More than 100 MMIWG cases listed since Trudeau took office, group says

The day before Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government was sworn into office, Janel Squirrel was found dead in the basement of a rooming house in Calgary.

List of missing and murdered women compiled by grassroots group Families of Sisters in Spirit

A vigil was held on Parliament Hill on Oct. 4 to honour the missing and murdered. Similar vigils were held across the country. (CBC News)

The day before Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was sworn into office, Janel Squirrel was found dead in the basement of a rooming house in Calgary.

Squirrel, 26, from the Blackfoot community of Siksika in Alberta, was found strangled and beaten to death on Nov. 3, 2015. The man who killed her, Leo Pantherbone, was sentenced to 12 years in prison in March 2017.

The federal Liberal cabinet was sworn in on Nov. 4, 2015.

On Nov. 8, 2015, Krystal Andrews, 22, phoned home to say she was on her way back from a Halloween social in God's Lake First Nation, a Cree community in northern Manitoba. It was her last phone call.

The next day she was found dead along a wooded trail.

Michael William Okemow, 37, was charged this past March with second degree murder in her killing.

Squirrel's and Andrews's names are atop a list of more than 100 Indigenous women who have been killed or whose deaths have been deemed suspicious since November 2015, the month the Trudeau government took power.

The names of the women on the list were read out last Thursday on Parliament Hill during cross-country vigils held to remember the missing and the murdered.

The list was compiled by a grassroots group founded in January 2011 called Families of Sisters in Spirit (FSIS).

List 'grows every day'

The list, provided to CBC News, names 125 women and girls. The list includes deaths that were confirmed as homicides, suspicious deaths, deaths in police custody and while in the care of the child welfare system.

According to the list, there have been 78 cases of confirmed homicides since November 2015. There were charges laid in 68 of the cases, according to the data included with the list.

The list also tallied 37 suspicious death cases — where family disputed police conclusions or causes remain undetermined — along with six deaths in custody, three child welfare deaths and one woman killed by Calgary police this past May 17 — Josephine Pelletier, 33, from Muskowekwan First Nation.

Bridget Tolley, left, Colleen Cardinal, centre, and Kristen Gilchrist. (Courtesy of Kristen Gilchrist)
 

The group decided to take the beginning of the federal Liberal government as a starting point because the prime minister made the issue one of his main election campaign promises, said Bridget Tolley one of the founders of FSIS.

As a result, Trudeau called an inquiry into the disproportionate level of violence faced by Indigenous women and girls.

Tolley said she was unhappy the inquiry's mandate restricted its ability to directly question and examine police action on specific cases.

"They said they were going to help us," said Tolley, whose mother Gladys Tolley was killed by a Quebec provincial police cruiser in 2001. "[Trudeau] promised to do better."

'Grows every day'

Kristen Gilchrist, an independent researcher in Ottawa who compiled the list, said she hopes it will lead the general public to realize that the violence against Indigenous women continues unabated.

"People tend to think of it as a static thing," said Gilchrist. "They don't think it's a growing list that grows every day."

Gilchrist said the list was expanded to include suspicious deaths because police have been wrong about causes in the past and families have been proven right. She said in-custody and child welfare deaths are caused by a broken system.

"It speaks to the way the community has been talking about these deaths," she said.

The last official figure on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) was released in 2014 by the RCMP. That report found there were 1,181 cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women between 1980 and 2012.

MMIWG inquiry says cycle needs to end

Gilchrist said the list is not conclusive, because it is primarily based off media reports or social media posts that confirm the heritage of the victim.

The list does not include cases of missing Indigenous women.

"Triple that number for the number of missing," said Maggie Cywink, who attended the Parliament Hill vigil to honour her sister Sonya whose 1994 homicide remains unsolved. 

"Colonialism created the problem, and colonial mentality is trying to solve it."

Maggie Cywink believes the number of missing Indigenous women is far higher. (Courtesy of Maggie Cywink)

The MMIWG national Inquiry issued a statement saying it "commends" FSIS for compiling the list and that it hopes Canadians will act on the recommendations of its final report which will be delivered next April.

"The hard truth is that with every passing day more members of our communities suffer unspeakable pain and loss," said the statement. "That will only continue to be the case unless we take the steps necessary to ensure the safety and wellbeing of our next generation of daughters, granddaughters and nieces."

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett's office issued a statement saying the creation of the national inquiry was an "important step" for families to get "answers" about "the systemic and institutional failures that have led to this tragedy."

Bennett's office said the government is also investing in women's shelters, housing, education, reforming child welfare and increasing safety along B.C.'s Highway of Tears.

"We are working to end the ongoing national tragedy of the unacceptable rates of violence against Indigenous women and girls," said the statement.

For Tolley, the struggle continues at the grassroots level no matter what the government does.

"We are going to keep going until the truth comes out, until we get justice," she said.

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About the Author

Jorge Barrera

Reporter

Jorge Barrera is a Caracas-born, award-winning journalist who has worked across the country and internationally. He works for CBC's Indigenous unit based out of Ottawa. Follow him on Twitter @JorgeBarrera or email him jorge.barrera@cbc.ca.