Breaking one of Canada's best kept secrets: MMIW

Canada is not often seen as a place where widespread human rights violations against the indigenous population occur on a regular basis. Much of the international community’s perception of this country is still that of pristine nature and polite inhabitants with health care.

Activist Audrey Huntley speaks at global human rights conference this weekend

"Never before has the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women commanded public and media attention to the degree that it has in the last few years," says No More Silence co-founder Audrey Huntley. (CBC)

Audrey Huntley will be speaking at the Nobel Women's Initiative conference on the Defence of Women Human Rights Defenders, April 24-26, The Hague. 

Canada is not often seen as a place where widespread human rights violations against the indigenous population occur on a regular basis.

Much of the international community's perception of this country is still that of pristine nature and polite inhabitants with health care.

In fact, Canada's indigenous population is over-policed and under-protected, both men and women are incarcerated at rates much higher than the non-indigenous population and face police violence and deaths in custody all too often.

Yet our own mainstream media is finally no longer able to ignore one of this settler colonial country's best-kept secrets: Ongoing genocidal violence against the indigenous population — and more specifically the targeting of indigenous women, girls, transgender and two-spirited people.

Never before has the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women commanded public and media attention to the degree that it has in the last few years.

The demands of community leaders, family members of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, as well as opposition parties to hold a national inquiry is supported by various reports from national and international human rights organizations.

These have cast light on the complicity of Canadian police  — and not only their failure to adequately prevent and protect indigenous women and girls from killings, disappearances and extreme forms of violence.

National and international reports raise alarms

In February 2013, Human Rights Watch, a U.S. based human rights group, released its alarming report on the relationship of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and indigenous women and girls in Northern B.C., entitled, Those Who Take Us Away: Abusive Policing and Failures in Protection of Indigenous Women and Girls in Northern British Columbia, Canada.

More recently, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) also weighed in, publishing a damning 127-page report in January 2015 that named police failure and systemic discrimination against Canada's indigenous community as contributing to the plight of missing or murdered indigenous women, and that poverty is at the root of the violence.

In 2014, Dr. Maryanne Pearce shared research she had gathered over a seven year period, entitled An Awkward Silence. It included a database that put the number of cases at over 800, significantly higher than numbers cited previously.

Just months later, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police released their own National Operational Review on the issue of missing and murdered aboriginal women. They put the numbers of murdered indigenous women between 1980 and 2012 at 1,017, and cited another 164 as missing under suspicious circumstances.

Activists and community members believe these numbers to be low. They point out that inadequate tracking of ethnicity of victims, and problems with RCMP methodology in identifying indigeneity, indicate that many women would not have been recognized as such.

While indigenous women make up only 4.3 per cent of the total female population, they represent 16 percent of all female homicide victims over more than three decades according to the report.

Deafening silence in mainstream society

It was the deafening quiet in mainstream society around this crisis that prompted the founding of No More Silence in Toronto, Ontario over 10 years ago.

I was approached by Barbara Williams, a white woman ally, and we formed the coalition in 2004.

Two women comfort each other during a women's memorial march in Vancouver. (CBC)
Having lived and worked in Vancouver's downtown eastside in the late 90s when serial killer Robert Pickton was on his rampage, I was inspired by the many grannies and aunties who had been working in the Women's Memorial March organizing committee since 1991.

When Pickton, who had been arrested and released in 1997 — and had then gone on to kill 18 more women — was facing trial on 33 murder charges, the Toronto group also began to hold an annual ceremony every February 14th at police headquarters.

We hold the ceremony in solidarity with the Vancouver march, and to point out that serial killers like Pickton are far from aberrations.

Our first call stated: "We stand in defense of our lives and to demonstrate against the complicity of the state in the ongoing genocide of indigenous women and the impunity of state institutions and actors (police, RCMP, coroners' offices, the courts and an indifferent federal government) that prevents justice for all indigenous peoples."

No More Silence chooses to be at police headquarters in order to highlight the impunity that Canada affords killers of poor and marginalized women — women not deemed worthy of state protection, and indigenous women who are targets of the genocidal policies inherent to a settler state.

We choose to practice ceremony in honouring our missing sisters "both as an act of love for those who are gone and those who remain behind to mourn as well as an assertion of sovereignty."

Canada needs inquiry, families need answers

The Canadian government has consistently refused demands for a public inquiry, which would acknowledge the gravity of the crisis.

An inquiry or commission could at the very least establish a public record, and if led and informed by family members and indigenous women themselves, examine more than the root causes that are already known.

It could go a step further and shed light on why the almost 700 recommendations made on this subject in over 40 reports have not been implemented.

More importantly, however, in my view, is the need of family members for answers in unsolved cases. The under-investigation and police negligence in their duty of care needs to be revealed for what it is, and can only be done so if records are shared.

All of us in No More Silence are well aware that the violence inherent to settler colonialism will only end with decolonization and thus prioritize community capacity and relationship building to this end.

Collaborating with the Native Youth Sexual Health Network and Families of Sisters In Spirit we have created a community-led database.

It's time for community to build our own structures independent of government and institutional funding. The purpose of the database is to honour our women and provide family members with a way to document their loved ones passing.

This article was initially published on Open Democracy. It was republished with the permission of the author. 


Audrey Huntley is a co-founder of No More Silence, a storyteller, documentary filmmaker, community activist and writer/producer of mixed European and Indigenous ancestry. She works at Aboriginal Legal Services in Toronto.