from groups including family members, Indigenous communities and front-line workers about the scope and structure of the inquiry. This process aligns with the inquiry’s commitment to focus on the well-being of Indigenous families and to ensure the process is culturally appropriate. A summary of the feedback from the pre-inquiry process was published in May 2016. It included four recommendations:
- The inquiry’s leadership must be transparent, independent and representative of the Indigenous population. It was also recommended that Indigenous women should lead the inquiry. The investigation itself must be “sensitive to the needs of survivors, families and loved ones. Efforts must be made to avoid a long, drawn-out and legal process.”
- The inquiry must address various points of view and must hear from as many people and organizations as possible.
- A “broad approach to [the inquiry’s] analysis of the issues” is important. The inquiry must take into consideration — and recommend solutions to — all of the socio-economic, cultural and political causes of violence against Indigenous women, girls, trans and two-spirited people. (See also Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights in Canada).
- The inquiry must provide various forms of support to families and their allies. This includes ceremonies, spiritual support, mental health counselling and community support.
Based on these findings, the government appointed five commissioners to lead the inquiry: Marion Buller (chief commissioner, member of the Mistawasis First Nation and first Indigenous woman appointed to British Columbia’s provincial court bench), Michèle Audette (former president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada), Brian Eyolfson (human rights lawyer), Marilyn Poitras (constitutional law expert) and Qajaq Robinson (lawyer raised in Nunavut). The inquiry also includes other staff and will likely not hear formal testimony from the families until spring 2017. Marilyn Poitras resigned as a commissioner in July 2017, stating that she is "unable to perform [her] duties as a commissioner with the process designed in its current structure.”
National Inquiry Findings
The national inquiry officially began on 1 September 2016. It is expected to release an interim report by 1 November 2017 and a final report by 1 November 2018.
Criticisms of the Inquiry
There have been some critiques of the commission from various Indigenous groups, who say it lacks transparency, communication and inclusivity. In December 2016, the Native Women’s Association of Canada said that the commission fails to keep families informed of its progress. In February 2017, the inquiry fired its communications director, Michael Hutchinson (of the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network), causing concern that the hearing of testimony might be further delayed. While Hutchinson’s interim replacement, Sue Montgomery (of the Montreal Gazette) has said that this would not delay the inquiry, the families of the missing and murdered continue to press the commissioners for more clarity and better communication.
Some activists have also criticized the commission for failing to include missing and murdered Indigenous men, boys, trans and two-spirited people in the inquiry. In February 2017, Susan Vella, the commission’s lead counsel, said that while the inquiry is open to hearing testimony from Indigenous men and boys, its focus will remain on Indigenous women and girls. The commission has also indicated that its inquiry will include groups such as two-spirited and trans people.
Prevailing Attitudes toward Indigenous Women
During an opening address at an international conference on MMIWG, writer Maria Campbell stated that “patriarchy and misogyny are so ingrained in our society that they are normal, and our silence makes them normal.” Other Indigenous women activists have referred to the lack of awareness about missing and murdered Indigenous women as a “deafening silence.” The following examples demonstrate the ways stereotypes that may lead to violence against Indigenous women and girls are perpetuated and in some ways accepted within different venues throughout society. In the two cases below, Indigenous women spoke out to raise awareness about such violence.
In 2012, Mi’kmaq lawyer, activist and professor Pamela Palmater spoke out against offensive names of menu items at the Holy Chuck Restaurant. The “Half-Breed” and “Dirty Drunken Half-Breed” were the names of two hamburgers on the menu. These terms are racial slurs that have been used to perpetuate violence against Indigenous peoples.
In July 2015, two paintings appeared on a storefront window — including one depicting bound and gagged Indigenous women — during the Hospitality Days cultural festival in Bathurst, New Brunswick. Patty Musgrave, Aboriginal advisor for New Brunswick Community College, wrote to city council, expressing her upset at the painting, which trivialized, and perhaps even glorified, violence against Indigenous women and the history of colonialism. Musgrave stated that “the building that housed these art pieces was a building in which two human beings were murdered. One a woman. These murders were never solved and … it is quite offensive that you would allow paintings to be hung in the windows of this building while still-grieving families must see this as part of your ‘Hospitality Days.’”
Activists and the families of missing and murdered Indigenous women continue to persevere against these prevailing attitudes, seeking justice, accountability, reconciliation and better public education. (See also Indigenous Peoples: Political Organization and Activism).
Support and Awareness
In recent years, with the launch of the national public inquiry and more awareness about MMIWG, there has been a tremendous amount of support for Indigenous families and communities. Indigenous associations have provided political, emotional and legal support and have also been instrumental in pushing for an inquiry. Annual marches, vigils, the making of documentaries, and other awareness campaigns have brought people together with a common goal of seeking justice. The annual Women’s Memorial March, also called Their Spirits Live Within Us, has taken place every 14 February since the early 1990s. The first one was held in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, in unceded Coast Salish territories (see Indigenous Territory). The Memorial March now takes place in cities all across Canada to raise awareness, promote empathy and compassion, and bring healing to families that have lost a loved one. The fourth of October is marked by Sisters in Spirit vigils that bring awareness and honour the families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Events that take place on this day are supported through the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) and take place in cities all across Canada. Other grassroots initiatives to raise awareness include the Walking with Our Sisters Campaign and the REDress Campaign (two separate art installation projects) and the Faceless Dolls Project (an initiative of the NWAC).
Support has also come from non-Indigenous allies who have participated in vigils and awareness campaigns, as well as mainstream media, which has begun documenting and providing public education about violence against Indigenous women and girls, such as CBC. Actress Zoe Saldana is also reportedly working on a film to help raise awareness.
Maggie de Vries, Missing Sarah: A Memoir of Loss (2003).
A. Brenda Anderson, Wendee Kubik and Mary Rucklos Hampton, eds. Torn from our Midst: Voices of Grief, Healing and Action from the Missing Indigenous Women Conference, 2008 (2010).
Emmanuelle Walter, Stolen Sisters: The Story of Two Missing Girls, Their Families and How Canada Has Failed Indigenous Women (2015).
D. Memee Lavell-Harvard and Jennifer Brant, Forever Loved: Exposing the Hidden Crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Canada (2016).