Stolen sisters: 500 indigenous women murdered and missing in Canada, Amnesty International charges

Published in Indian Country Today in 2004. For more on topics like this, see my book, American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle....

Over the last two decades, some 500 indigenous women in Canada have been murdered or are missing and feared dead, according to “Stolen Sisters,” a report recently released by Amnesty International. “Discrimination and violence against indigenous women is Canada’s untold human rights issue,” said Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada.

The yearlong process of researching and writing the report included a healing ceremony at the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario for those who had lost daughters, sisters, and mothers. “Elders there shepherded us through the two-day process,” Neve said. “Many families felt betrayed by government and had little reason to trust outsiders or officials. We wanted to proceed in a way that was conscious of their needs.”

            No one knows how exactly many women have disappeared or died, according to Beverly Jacobs, president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC), which cooperated in the preparation of “Stolen Sisters.” This is partly because Canada keeps incomplete records of the ethnicity of victims and perpetrators of crimes, and partly because indigenous people have become so suspicious of the police that they do not necessarily report incidents. Government statistics do estimate, however, that indigenous women between 25 and 44 are five times more likely than other Canadian women of the same age to die as the result of violence.

            “It’s a broad, systemic problem with historic roots,” said Neve. “It encompasses policing practices, social and economic policy, land claims, and the redressing of past harms, such as the placing of children in residential schools.”

            A flood of Canadian media coverage followed the release of “Stolen Sisters,” said Celeste McKay, a strategic-policy analyst with NWAC. Vigils and meetings took place across the country, and about 4,000 people signed an Amnesty International online petition. “Overwhelmingly, the response was that this is an alarming issue that must be addressed,” said Neve.

The Short Arm of the Law
In the interviews Amnesty International Canada conducted with the victims’ families, police appear to have repeatedly failed both to protect indigenous women and to investigate crimes against them thoroughly or promptly. Officers have at times waited days to follow up on reports of missing women, even when they vanished under suspicious circumstances; one family found the police had lost the file on their relative’s disappearance.

            In one case, 16 years lapsed between crime and conviction. According to the Manitoba Justice Inquiry, an exhaustive 2001 government study that is cited in “Stolen Sisters,” Helen Betty Osbourne was abducted in 1971 by four men who were cruising the streets of The Pas, Manitoba, in order to pick up a Indian woman for sex — an activity tolerated by the local detachment of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). “A number of officers told us … it was not the RCMP’s practice to stop the cars to see if the girls were of age or if they were going willingly,” the Manitoba commissioners wrote.

            The four came upon Osbourne walking home. The 19-year-old Cree had left her home, Norway House Indian Reserve, to study to become a teacher. The men forced her into their car. When she fought back, she was stabbed in the head and torso 50 times, apparently with a screwdriver, her face and skull were smashed, and her near-naked body was dragged into the bush.

            Despite physical evidence — including blood, hair, and a clothing fragment in the car — and tips from townspeople who heard some of the men bragging of their actions, they were not brought to justice until 1987. At that time, two were charged. One was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. He’s now on parole. To help him better understand what he did, Osbourne’s family brought him into a traditional healing circle, according to Craig Benjamin, who heads Amnesty International Canada’s Indigenous Rights Campaign.

            Benjamin contends the police generally have little interest in such cases. “I just spoke to the daughter of Deborah Ann Sloss, an indigenous woman who was found dead in Toronto in 1997,” Benjamin said. “The family went to the police for the records. The file had two pages, and the cause of death hadn’t even been determined.”

            The RCMP doesn’t see it that way. “A murder is a murder in Canada, and we investigate them all in the same manner,” said Danis Lafond, spokesperson at the force’s headquarters in Ottawa. He added that working with indigenous communities is a top priority of the RCMP, which for years has had programs like cultural-sensitivity training for new officers and an effort to recruit indigenous cadets.
Sandra Gagnon, a Kwakwaka'wakw woman living in Vancouver whose sister went missing in 1997, praised individual officers she dealt with, but criticized the police force as a whole. Gagnon’s sister, Janet Henry, was one of nearly 70 women — indigenous and white — who have disappeared from the city’s squalid Downtown Eastside slum since the early 1980s. “They didn’t take it seriously, because all those women were missing from Downtown,” Gagnon said. “If they were missing from any other neighborhood, something would have been done in a second.”

