Contributor: Kayleigh Lamphere*
In August 2016, Canada launched a full-scale public inquiry, which will span the course of two years and cost over $53 million.[i] Since 1969, Canada has struggled to keep a dark secret from becoming known.[ii] Over the span of several decades, the bodies of indigenous women were found along Highway 16. Eighteen women have been identified as either missing or murdered on what has been nicknamed the “Highway of Tears.”[iii] In 2015, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police reported 106 unsolved homicide cases and 98 unsolved missing cases of Aboriginal women.[iv] Amnesty International conducted studies into the murders and believes that the number of potential victims linked to the “Highway of Tears” could be much higher than 18.[v] Violence against indigenous women has been a pervasive issue in Canada. Less than 5% of Canada’s female population identify as indigenous, but indigenous women make up 16% of the women who have been murdered.[vi]
The Canadian government’s history of mistreating indigenous people influenced legislative acts which left indigenous women vulnerable to violence. It has also resulted in the mishandling of murder cases due to racial bias by police and the Canadian Government has done little with its laws to combat these problems. Beginning in 1876, Canada passed the Indian Act.[vii] This legislation gave the Canadian Department of Indian Affairs control over all aspects of the lives of indigenous people.[viii] Under this Act, the Department opened the first residential school in 1849.[ix] School-aged children were forced to leave their families and attend these facilities as a method of compulsory assimilation.[x] Children reported horrendous accounts of physical, mental, and sexual abuse that occurred within these schools by the staff.[xi] Female victims were often sexually abused at early ages.
In addition to the abuse that they suffered, women were often stripped of their independence through oppressive gender-based legislation, beginning in the 1800’s, that was not repealed until the 1980’s. One law allowed men of indigenous descent to assimilate with non-indigenous people by renouncing their indigenous status, but women were only allowed to do so if a male in their family permitted it.[xii] Another law stripped women of their indigenous status if they married anyone, even an indigenous man, if he was not from the same community.[xiii] Women were viewed as extensions of their fathers or husbands and lost their ability to become independent. This created employment barriers for future generations of women and fostered inequality between genders in the indigenous community.
The continued violence against indigenous women in Canada is largely due to the government’s inability to address factors that increase the likelihood of victimization and revictimization. Some factors that increase an individual’s likelihood of victimization are low socioeconomic status, poor education, and unemployment.[xiv] The Aboriginal Economic Progress Report of 2015 states that the unemployment rate for aboriginal people in Canada (15%) was twice as high as the rate of unemployment for non-aboriginal people (7.5%) and the median income for non-aboriginal people was roughly $10,000 more than that of aboriginal people.[xv] A regional map in the report shows that the employment rates and median income in Saskatchewan and Manitoba are among the lowest in Canada.[xvi] The marginalization of women in these communities has led to higher rates of homelessness, poverty, and risky behaviors, like prostitution.[xvii] Preventative measures and legislation that focus on improving the lives of indigenous people through increased access to education and employment opportunities would target some of the underlying social and economic causes of violence.
Although Canada has changed its oppressive laws, the vestiges of colonialism and racism are still present in law enforcement. The institutional treatment of an indigenous victim following a violent crime is as important as the risk factors leading up to the violence.[xviii] Indigenous women are overrepresented in the prison population: they account for 34.5% of female prisoners.[xix] The Manitoba Justice Inquiry stated that police tend to charge indigenous people in circumstances where they would not charge non-indigenous people.[xx] An increased likelihood of arrest and prior poor interactions with police may prevent a victim from reporting abuse to police officers out of fear that they will not be believed. They may also fear that they will be punished if they committed a crime at the time the violence occurred. If violence is not reported, the victim does not receive assistance and the problem may persist or escalate.
