Yellowhead Highway 16 in Northwestern British Columbia is most commonly known as the Highway of Tears. The road was named in recognition of Indigenous women and girls that have disappeared or have been found murdered near the highway. The Highway of Tears also highlights a greater national crisis: the alarming number of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, and 2SLBGTQQIA+ peoples across Canada (MMIWG).
In 2016, a National Public Inquiry was spearheaded by the government to investigate the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women. On June 3 of 2019, the report exposed that between 2014 and 2018, 23% of all missing and murdered women across Canada were Indigenous. This fact is especially concerning given that Indigenous women only account for about 4% of Canada’s female population. Taking this alongside the nation’s colonial history, continued systemic racism, and the many intergenerational traumas of Indigenous individuals, the Inquiry concluded that these missing and murdered Indigenous women are victims of a nationwide genocide by the Canadian state. In remedy to this, the commission report proposes 231 legally-binding recommendations including the need to develop and implement a National Action Plan. Since the release of the 2019 report however, relatively little has been done to pursue these recommendations. Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused further delays in the coordination and implementation of an action plan. Canada’s failure to address this problem reflects the systemic problems that perpetuate Indigenous women’s vulnerability. As the country continues to struggle with deep-seated racism and sexism against Indigenous women, it is imperative that the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women be taken more seriously.
Why are Indigenous women so vulnerable?
Disproportionately, Indigenous peoples struggle with risk-type social conditions such as high levels of poverty, overrepresentation in Canadian jails, water insecurity, homelessness, alcohol addiction, and drug abuse. For example, 85 percent of all women represented in Saskatchewan jails are Indigenous while accounting for only one-fifth of the female population in the province. Indigenous communities are also struggling with an ongoing meth epidemic that unveils greater substance abuse problems among Indigenous peoples. However, these issues signify larger systemic issues related to Indigenous marginalization and increased vulnerability which often incentivizes Indigenous women to engage in sex work. This is significant as some fraction of the missing or murdered Indigenous women have been involved in the country’s sex trade. For law enforcement officials, these highly vulnerable women are often seen as disposable bodies, unworthy of law enforcement time and resources. As a result, many are left to fall through the cracks without justice.
Systemic issues refer to the generations of abuse and trauma that stem from Canada’s colonial history. These issues suggest a pattern of targeted violence against Indigenous women. Policies such as the Indian Residential School system and the Indian Act involved sexual, physical, and mental abuse, alongside gendered-discrimination. Much of this led to a culture of institutionalized sexual and physical violence against Indigenous women, producing Indigenous women as the hyper-sexualized “squaw”. This mirrors contemporary institutionalized discrimination which targets Indigenous women through state inaction. In 2010, under the Harper administration, Canada cut all funding for the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) that had the attention of the media for documenting missing and murdered Indigenous women.
Law enforcement continually fails to protect Indigenous women. This highlights the broken relationship between the Canadian police and Indigenous communities. Canadian police continue to neglect reported domestic abuse, disproportionately subject Indigenous women to invasive strip searches by male officers, and perpetuate demeaning stereotypes about Indigenous women. In Saskatchewan alone, 2017 reported 64 incidents of physical police abuses against Indigenous women. RCMP officers have also been reported to have sexually assaulted and raped Indigenous women. These atrocities reflect racial and gendered biases that undermines the protection of Indigenous women. What is clear is that Indigenous women do not trust Canadian law enforcement, fear of the racist system often eliciting their hesitance to report abuse. 74 % of Indigenous women experiencing domestic violence opt not to report. In view of this, the Canadian police only act to aggrandize the problem of missing and murdered Indigenous women.
These trends mirror hostility towards family and friends of victims who report discrimination and sexism by the police. This affects the efficacy with which cases involving Indigenous women are handled. Police investigations are clouded with false stereotypes and racial biases that blame victims for their own rape, disappearances, and murders. As such, the body tasked with protecting these vulnerable women instead, through malpractice, accentuates the underlying racism in the application of justice for Canada’s Indigenous peoples. This injustice is coined by the term inter-jurisdictional neglect which draws attention to the perpetuated vulnerabilities that Indigenous women face. Additionally it refers to the multiple ways that social services are failing Indigenous peoples in order to distance state responsibility from issues including missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. This term also highlights how stereotypes against Indigenous women result in cases that are investigated with less urgency than other cases—resulting in 230 unsolved cases that could have resulted in convictions. With this being the situation, perpetrators know that targeting Indigenous women allows them to avoid getting caught.
While the National Inquiry demonstrates a legitimate step towards recognition of Indigenous women’s vulnerability, there is still work to be done that begins with the implementation of the Inquiry’s recommendations, specifically as they refer to the facilitation of the National Action Plan through coordination and consultation with Indigenous peoples. Regardless, this is the bare minimum of needed action. The federal government—including all levels of law enforcement, from courts to the police—need a greater sense of accountability for the treatment of Indigenous women. This was left out of Trudeau’s inquiry. By claiming responsibility, the country as a whole will be better equipped to rebuild trust with Indigenous communities. With this in mind, keeping Indigenous women safe needs to be mobilized as a collective priority for all of Canada. Indigenous leaders, families of victims, and women need to be viewed as active agents in addressing these issues, allowing them to envision what justice looks like. The nation must support this justice, employing bottom up policy to foster reconciliation.
Edited by Gabriela McGuinty
Photo credits: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addressing families of Sisters in Spirit of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls on Parliament Hill, Ottawa, Ontario by Obert Madondo, published on 4 October, 2017, licensed under Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY NC SA 2.0). No changes were made.
Riyana Karim-Hajiani is a student at McGill University pursuing a B.A. in Political Science at the Honours level. Currently in her second year at McGill, she has joined the Catalyst as a staff writer. Particularly, she is interested to explore Indigenous legal issues pertaining to the laws that affect Indigenous peoples and the rights of Indigenous peoples in Canada and internationally.