            Signaling official doubt that foul play was involved, the mayor of Vancouver suggested in 1999 that the city offer $5,000 rewards to missing women who came forward. The number of disappearances mounted, and families continued to demand action. Meanwhile, the Vancouver Sun published a series of stories describing the seriousness of the situation and the ineptness of the police investigation, which the newspaper found was plagued by in-fighting, computer problems, lack of resources, and other issues.

            In 2001, city police and the RCMP formed a joint task force. The following year, its investigation led officers to a pig farm in nearby Port Coquitlam. There they found clothing, other belongings, and DNA from 63 women, whose bodies the farm’s owner, Robert Pickton, had fed to the pigs. Pickton will likely stand trial in 2005 or 2006 on at least 22 murder charges.

            Though Henry’s DNA was not found at the farm, her family worries that she died there. Henry’s daughter, a 20-year-old college student, gave blood samples as part of the investigation. “My Auntie Sandra is doing so much—putting up posters and speaking out,” she said. “Right now, my job is to finish school and do well. I know my mom would have been proud of me.”

Refugees in Their Own Land
To understand the vulnerability of Canada’s indigenous women and why they might end up in the country’ slums, one can look to 19th century laws that transformed the nation’s largely matriarchal, egalitarian  tribes into patriarchies. Once able to act autonomously and take leadership positions in their communities, indigenous women became chattel — like their white counterparts, who were themselves not declared “persons” in Canada until 1929. The tribes’ loss of their land base and traditional livelihoods  — and the economic devastation that followed — exacerbated the situation.

            Under certain circumstances, the laws also extinguished status as an Indian (that is, legal standing as a tribal member, with treaty and other rights), according to McKay. Indigenous women were more likely than men to be affected; for example, marrying a non-indigenous man caused a woman to be stripped of her status and banished from her reserve. In some cases, such women were allowed to return home for just 48 hours at a time.

            At the same time that the women were being uprooted, their children were being sent to brutal church-run residential schools, where, according to the 1996 report of Canada’s Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, rapes, beatings, and other abuses were common. During the 1980s, the residential schools were phased out, and legislation restored status to some who had lost it. However, the new law also created its own mechanisms for eliminating status. “They gave with one hand and took with the other,” said McKay. “It’s estimated that by 2060, there will be no more people with Indian status.”

            Other inequities remain as well. To this day, indigenous women on reserves are not covered by matrimonial-law protections. If an indigenous couple divorces, the husband typically retains the couple’s house, while the wife becomes homeless, said McKay.

Justice System Failures
With little education or job opportunities, some indigenous women have nothing to turn to but the sex trade — a very dangerous occupation — to support themselves and their children. Then, when these women come in contact with the justice system, they are treated as second-class citizens.

            In an example cited in “Stolen Sisters,” Ted Malone, the judge presiding over the 1996 trial of two men charged with beating to death Pamela Jean George, a Saulteaux mother of two from Sakimay First Nation, instructed the jury to keep in mind that George was “indeed a prostitute,” while the men had done “pretty darn stupid things.” The Saskatchewan trial’s outcome — six and one-half years for manslaughter for both men — was met with local protests and vigils across the nation. Both men were paroled in 2000.

            “Aboriginal women and their children suffer tremendously in contemporary Canadian society [and] the justice system has done little to protect them,” the Manitoba Justice Inquiry declared. In fact, the women are likely to end up behind bars. At one point, the commission noted, indigenous women made up 85% of the province’s female prisoners, though they constituted about 12% of the female population overall.

Looking Forward
Change may be forthcoming, said McKay, who believes Canada’s current administration has the political will to take action. Neve agreed, adding: “On this issue, Amnesty International Canada is lobbying government at all levels, but we’ll be looking to the federal government to take the lead.”

c. Stephanie Woodard; image c. Amnesty International.

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