When a crime has been reported, indigenous families of victims have not received the same level of care from the police as non-indigenous families. The case of Felicia Velvet Solomon is a tragic example. On March 25th, 2003, 16-year-old Felicia went missing.[xxi] Her mother called the police twice without a response.[xxii] Her mother had to leave Winnipeg to attend her brother’s funeral.[xxiii] In the early morning hours of the 30th, her mother returned and contacted the police again.[xxiv] Officers did not arrive until 1:00 a.m. and informed her that they were required wait 48 hours before an launching an investigation.[xxv] This was later confirmed to be a lie.[xxvi] Police did not publicize the disappearance and missing child posters were produced only after her family reached out to a non-profit organization.[xxvii] In June 2003, a severed thigh and arm belonging to Felicia were found in Winnipeg, yet the case remains unsolved.[xxviii] Felicia’s family believes the racist attitudes of the police and the media severely inhibited the resolution of the case.
The United Nations has called the government’s response to the systemic violence against indigenous women a “’grave violation’ of the rights of indigenous women and girls.”[xxix] Canada has been criticized by several UN committees for its lack of legislative action and the inquiry into the disappearances has not addressed key issues. Canada has continuously violated the basic human rights of indigenous people as addressed in the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, to which it is bound. Articles 26 and 27 are especially applicable because they address both the right to equal protection under the law for all citizens and the rights of minorities to freely enjoy their culture. Although Canada has not ratified the Convention concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries, the treaty’s message is clear: governments should act to protect the rights of these peoples, and the actions should afford additional protections to indigenous people to “ensure that…these peoples benefit on an equal footing from the rights…which national laws and regulations grant to other members of the population.”[xxx] The lives of indigenous women will continue to be at risk until Canada enacts legislation that protects them.
* Kayleigh Lamphere studies at the Florida State College of Law. Her background is in Psychology and Sociology, and she is pursuing human rights law and criminal law.
[i] Meghan Rhoad, Canada Launches Historic Inquiry Into Violence Against Indigenous Women, Human Rights Watch (Aug. 4, 2016, 1:30 PM), https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/08/04/canada-launches-historic-inquiry-violence-against-indigenous-women
[ii] The Canadian Press, Highway of Tears Victims List, Huffington Post Canada (July 19, 2014, 5:59 PM) http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2014/05/19/highway-of-tears-victims-list_n_5349943.html.
[iv] Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women: 2015 Update to the National Operational Overview, http://www.rcmp-grc.gc.ca/en/missing-and-murdered-aboriginal-women-2015-update-national-operational-overview#p1 (last visited September 19, 2017).
[v] Amnesty International, Stolen Sisters: A Human Rights Response to Discrimination and Violence against Indigenous Women in Canada 14 (2004).
[vii] Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, Highlights from the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (Sept. 15, 2010), https://www.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca/eng/1100100014597/1100100014637#toc.
[xiv] Marcus Berzofsky, et al., Measuring Socioeconomic Status (SES) in the NCVS: Background, Options, and Recommendations, 10-12 (2014).
[xv] The National Aboriginal Economic Development Board, The Aboriginal Economic Progress Report 2015 10-11 (2015).
[xvii] Amnesty International, Stolen Sisters: A Human Rights Response to Discrimination and Violence against Indigenous Women in Canada 2 (2004).
[xviii] Id. at 4.
[xix] Kim Covert, Statistics in Context: Aboriginals in Canada’s Prisons, National Magazine (June 25, 2015), http://www.nationalmagazine.ca/Blog/June-2015/Statistics-in-context-Aboriginals-in-Canada-s-pris.aspx.
[xx] Amnesty International, Stolen Sisters: A Human Rights Response to Discrimination and Violence against Indigenous Women in Canada 18 (2004).
[xxi] Id. at 32.
[xxiv] Id. at 33.
[xxix] Meghan Rhoad, Canada Launches Historic Inquiry Into Violence Against Indigenous Women, Human Rights Watch (August 4, 2016, 1:30 PM), https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/08/04/canada-launches-historic-inquiry-violence-against-indigenous-women
[xxx]Convention concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries, art. 2, 05 Sept. 1991, I.L.O. No. 169.