Twelve hundred missing and murdered Aboriginal women is a national shame. That is not new. What is new is that ours is now an international shame. The investigation of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights into the missing and murdered Aboriginal women in British Columbia is the just the latest dressing down from a United Nations body on the failure of Canadian governments to uphold their human rights obligations to prevent this violence and address the root causes.
Our federal government is steadfast in its portrayal of the killings of Aboriginal women as simply a matter for the police. Federal government officials portray this as an individual problem, of women who choose “risky lifestyles” and therefore are somehow to blame for their own fate. Or as part of the mix of dysfunctional Aboriginal communities.
It’s difficult to know where to start with such a facile portrayal of a complex problem. Drawing on deeply rooted hateful stereotypes about the degeneracy of Aboriginal people, which it’s safe to say most Canadians adhere to on some level, is an easy and lazy political strategy, if not a terribly sophisticated one. But let’s take a closer look at the limited available data that might support or refute those claims.
The RCMP conducted a study in 2014 documenting reported incidents of missing and murdered Aboriginal women across all police jurisdictions in Canada. It is shocking that many years after these murders and disappearances were well known, long after the Native Women’s Association of Canada had documented over 500, after Robert Pickton’s conviction, after the Oppal Inquiry in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, the federal government through the RCMP finally considered it might be important to require police departments to improve their record-keeping. It’s late but it’s important and it’s a start to better data collection.
The report is short on details but what was reported is this: Aboriginal women are growing as a proportion of all homicides of women. Aboriginal women were less likely to be killed in a residence and more likely to be killed in an open area. Much is made of the fact that the majority of Aboriginal victims knew their killers, either as an acquaintance or a spouse, as is the case for non-Aboriginal women. From this we might assume the killers were Aboriginal men and toss the problem back onto Aboriginal communities to solve. However, the blunt category of “acquaintance” could mean someone the women met very recently, in other words not a complete stranger (the only other possible categories were other family members and intimates). Acquaintances made up 30% of all killings of Aboriginal women compared with 19% of other women. In fact, Aboriginal women were less likely to be killed by a spouse: 29% compared with 41% of non-Aboriginal women. Even within these we cannot know if the spouse was also Aboriginal, as assumption easily made but not supported.
Another “vulnerability factor” cited by the RCMP report is that Aboriginal victims were more likely to be involved in the sex trade. This forms the basis of the “risky lifestyle” conclusion but the data actually shows that 88% of murdered Aboriginal women were not involved in the sex trade.
These patterns in the data raise all kinds of questions about the context in which these women were murdered or disappeared. At the time of the report, 164 Aboriginal women were missing. If 164 white, middle-class women were missing would it take years of lobbying and international investigations to convince Canadian governments to act? I think not. More than one would likely raise sufficient concern and evidence of an urgent problem requiring immediate and extensive resources.
Under the Harper regime, we can expect policy decisions to continue to be based on discriminatory stereotypes of Aboriginal women and inadequate and partial statistical data. But there is good news. The Harper government is becoming increasingly isolated in their official view that this is simply a police matter, not a human rights problem requiring serious study and concerted action. Now that our political leaders are squaring off over election issues, let us cast our ballet with the leader who takes seriously the lives and safety of the most marginalized members of our society.
Holly Johnson is professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa and Chair of the Steering Committee of the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action (FAFIA)