LIVERPOOL, England — A 2015 Royal Canadian Mounted Police report revealed that more than 1,000 Indigenous women and girls in Canada were either murdered or went missing between 1980 and 2012. In response to discrimination and violence against Canada’s Indigenous women and girls, Amnesty International launched the No More Stolen Sisters campaign to compel the federal government to take action against these human rights violations, arguing that colonial violence against Indigenous women stands at the root of the issues plaguing this marginalized group.
Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls
According to Amnesty International, the federal government has failed Indigenous communities time and time again. Gaps in government policy and reporting have resulted in many missing or murdered Indigenous women and girls falling through the system, and the violence inflicted against Indigenous women is rarely acknowledged as a symptom of sexism or the ongoing legacies of colonialism that have entrenched Indigenous communities in poverty.
In 2006, the Native Women’s Association founded the Sisters in Spirit initiative to publicize the link between colonialism and the murder of Indigenous women and girls. While gender-based violence has often been attributed to women’s involvement in Canada’s sex trade, No More Stolen Sisters tells a different story.
This story traces how historical colonial practices have resulted in the marginalization of Indigenous peoples in Canadian society. A pivotal moment in indigenous history, Amnesty International released the Stolen Sisters report in 2004, which tells the stories of nine missing or murdered Indigenous women and girls. Acknowledging that more action is necessary to bring justice to those women and their families, the organization published a follow-up report titled No More Stolen Sisters in 2009, which focused on driving government action.
Representing a unique form of marginalization, the double exposure of colonial-based and gender-based discrimination exposes Indigenous women and girls to higher rates of poverty – 36% of Aboriginal women lived in poverty as of 2015, according to Homeless Hub. Grappling with the impacts of intergenerational trauma, residential schools, abuse and violence and poverty, Indigenous women are among Canada’s most vulnerable citizens.
The geography of Canada often calls into play given that poverty is higher in Canada’s most remote areas – indeed, Indigenous women are more likely to live in rural areas than non-Indigenous women, accounting for approximately 75% of the female population living in very remote areas.
In these areas, women experience low employment, skills, opportunity, and income inequity and rarely have access to a good education – around 40% of Inuit women living in very remote areas had completed high school or further education compared to roughly 70% of those living in more accessible areas.
Sexual and Domestic Violence
With these hard truths in mind, Indigenous women are among those who are disproportionately vulnerable to sexual and domestic violence. Trapped in cycles of poverty and with little opportunity to enter the formal labor force, some women have resorted to prostitution to support themselves and their families.
A 2000 Prostitution Alternatives Counseling and Education Society study found that 40% of women surveyed in Vancouver had entered the sex trade for financial reasons. This is no surprise given that the 1966 Canadian census reported that Indigenous women earned $5,500 less on average per year than their non-Indigenous counterparts.
Often, domestic abuse is an outlet for the frustration, conflict and displacement experienced by Indigenous men – the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry of Manitoba stated that in 1990, a third of Indigenous women experienced abuse from a partner, according to The Canadian Encyclopedia.
Indigenous women and girls’ involvement in Canada’s sex trade is rarely a matter of personal choice. Yet, the Canadian Encylopedia explains that the stereotype of the “Indian princess” whose lifestyle is the product of her inherent promiscuity, continues to prevail in the sexist narratives that render Indigenous women and girls vulnerable to violence.
National Action Plan
Following widespread discontent, in 2016, the federal government launched a National Inquiry into the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and presented its final report in 2019. Since the government initiated the National Action Plan in 2021, there has been progress in addressing the systemic roots of gender and colonial-based violence in Canada. The 2022 progress report outlines more than 50 initiatives to target violence and provide ongoing support and resources for Indigenous communities.
The government has taken important strides to introduce culturally sensitive data registration systems – it developed 19 data research projects in collaboration with Indigenous Peoples to overcome gaps in the cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
As of 2023, the Canadian government announced that it would be investing just over $20 million every year to help address poverty among Indigenous families by providing access to health and well-being services in addition to providing information about their loved ones to aid the healing process through several new Family Information Liaison Units.
The Government of Canada also created the Commemoration Fund to invest over $13 million into initiatives developed to honor the lives of Canada’s missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
By spreading awareness and cultivating a sense of community, commemorations are helping families to heal from the trauma they have experienced. On May 5, Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike gather to hold a National Day of Action and Awareness, also known as Red Dress Day, named after the artwork of Metis artist Jaime Black who hung red dresses to symbolize the loss of hundreds of women and girls. Every year, Indigenous Peoples call on supporters to wear red on this day as a testament to the victims and their families.
No More Stolen Sisters successfully politicized the crisis by linking the violence inflicted on Indigenous women and girls with systemic racism, discrimination and marginalization. However, to truly empower and uplift Indigenous communities, further and continued efforts are necessary.
The fact remains that both poverty and crime disproportionately affect Indigenous women and girls. A 2022 progress report highlighted how 63% of Indigenous women and girls had experienced sexual or physical violence during their lives. This violence has only increased since the COVID-19 outbreak, according to the U.N.
While comprehensive government action is necessary to tackle the roots of gender and colonial-based poverty and violence, education is necessary now more than ever to dismantle the ongoing legacy of colonialism in Canadian society.
– Tatum Richards
Photo: Wikimedia Commons