Article 7: The Roots of Injustice to Indigenous Women in Canada: Colonial Influences on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls

Sarah Brown

Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) is an issue that has been plaguing Canada since colonization, worsening dramatically with the arrival of European women in the late eighteenth century (Voyageur, 2016, pg. 16-17). Violence targeting Indigenous women in Canada has been a significant concern both in government as well as amongst Indigenous communities. This has called into question how colonial impacts have affected the current statistics surrounding MMIWG. The MMIWG movement has created space in which Canadians are encouraged to challenge the narratives of history that assert that Indigenous women and girls do not hold the same social value as white women in Canada. These narratives, laid out by colonial settlers during contact and beyond, greatly impacted Indigenous women both within their local communities and on a larger political scale. Through the process of colonization, communities lost a great wealth of traditional knowledge which was passed down through generations of Indigenous women.

Today, many women are fighting to reclaim their knowledge and influence within their communities by sharing their stories of loss and survival. The stories of Ramona Wilson and Kinew James stand as lasting examples of ongoing violence against Indigenous women and girls in Canada, and their stories have been shared in hopes of raising awareness for the poor treatment of Indigenous women. Across Canada, Indigenous women have been the victims of violence on the basis of gender and race. Despite the efforts of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous activists to bring an end to MMIWG cases, and the disproportionate nature of Indigenous and non-Indigenous homicide rates, the values of a white, patriarchal Canada still live on in the present day. These values cause the overwhelming numbers to increase with Indigenous women who are faced with violence and murder. However, through community efforts and reconciliation, the cycle of violence against Indigenous women may be broken. Colonialism and its impacts on Indigenous communities in Canada have significantly contributed to cases of MMIWG in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Colonialism in Canada has worked to suppress traditional knowledge and oppress Indigenous women across the country, bringing with it a terrible cycle of violence that has left lasting scars on the communities affected by it.

Manifesting Violence Through Colonialism

Indigenous women’s history with systemic violence stems back to the implementation of European patriarchal values in Indigenous communities through colonialism. Indigenous women became the targets of European men’s violence, leading to a significant shift in the roles of these women from knowledge keepers to victims of crime and violence. Prior to colonization, Indigenous women were highly valued in their nations as keepers of knowledge, and bringers of life (Frideres, 2020, pg. 7). Women played incredibly important roles in their communities, as their responsibilities encompassed many necessary tasks for survival. According to Frideres (2020), “Women tended crops in agricultural societies, gathered roots and berries, and prepared the products of the hunt for food [and] clothing…” (pg. 7). However, in contrast, the Christian ideas of femininity during the period did not allow women to take on such an economically or spiritually powerful role in their community. While Indigenous women were greatly affluent, most common women in Europe were restrained in their duties as a wife and mothers, before any other role. The patriarchal ideas of Europe had remained largely unchanged since the medieval period, according to authors Martos and HĂ©gy (1998, pg. 12-13). Despite the Reformation era taking hold in the early 17th century, nearing the time of the fur trade, women’s rights made little to no advancements (pg. 13). As a result, arriving fur traders in the so-called “New World” would go on to write about the Indigenous women as being lacking in good moral character (Voyageur, 2016, pg. 18). Additionally, writers would often leave Indigenous women’s knowledge and contributions out of the written documents altogether, deemed unimportant to history (pg. 18). Few explorers from the mid-to late-eighteenth century document the names of Indigenous women they encounter, only adding to the issue of historical erasure of women’s narratives. One such example is found in the writings of Samuel Hearne who, in 1769, writes extensively on a man by the name of Matonabbee, yet does not recount the details of the Indigenous women he meets and travels with (Hearne, 1769).

