International Women's Day: Indigenous women still not equal in Canada

Yesterday yet another damning report was released, concluding that Canada committed “grave violations” of the human rights of indigenous women and girls in Canada, and recommended a national inquiry. How did we come to this state of affairs in Canada?
Photos of missing and murdered indigenous women at the national round table in Ottawa February 27. (Karina Roman/CBC)

CBC News will continue to investigate missing and murdered indigenous women and girls by exploring the stories of these women, their families and their communities.

On Friday another damning report was released that concluded Canada committed “grave violations” of the human rights of indigenous women and girls across the country. The report also recommended a national inquiry.

“Aboriginal women and girls are more likely to be victims of violence than men or non-aboriginal women, and they are more likely to die as a result,” said Niklas Bruun and Barbara Bailey, members of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women.

“Yet, despite the seriousness of the situation, the Canadian State has not sufficiently implemented measures to ensure that cases of missing and murdered aboriginal women are effectively investigated and prosecuted.”

At least 1,200 indigenous women and girls have gone murdered and missing in the past three decades. How did we come to this state of affairs in Canada?

How could the senseless and unfortunate murder of one soldier on Parliament attract Harper’s empathy, compassion and conviction to prevent another senseless death, but 1,200 horrific murders and missing indigenous women and little girls do not rank “high on our radar”?

Unequal value ingrained in Canada's history

The unequal value placed on one man’s life versus hundreds of indigenous women’s lives require a closer examination of our history and how this sort of blatant racism came to be ingrained in every level of our government.

Under the Indian Act, indigenous women were confined to reserves, stripped of their political and legal powers, and excluded from residing with their communities if they married out.- Pamela Palmater

The acquisition of the lands and resources in Canada were not all acquired through peace-making in treaties. The dispossession of Indigenous Nations came about, in part, through the violent oppression of indigenous women.  In 1749, scalping bounties were placed on the heads of Mi’kmaw men, women and children — and represented the first state-sanctioned cases of murdered and missing indigenous women.

Under the Indian Act, indigenous women were confined to reserves, stripped of their political and legal powers, and excluded from residing with their communities if they married out. Canada’s policy to “sever her connection wholly with the reserve” was a way to ensure the “gradual assimilation” of Indians.

However, all of Canada’s policies were not so gradual in their effect. During the 1900’s, thousands of indigenous women and little girls were forcibly sterilized without their knowledge and consent. Ironically this was thanks in part to Nellie McClung and Emily Murphy of the “Famous Five” — who won their legal challenge in 1928 to have women declared “persons” under the law. McClung and Murphy publicly advocated racist ideologies related to cleansing the human race of “inferior” people – like indigenous peoples.

During the residential school era, thousands of indigenous girls were subjected to rape, torture and physical abuse in residential schools. These were not isolated or anomalous incidents, like in the case of one random serial rapist/killer, but represented the whole scale of violent, sexual and physical oppression of indigenous girls.

These little girls could not call out for help. If they tried to run away or tell the RCMP, the RCMP did not help them, but instead dragged them back to the residential schools.

Little has changed

Today, when Indigenous women and girls call the RCMP for help – the call often goes unanswered or little effort is exerted to search for the missing or investigate the murdered. The Robert Pickton inquiry highlighted these gross failures.

What’s worse is that state actors, like judges and law enforcement, have themselves taken part in the violence. Former provincial court judge David Ramsay plead guilty to sexual and physical assault on indigenous girls as young as 12 years old.

RCMP Const. Kevin Theriault only lost seven days pay for arresting an intoxicated indigenous woman and taking her out of jail and back to his house to engage in relations with her all while his colleagues and supervisor goaded him on. The Human Rights Watch report which has documented many accounts of indigenous women who have been beaten and raped by RCMP officers seems to suggest these are not isolated incidents.

The kidnap and murder of Helen Betty Osborne in The Pas and the failure of the RCMP to properly investigate the case, and the wrongful imprisonment of Donald Marshall Junior, led to justice inquiries which revealed the real problem in Canada:

  1. The long history of discriminatory Canadian laws and policies which disadvantage indigenous women and girls and make them vulnerable
  2. The overt and systemic racism against indigenous peoples in every level of Canada’s justice system.

Canada has ignored more than 50 studies which have made more than 700 recommendations on how to address murdered and missing indigenous women and girls. The majority of Canadians, First Nations, provinces and territories and the United Nations have all called for a national inquiry and an emergency action plan.

This Sunday, March 8 is International Women’s Day. The theme this year: “Empowering Women: Empowering Humanity." We collectively have an opportunity to make Canada a better place for all women and girls by letting the families of the murdered and missing have justice.


Pamela Palmater is a Mi’kmaw lawyer, professor, author and social justice advocate who currently holds the position of Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University.


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