In the last three decades, an estimated almost 600 indigenous women in Canada, including Inuit, Metis, and First Nations women, have gone missing or have been the victims of murders. Overall, indigenous woman are five to seven times more likely than their white peers to be victims of violence. Canada, in short, is experiencing an epidemic of violence against its aboriginal population, and the nation has been shamefully slow to act.
The United States, too, experiences radical disparities when it comes to justice for native women versus white women; indigenous women across North America are victims of racism, violence and sexual assault at shockingly high rates, and the governments that claim to protect them have been sluggish to act and sometimes very resistant to activism and lobbying attempts to change that.
North America has a complex, dirty and messy history when it comes to interactions between Europeans and indigenous people, who were forced out of their lands and away from traditional ways of living with the European invasion. By the 1800s, both Canada and the United States were actively pursuing policies of “Indian removal,” pushing native people out and seizing children for placement in residential schools where the goal was to “take the Indian out of the child.”
Damaging policies when it came to seizing native children endured into the mid-20th century, when Native children would be placed with white families where they received differential treatment. Native people struggling to find their identity years later recount horror stories of sexual and physical abuse, starvation and other acts of cruelty in their foster homes, all of which were done in the name of helping them assimilate into the white community.
With this history of racism and violence, it is perhaps not surprising that there are huge disparities when it comes to exposure to violence and sexual assault among native women, and that the perpetrators of these crimes are often white. The lack of government action on the issue, however, is deeply troubling.
In Canada, indigenous women have been taking to the streets in rage, telling the stories of individual women, and using more traditional paths like working directly with legislators to push for investigations, legislative reform and increased accountability. Yet, even as they’re fighting to have missing and murdered women taken seriously, they’re also operating in awareness of the fact that the very people they’re supposed to turn to for help could be their enemies. Human Rights Watch released a damning report earlier this year tracking sexual assault and abuse of native women by Royal Canadian Mounted Police, for instance, a chilling reminder that a man in a uniform is not necessarily a friend.
Many people remain unaware of the nature and scope of the problem because it rarely attracts attention in major media, though smaller publications and those that focus on racial issues return to the topic on a regular basis. This is illustrative of the political and social climate, which shies away from a direct confrontation with racial issues. Indigenous women become targets for violence because people assume they can get away with it, and their assumptions are confirmed by the lack of media coverage when it comes to violence against native women.
Yet there is, finally, some good news: the Canadian Parliament just universally approved a committee to investigate the situation, and nine of Canada’s provinces have also joined the chorus calling for investigation and demanding that it be made national and public. Such an investigation would, activists hope, lead to concrete action to address the situation, which might be more complicated than it sounds.
This is not, after all, a situation which can be simply legislated away. Much of it is rooted in a long history, in racism, and in unequal social structures. First, the government must commit to valuing indigenous women, investigating homicides and missing persons cases with due diligence, and prosecuting these cases as suspects are identified. It must also, however, consider other sociopolitical issues like health and income disparities between native women and the rest of the population. These issues are also rooted in racism, and play a role in why native women are so vulnerable to assault.
All women, including indigenous women, deserve the right to live in safety. Whether Canada’s government — and people — are willing to commit to that remains to be seen.
Photo credit: Christopher Bevacqua