Due to the significant loss of Indigenous women’s history, many are now trying to reclaim their right to traditional knowledge and to educate Canadians on the importance of their difficult past. The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) lists several practices as the sharing of traditional knowledge, such as ceremonies, dancing, hunting, and medicines (n.d.). Traditional knowledge is incredibly vast, as it is often dependent on the geographical and social factors of any given community (AFN, n.d.). In particular, Indigenous women have been using the method of storytelling as a way of spreading awareness for the MMIWG movement and healing from generational trauma. Storytelling has become extremely relevant to the MMIWG movement. The National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls emphases the importance of women’s stories in both calls for justice, as well as the movement. They have done so by ingraining storytelling into the process of gathering “truth” from survivors and their families (National Inquiry into MMIWG, 2018).  Storytelling also provides non-Indigenous communities with a deeper understanding of the trauma that women have experienced due to continued violence against them. Additionally, it gives victims the space to share their narratives in a way that both raises awareness and resonates with Indigenous ways of knowing. Savarese (2017) explores many Indigenous women’s stories in her work and seeks to decolonize the way in which people view them.

 In the case of Kinew James, a woman from Saskatchewan who died in police custody in January of 2013, Savarese (2017) raises the question of the treatment of Indigenous women in the prison system (pg. 165). Indigenous women in prison, like Kinew James, are often disregarded and given improper care while in custody. In James’ case, she was entirely ignored while experiencing symptoms of a heart attack for approximately one hour, until she was taken to a hospital where she soon passed away (Savarese, 2017). The story about James’ death has been shared publicly by her family and her fellow inmates during the time of her incarceration at the prison in Saskatoon and serves as a reminder of the ongoing discussions surrounding post-modern colonialism in Canada. Moreover, it speaks to the lack of representation in the media about such cases. Savarese (2017) notes that Kinew James’ case is not unique; the issue has spanned prisons across the country (pg. 165), and yet their stories are not being represented in mainstream media. While many people in Canada are aware that the problem exists, there is an obvious lack of information regarding individual cases. In turn, this has led to a devaluation of Indigenous women’s stories. Those who remain skeptical of the accounts given by victims or their loved ones may feel that their stories are inaccurate because it is usually considered that families of the missing or deceased are not as reliable of a source as a formal police report or a reputable news station. This is an issue that silences the storytelling of Indigenous women and contributes to the harm inflicted upon their traditional knowledge practices.

Present Challenges

The last several decades have brought a great deal of progression to the Indigenous women’s rights movement, and their fight to end violence against Indigenous women and girls. However, as with all women, many would argue that not enough is being done to prevent further acts of violence and discrimination. Indigenous women are discriminated against from both a political and social perspective. Many are still faced with horrendous acts of violence against them, simply because of their identity and heritage. Hate crimes against women in Canada are on the rise, and it has become evident that Indigenous women are at a significantly higher risk than non-Indigenous women (Canadian Race Relations Foundation, 2020). Data gathered between 2010 and 2018 shows that Indigenous women are 45% more likely to be victims in cases of hate crimes “…relative to hate [crimes] targeting other populations” (Canadian Race Relations Foundation, 2020). The case of Kinew James is just one of many of its kind but does not fully represent the larger body of hate crimes being committed in Canada against Indigenous women, both online and in-person.

Indigenous women have been the victims of overwhelming amounts of violent crime, making up a reported 16% of female homicides in Canada (RCMP, 2014), yet little concrete action has been taken by the federal government to prevent this. The launch of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in 2016, under Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government, is certainly a cornerstone for reconciliation that incorporates the narratives of Indigenous women. However, without changing anti-Indigenous social attitudes and providing infrastructure – such as women’s shelters that are trained to deal with violence against Indigenous women, and support their unique needs – cases of MMIWG will continue to impact communities. This is especially true of rural communities, who may struggle to receive adequate access to these supports. Furthermore, initiatives to end violence against Indigenous women and girls have been left to the community, which lack the economic and political backing required to resolve the issues brought forth by MMIWG. However, the movement has gained traction by maintaining a strong social media presence online, through sites such as Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and most recently TikTok and many women are choosing to use their voices on their social media platforms to call for justice.

