Violence against Indigenous Women in Canada: Part I

August 2015 marked the one-year anniversary of the murder of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine in Winnipeg; she was a member of the indigenous community. A year after her death not much has changed. Six more women in Winnipeg have been killed, four of whom were indigenous. Activists who oppose violence against indigenous women in Canada considered Fontaine’s death a tipping point. To this day indigenous women continue to be over-represented in the numbers of missing and murdered women. As the population of the indigenous has grown in urban environments, indigenous women have become more at risk. It has been widely argued that Canadian authorities and the Canadian Government have not done enough, from investigating the cases of missing and murdered indigenous women, to setting up a formal inquiry concerning the issue. However before addressing what has been lacking and what should be done, one must first look at the causes and connections of this violence.

The Numbers

The latest reports show that as of April 2015, 174 aboriginal women across all police jurisdictions in Canada are still missing 111 of these disappearances occurred under suspicious circumstances. Although the number of unsolved cases has been reduced since 2014, indigenous women remain over-represented among Canada’s murdered and missing women with over 1000 cases between 1980 and 2012.

Causes and Connections

Some of the factors that play a role are poverty, lack of housing and lack of resources. Aboriginal women move to cities in search of a better life, however, sometimes lack of funds and education places them in a position where they are vulnerable to violence. There is a relevant child welfare aspect as well. Tina Fontaine was in the care of children’s services when she went missing and was eventually murdered. She had been placed in a downtown hotel in Winnipeg where there was very little supervision, an unsafe practice that Manitoba Family Services Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross has sought to end since Fontaine’s death.

Domestic violence has been raised as a major issue because findings showed that within the jurisdictions of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, offenders knew their victims in all solved homicide cases of aboriginal women compared to the 93 percent of solved homicide cases concerning non-aboriginal women. Although domestic and family violence are a major part of the tragedies faced by aboriginal women, and must be addressed, groups such as Amnesty International have also drawn attention to the fact that aboriginal women are often killed by strangers or acquaintances. Homicide rate by acquaintances of indigenous women and girls is seven times greater than that for non-indigenous women and girls. Therefore addressing the issue exclusively as one of domestic violence would not address the broader issues that expose indigenous women to violence such as discrimination, marginalization and poverty.

As for the connections to the past that have left their mark on the lives of indigenous women today, there are those who claim that the root of these tragedies is the reserve system, as it can trap young girls in small patriarchal communities. Once they leave for big cities the women may lack job skills, academic credentials, money and a supportive family network. They also do not always know how to navigate a city full of strangers. Others claim that the root of domestic violence in indigenous communities can be traced back to the residential school system, which took the knowledge of parenting, creating healthy families and healthy mannerism away from native communities. It is claimed that those who suffered in residential schools may have grown up unaware about raising a family of their own and may have become abusive towards their children. As such, the harm caused by residential schools was passed on to the next generation.

This article has merely touched upon some of the issues of violence facing indigenous women in Canada. These issues and what has been done to combat them, as well as what has been lacking, will be explored further in the next article.

About Seema Kawar

Seema is currently a trainee Lawyer in Jordan. She earned her Bachelor’s degree in Law in the UK and her Masters in Law in International Development Law and Human Rights from the University of Warwick in the UK. She has a deep interest in women’s rights and refugee rights issues and has volunteered a Sisterhood is Global Institute in Jordan, a local women’s rights organization, and as an assistant caseworker helping asylum seekers from various backgrounds in the UK. She is interested in learning more about the legal, social and political issues the hinder women’s rights and progress in the MENA region and contributing to improving the status of women in the MENA Region and other parts of the developing world.