Many Canadians wonder how the phenomenon of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls could have ever developed in a country known to be the world's nicest kid in the sandbox. After all, Canada has apologized for residential schools, it has included Indigenous dancers at the opening of the Olympics, and it hosts big celebrations each year for National Aboriginal Day. We even have a Prime Minister who claims to be a feminist and sports a Haida tattoo.
Sadly, Canada's MMIWG crisis should be no surprise to any of us. The phenomenon was inevitable and one of the country's own making. Since contact, settlers and government officials both have stolen Indigenous lands and repeatedly raped our women. These same governments have continuously educated Canadian society to view Indigenous peoples as less than human; i.e. savages who don't deserve basic human rights. This is how genocide - physical, biological and cultural - has been able to take place with little intervention by anyone in Canadian society, including law enforcement.
From the beginning, Canada’s “Indian policy” had two objectives (1) obtain Indigenous lands and resources and (2) reduce financial obligations to Indigenous Nations acquired through treaties. Despite the signing of treaties to share the lands and live in peace, the focus of early settler governments was to effectively assimilate and eventually eliminate Indigenous peoples. It was during these early settlement days when being both Indigenous and a woman first became (and remains today) a “high-risk lifestyle”.
In the 1700's, scalping bounties were placed on our women's heads, resulting in the deaths of thousands. The Indian Act of 1876 specifically targeted the removal of Indigenous women from their Nations. The result was tens of thousands of Indigenous women and their descendants losing their legal status as Indians and being forced to live away from their Nations. Those who survived have been continuously subjected to other forms of targeted genocide including the theft of their children by residential schools, the adoption of their children into white families, and forced sterilization. Perhaps the greatest killer of our women and girls has been sexualized violence. The repeated use of food rations to extort sex is just one horrific example. In earlier years, Canada’s police forces removed children from Indigenous women and forced them back into residential schools where they were often sexually abused and tortured. Some died. These early acts of sexualized violence helped to normalize the crisis as part of colonial relations with Indigenous women.
If you speak to Indigenous women today, they will tell you that the crisis is far from over. The Indian Act still discriminates against Indigenous women and their descendants in the transmission of Indian status and membership in First Nations. Indigenous women suffer far greater rates of heart disease and stroke; they have higher rates of suicide attempts; they disproportionately live in poverty as single parents; their over-incarceration rates have increased by 90% in the last decade; and 48% of all children in foster care in Canada are Indigenous. With this list of harrowing statistics, is it any wonder that thousands of our sisters are missing or murdered?
When Stephen Harper said that MMIWG was not “high on our radar”, he confirmed just how ingrained the degree of sexism and racism is within Canada's governement - and society. The fact that many Indigenous women and girls don’t trust police because “they either rape you or arrest you” really says it all.
Ending the crisis of MMIWG will take far more than an inquiry, cultural awareness training in police forces, or tougher legislation for criminals. Only when we get to the root of Canada’s racist and sexist foundation can we start to build a new Canada - one that doesn't include the sexualized violence of Indigenous women and girls. Thankfully, many of our sisters and brothers are on board and doing good work that will get us there. But we need to keep moving, because we can't afford to lose one more girl or woman.
Pamela Palmater is a Mi’kmaw lawyer from Eel River Bar First Nation in northern New Brunswick. She is an author, social justice activist and expert in Indigenous law and governance. She currently holds the position of Associate Professor and Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University in Toronto.