According to a 2014 report by the RCMP, Indigenous women are at higher risk of being victims of violence in Canada. In 2011, Indigenous women made up a small 4.3% of the female population in Canada according to the report, yet accounted for an astounding 16% of all female homicides in the country. This supports the MMIWG movement’s claims surrounding the disproportionate number of Indigenous women being the victims of homicide cases. The report is sectioned into two main parts: missing women and murdered women. According to the 2014 RCMP report, 1017 Indigenous women were the victims of homicide between 1980 and 2012, and 167 were reported missing only in while in 2013 (RCMP, 2014). Through the reported statistics, we can make an alarming discovery that among the cases of missing women, an astounding 37% of the causes of missing Indigenous women’s cases are listed as unknown, rather than as a foul play, 27% are listed as accidents, and 7% are attributed to women simply getting lost or having “wandered off” (RCMP, 2014). This raises the question of how thoroughly our police justice system is truly analyzing these cases. Such case statistics are not present for murdered women. While the rates of missing Aboriginal women have somewhat dropped since 1980 – although not significantly – the rates of murdered Aboriginal women have increased dramatically, from “…8% of female victims in 1984 as compared to 23% in 2012” (RCMP, 2014). These statistics shed light on the reality of the attitudes of Canadians towards Indigenous women. A sense of urgency in the matter of MMIWG has yet to become mainstream in Canadian media or political discussions despite rising cases of violence, signalling the continued existence of a colonial mindset.

While political powers often claim that a great deal of effort is being put into solving the issues of missing and murdered Indigenous women, the RCMP report (2014) simply does not reflect that meaningful action by the government and RCMP to prevent cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls is taking place. If anything, the issue has gotten substantially worse, as seen in the large increase in homicide cases. Anti-Indigenous sentiments have become increasingly accessible to the public, widening its outreach, due to the popularization of social media and online forums. Therefore, internet use may be contributing to the growth of anti-indigenous thought. In Canada, groups such as the “Incel” community have expressed deeply misogynistic, and occasionally racist views towards women online (Canadien Women’s Foundation, 2022). The Incel community often “…encourages violence against women in online forums such as 4chan and Reddit,” and some scholars claim that their supporters are growing (Canadian Women’s Foundation, 2022). With dangerous hate groups like Incels or neo-Nazis being permitted to spread both narratives of gender- and race-based intolerance online, Indigenous women face a particular risk for hate crimes and hate-motivated homicide as a historically discriminated against group in Canada, and they are still marginalized.

Many issues related to systemic poverty have perpetuated crimes against Indigenous women. One such issue of poverty is the commonality of hitchhiking amongst impoverished Indigenous women.  The practice is a form of mobility which is generally seen as a “negative” form of transportation in Canadian society (Morton, 2016, pg. 301). This is largely due to the associations with people who hitchhike, such as someone who is unable to afford a vehicle or public transport being related to being in poverty. Furthermore, those who are impoverished are often labelled as criminals, drug abusers, or unhygienic, leading to additional stigma against those who need to hitchhike as a form of transport. Morton (2016) also believes hitchhiking to be a “contentious form of mobility”, where hitchhikers are unable to freely control factors such as speed or destination (pg. 301) According to a study in northwestern British Columbia, Indigenous women use hitchhiking as a form of mobility much more frequently than other demographics in Canada (Morton, 2016, pg. 303). The case of Highway 16 in British Columbia, which connects several rural communities with high Indigenous populations in central British Columbia, including Burns Lake and Kitimat, has become known as the Highway of Tears for its notoriety as a roadway in which many Indigenous women have been found murdered or have gone missing. It extensively highlights the connections between gender, identity, and MMIWG, as well as Canadian social attitudes toward impoverished Indigenous women.

In 1994, Ramona Wilson was one of many women in the 1990s who went missing from the community of Smithers, British Columbia – located along Highway 16. Author Jessica McDiarmid shares the story of Ramona Wilson in her work titled Highway of Tears (2019). McDiarmid shares with readers the emotional, moving story of Ramona Wilson and her family, using storytelling as a means of communicating social activism seeking justice for Wilson and the many other Indigenous women missing and murdered on Highway 16. Ramona Wilson was a bright young girl with early hopes of attending university, becoming the first in her family to receive post-secondary education (McDiarmid, 2019). However, Ramona Wilson would never see her dream come true. At only sixteen years of age, Ramona’s life was tragically lost. Her family and friends, alongside the RCMP and the Missing Children’s Society of Canada, searched desperately for Ramona, but all that was found were her remains, alongside her clothing, rope, and several zip ties (McDiarmid, 2019). Ramona Wilson’s case is not isolated (McDiarmid, 2019), and it will not be the last if no further action from the government is taken.

