SPOKANE, Washington — Indigenous women in Canada are experiencing ongoing genocide. The government of Canada funded a $92 million National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. It found “Indigenous women and girls are 12 times more likely to be murdered or missing than non-Indigenous women.” In June 2021, the Canadian government released its long-awaited National Action Plan for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and 2SLGBTQQIA+. The Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) was not part of the creation of the National Action Plan. In an interview with The Borgen Project, NWAC’s CEO Lynne Groulx revealed why the NWAC opted out and how the organization has been delivering sustained services more immediately with its own action plan.
The Issue at Large
Violence against Indigenous women is without borders. A 2018 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime study recognizes similar circumstances throughout the Americas, Oceania and Asia. The issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women encompasses historic, unending systemic abuse of Indigenous people. These violations are the result of a colonial system that has benefitted from the erasure of Indigenous land and Indigenous people through systems such as residential schools and the discriminatory Indian Act. As the Canadian government continues to rely on its mainstream services to mitigate the crisis, the Canadian government reinforces the erasure of Indigenous women.
Since 1974, NWAC has largely adopted the role of an advocacy organization. But, after years of inaction from the Canadian government, the NWAC has also taken on the role of a service provider for Indigenous women in Canada. As the largest Indigenous women’s organization in Canada, NWAC represents and serves “First Nations on and off-reserve, status and non-status, disenfranchised, Métis and Inuit” populations.
Through the Years
Approximately 15 years ago, outcries from Indigenous communities spurred the NWAC to investigate an alarming number of cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women that had been going unaddressed, without serious attention or active investigation by police. The Canadian public was shocked to discover that the NWAC Sisters In Spirit 2010 report found 582 cases. A follow-up report from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) nearly doubled the nationwide figure, finding more than 1,000 cases on record.
Still, it took 10 years of NWAC lobbying and pressure from grieving families and other organizations to push the Canadian government to respond with a national inquiry. The National Inquiry collected data on cases for two and a half years, but enough evidence was found in that time to deem this crisis genocide. The concern is that thousands of more cases have likely gone “unreported or misreported.”
The Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls was released in June 2019, naming the crisis genocide and including 231 Calls for Justice. The report is clear that “Canada has a legal obligation to fully implement these Calls for Justice,” pointing to many times in the past where the government has failed to meaningfully implement the recommendations from other reports.
The 2021 National Action Plan
The Canadian government took two years from the release of the Final Report to debut its National Action Plan. It has not yet implemented the plan. For more than two years now, Indigenous women in Canada have endured a recognized genocide without serious action from the national government. NWAC had to step away from the National Action Plan committees and pursue its own solutions, finding the government’s approach and action plan to be in opposition to what the Final Report of the National Inquiry called for.
The first of the 231 Calls for Justice necessitates the development of a National Action Plan under the guidance of Indigenous Peoples, yet NWAC was not asked to play a primary role in the decision-making. Other distinctions-based Indigenous groups for First Nations, Inuit and Metis had a more significant role. While the first Call for Justice does call for a “distinctions-based” approach to delivering services to Indigenous women, these approaches will need to reach all Indigenous women in Canada both on and off-reserve. Smaller groups may not be able to ensure equal access as well as a larger, more inclusive organization like the NWAC.
Critique from the NWAC
The first Call for Justice also outlines that the National Action Plan needs to feature “devoted funding and timetables” as well as “measurable goals” and sustained resources. The NWAC has expressed its concern that the National Action Plan is missing these imperatives.
A primary concern of the NWAC is that there is no stable funding. Instead, independent organizations will need to bid on government funding to create projects. To this point, Groulx asks, “how [is the National Action Plan]going to deal with the genocide with project funding? That’s not a serious response. That is not what the report says. The report says transformational change, paradigm shifts, providing the opportunity for Indigenous women to lead the solution, to lead the healing.”
Groulx points to a double standard that exists between the government and Indigenous organizations. The government’s recently created Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Secretariat has 20 paid staff members and is led by a non-Indigenous male. The expectation is that the NWAC and other Indigenous-led organizations implement projects and provide resources without the same sort of stable funding.
The NWAC Takes Action
The NWAC has released its own action plan, Our Calls, Our Actions, with measurable goals and a straightforward budget that will seek funding entirely independent of the Canadian government. The centerpiece of this action plan is the construction of Resiliency Lodges that provide a safe, culturally-rich space for Indigenous Peoples to begin to heal from centuries of colonial trauma. These centers are an essential first step for the collective healing of Indigenous communities, providing services such as cultural programming and counseling by Elders.
NWAC’s Resiliency Lodges in the Canadian provinces of Quebec and New Brunswick drew inspiration from the efforts for Indigenous women in Mexico. According to Groulx, the Mexican government heard the call for Indigenous healing and constructed more than 30 centers called “Casa de Mujeres Indígenas” or House of Indigenous Women. The NWAC hoped that the Canadian government would respond similarly and construct more Indigenous healing centers. However, eventually, the NWAC realized that if it wanted these centers built, it would have to construct the centers itself and look elsewhere for funding.
The NWAC feels that a dependency on government funding hinders Indigenous organizations. When asked if the NWAC was hoping to receive government funding for its action plan and ongoing projects for Indigenous women in Canada, Groulx said, “You can be sure that we’re going to hold their feet to the fire, but we’re not holding our breath. We’re moving forward.”
The NWAC is moving forward with programs and advocacy. The Association is making its opinion known at the international level and in the media, pressuring the Canadian government to act. The NWAC has set up its own resource for reporting and mapping cases and is fighting political marginalization with voter registration. The Association is doing all this and more while continuously pushing to reopen unsolved cases.
The NWAC calls for the continued investigation of missing and murdered Indigenous women not only because it believes that there is a gross underestimation of the number of cases but because these women deserve justice, their families deserve answers and their communities deserve to heal.
– Angela Basinger