The Current

U.S. activists inspired by Canada's inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women

As U.S. faces up to its own problem of missing and murdered Indigenous women, what can the country learn from Canada’s success — and failures?

Other jurisdictions could learn from our successes and our failures, says lawyer

Roxanne White, whose aunt was murdered in 1996, has become a leading voice in the call to address violence towards Indigenous women in the U.S. (Jason Redmond/AFP/Getty Images)

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When her aunt was murdered in 1996, Roxanne White was too young to place her death in a larger pattern of violence.

"I knew nothing about missing and murdered Indigenous women, and I kind of just stored it away because I didn't know how to deal with it," said White, a Native American woman who grew up on the Yakama Indian Reservation in Washington.

Her aunt, Karen White, was shot to death by her eldest daughter. Decades later, White was at pipeline protests at Standing Rock when she heard speeches about the same kind of violence happening north of the border.

"Some sisters from Canada — First Nations sisters — came over and they spoke," she told The Current's guest host Connie Walker. She described hearing their stories as "profound."

"I could see in my own life that it could have very easily been me my cousin shot — she pointed the gun at me."

Inspired by developments in Canada, White has become a leading voice in the call to address this kind of violence in the U.S.

"The more that I heard other women talk about the violence and the missing and murdered Indigenous women, it's like something in my spirit said: 'You're here, use your voice. Speak for the ones that don't have a voice.'"

The U.S. needs brave women to speak

Stories of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls have become familiar to Canadians since the government launched an inquiry in Sept. 2016. In the U.S., however, the issue has remained largely in the shadows.

We have to have the stories of brave women who have encountered this horrific incident.- Gina Mosbrucker

One woman working to change that is Gina Mosbrucker, the Republican representative for the state of Washington. Last year, she sponsored a bill aimed at tallying the number of Indigenous women who have gone missing in her state.

"Are we talking about 10, or 5,000?" she said. "The goal is to reach out to 29 tribes ... and try to figure out what that number is for our own state."

Roxanne White first heard the term 'missing and murdered Indigenous women' from Canadian speakers at protests against the Dakota Access pipeline near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota in 2016. (Stephanie Keith/Reuters)

She is also working to ensure public safety systems such as Amber Alert can reach these communities.

"My goal with this entire thing is to make sure that when somebody is missing, no matter who it is in the state of Washington, we're reaching from corner to corner in the state to try to find them.

"We're not stopping at the reservation line," she said.

The key to her work will be personal testimony from grassroots activists, survivors and women with the courage to speak up, she said. 

"We have to have the stories of brave women who have encountered this horrific incident, to say, 'what can we do as a state to do a better job?' and then hopefully as a nation, to do a better job."

A vigil for missing and murdered women at the Mi'kmaq Native Friendship Centre in Halifax, Oct 4, 2017. (Nic Meloney/CBC)

Learn from Canada's mistakes

In Canada, Grassroots voices have inspired "greater and more widespread empathy for this extremely troubling epidemic of violence," said Virginia Lomax, a lawyer for the Native Women's Association of Canada.

"I have seen on the ground a wider understanding of the issues, a wider acceptance of the issues," she said.

"That's not just coming from the inquiry, it's coming from families, it's coming from survivors, and coming from the grassroots."

Lomax says that any other jurisdiction planning a similar inquiry could learn a lot from Canada — including from our mistakes.

"[We need] communication that is proactive and supportive, and reaching out to communities, and to families, and to survivors, and to grassroots organizations constantly, with the offer of not just taking stories from these people, but offering them support going forward.

"That level of communication has unfortunately, in a lot of circumstances, not been present."

Listen to the full episode near the top of this page.

This segment was produced by The Current's John Chipman.