According to Morton (2016), the remoteness of Highway 16 greatly contributes to current statistics of women being kidnapped or murdered on the road, where little help is available for women in crisis (pg. 302). Furthermore, a large number of Indigenous women in the area are impoverished, and therefore more vulnerable than the Indigenous women across Canada who are not, and thus have increased access to public transport or personal vehicles than poor women (Morton, 2016, pg. 304). Colonialism has significantly impacted the Indigenous communities in British Columbia, where a lack of treaty negotiations saw Indigenous families having little to no protection of their land claims, leading to widespread poverty (McDiarmid, 2019). Blatant and violent racism against the Wet’suwet’en First Nations exploded in 1993 as treaty negotiations began, fueled by misinformation that white property owners would lose their own land or rights to operate businesses on the land (McDiarmid, 2019). As a result, Indigenous women in British Columbia have faced a unique risk for violence, and the poverty caused by the colonial history of the province has only worsened this risk. Women in poverty may not own their own vehicles to use as transport, and will subsequently rely upon hitchhiking to move between places. Technology may also play an important role in this factor, where poor, Indigenous women coming from remote communities may not have an operational cellphone with which they can contact authorities in cases of an emergency. While the government of British Columbia has attempted to resolve issues relating to the Highway of Tears, their initiative to prevent and discourage Indigenous women from hitchhiking can be seen as more interceptive rather than preventative to MMIWG cases. According to Morton (2016), stopping Indigenous women from hitchhiking altogether limits their mobility, restricting them to reservation land, and creates an additional negative stigma around Indigenous women and hitchhiking (pg. 315-316).  Instead, the government should be focusing on changing social attitudes and providing accessible public transport which would ensure a method of travel which helps them reach their destinations safely.

With the involvement of modern technology and social media, the MMIWG movement has gained incredible traction in the past decade. Today, we are seeing national news coverage as well as social media campaigns that advocate and spread awareness about the current situation. Multiple grassroots organizations and initiatives have used social media to trend various hashtags, such as “#ImNotNext” (Watson, 2019, pg. 208). One grassroots movement that contributed to raising awareness for MMIWG in 2012 was Walking with Our Sisters, which called for women across Canada to make moccasin tops to be used in an art installation by Christi Belcourt (Watson, 2019, pg. 207). Indigenous women are using these hashtags to create a platform in which they share their stories and experiences both with each other, and the world. However. social media and news reports are not without their faults. According to Watson (2019), cases of homicides in which white women were victims were more likely to gain coverage by news sources than Indigenous women (pg. 209). This suggests the stark contrast between the overarching importance of white women’s cases and the disregard of MMIWG cases in the media. In addition, social media is not a reliable source of information, particularly regarding statistical data (Watson, 2019, pg. 209), which may lead to a spread of misinformation about MMIWG. However, the work accomplished by grassroots organizations has fought to mitigate and correct false information about the movement and de-sensationalize the stories of MMIWG (Watson, 2019, pg. 209). Oftentimes, only the most heinous or “abnormal” stories about Indigenous female victims ever gain attention. Grassroots organizations help draw awareness to the stories of everyday Indigenous women, such as a kidnapping, or an incident of domestic violence.

Addressing and resolving the issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls is key to the topic of reconciliation and dismantling European gender roles that have been imposed upon Indigenous women in Canada. The voices of Indigenous women are crucial to ending neo-colonialism in Canada, and must not be excluded from the reconciliation process. MMIWG is an issue that is ongoing in Canada today, and Indigenous women will continue to face many barriers to justice, such as racism and a lack of adequate social support for Indigenous women and girls. The constructs of colonialism run deep within Canadian society, and Indigenous women are still challenged with ending violence against them and sharing their experiences with the rest of Canada. While many Canadians refuse to acknowledge the struggles of Indigenous women, the contributions of their knowledge and stories have begun to recourse their futures. Stories shared by survivors, or their families, help raise awareness in a way that preserves traditional storytelling practices and gives Indigenous women the opportunity to reclaim their history and showcase Indigenous ways of knowing. Transparency within our political justice system is a key aspect in educating the public about the cycle of violence against Indigenous women, and the role that colonialism plays in this issue. Transparency allows us to see through social stigmas and a broad landscape of misinformation, much of which has been perpetuated by misogynistic and racist views, and directly address rising numbers of MMIWG cases as presented in the 2014 RCMP report. The demands of MMIWG supporters have not often been met by political powers in a way that responds to the situation in an effective manner, such as in the case of the Highway of Tears in British Columbia. Indigenous women and girls are breaking the silence and demanding justice, ensuring that women lost to colonial violence and racism will not be forgotten, such as Ramona Wilson. The fight to end violence against Indigenous women, obtain justice, and reach reconciliation remains strong in hopes for a brighter future for the Indigenous women and girls of Canada.

References

Assembly of First Nations (n.d.). Traditional Knowledge. Retrieved from: https://www.afn.ca/uploads/files/env/fs_-_traditional_knowledge.pdf.

Canadian Race Relations Foundation. (2020, March 2). Hate Crime in Canada. Retrieved from:  https://www.crrf-fcrr.ca/en/news-a-events/articles/item/26823-hate-crime-in-canada.

Canadian Women’s Foundation (2022). The Facts about Online Hate and Cyberviolence against Women and Girls in Canada. Retrieved from: https://canadianwomen.org/the-facts/online-hate-and-cyberviolence/

Frideres, J.S. (2020). Indigenous Peoples in the Twenty-First Century, 3rd ed. Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press.

Hearne, S. (1769). Samuel Hearne (1745-1792). In G. Warkentin (Ed) Canadian Exploration Literature (pp. 167-204). Dundurn Press.

Martos, J., & HĂ©gy, P. (1998). Equal at the Creation: Sexism, Society, and Christian Thought. University of Toronto Press, Scholarly Publishing Division.

McDiarmid, J. (2019). Highway of Tears: A True Story of Racism, Indifference and the Pursuit of Justice for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (Emily Nixon). [Audiobook]. Doubleday Canada. Retrieved from: https://www.audible.ca/pd/Highway-of-Tears-Audiobook/B07VPX7DT4?source_code=ASSOR150021921000V.

Morton, K. (2016). Hitchhiking and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women: A Critical Discourse Analysis of Billboards on the Highway of Tears. Canadian Journal of Sociology / Cahiers Canadiens de Sociologie, 41(3), 299–326.

National Inquiry into MMIWG (2018, March 4). Truth Gathering Process. From https://www.mmiwg-ffada.ca/how-to-participate/

RCMP. (2014). Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women: A National Operational Overview. Retrieved from: http://www.mmiwg-ffada.ca/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/national-operational-overview.pdf

Savarese, J. L. (2017). Challenging Colonial Norms and Attending to Presencing in Stories of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. Canadian Journal of Women & the Law, 29(1), 157–181. https://doi.org/10.3138/cjwl.29.1.157

Voyageur, C. J. (2016). First Nations Women in the Fur Trade: From Essential to Redundant. Canadian Issues / Thèmes Canadiens, 15-20.

Watson, K. (2019). Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women: The Role of Grassroots Organizations and Social Media in Education. Canadian Woman Studies, 33(1/2), 204–210.

Author Bio:

Sarah was born in Newfoundland, Canada and moved to Thompson, Manitoba at the age of five. From a young age, Sarah was taught the importance of education in personal growth and accomplishment. She is majoring in history in the Bachelor of Arts program at UCN, beginning her academic journey in 2019. Her goal is to become a social historian of Newfoundland and Labrador history, focusing on the everyday lives and sociopolitical structures of populations in the past. She aims to obtain a master’s degree from Memorial University and one day take on a job as an instructor. Through her work, Sarah hopes to emphasize the importance of recording modern sociopolitical structures around the world for future historians, as well as to bring awareness to systems of inequality and injustice.

Sarah Brown

Instructor’s Remarks:

Students in ANS 1001 are introduced to a variety of topics pertaining to Indigenous peoples in Canada. As part of the course, students are given an opportunity to research a single topic and write about it. This assignment was the final term paper for the course and students were encouraged to research and write about a topic that was of particular interest to them. In addition to providing an opportunity to gain research skills and experience, this assignment provided space to collate and pull together ideas and perspectives that were supported by scholarship. In addition to content, students were assessed on research and writing skills. (Dr. Ramona Neckoway)

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