Breaking the Cycle: Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women in Canada

Alexis Mulvenna

The death of Tina Fontaine, a 15-year-old girl from Sagkeeng First Nation whose body was found dumped in Winnipeg’s Red River in August of 2014, reignited the debate surrounding Canada’s missing and murdered Aboriginal women. Fontaine’s name was added to a long list of others — including Maisy Odjick and Shannon Alexander from Maniwacki, Quebec; Shelly Dene from Edmonton, Alberta; and Immaculate Basil from Fort St James, British Columbia — who make up the more than 1,200 Aboriginal women who have gone missing or been murdered across Canada in the past three decades.

Statistically speaking, these women are significantly over-represented in terms of both deaths and disappearances. According to an Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) report released in May 2014, despite accounting for only 4.3 per cent of the overall population, Aboriginal women make up 11.3 per cent of missing women and 16 per cent of women killed. An increasing number of Canadians have called on the federal government to conduct a national inquiry into the issue.

Yet the root cause of this phenomenon is incredibly complex. Many experts believe that racism, sexism, and colonialism each play a role in the disproportionately high rate of missing and murdered Aboriginal women. A controversial history of government policy with regard to Aboriginal peoples – including the Indian Act and the residential school system – has produced cultural disconnect and poverty, and has separated many from their families on account of abuse or mistreatment. However inadvertently, some government policies have opened up Aboriginal women to violence.

Despite growing media attention to their plight, there continue to be many misconceptions about these women. Involvement (or speculated involvement) in the sex trade or other high risk lifestyles, such as drug use, are often alluded to as a contributing reason behind their disappearance or death. Yet a recent study estimated that 80 per cent of Aboriginal women who were murdered or who had gone missing in Canada were not involved in the sex trade.

This framing has without doubt influenced the political and societal response elicited, and may in part explain why calls for a national inquiry have thus far been ignored. Derek Nepinak, Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs – a province that accounts for nearly half of all disappearances and murders – has stated that

“The perception that many missing or murdered women put themselves in harm’s way has been used to unfairly discount the problem.”

A majority of murdered Aboriginal women had in fact consumed alcohol or drugs before their death. However, this knowledge should not be used to blame the victims, but instead as an indicator of more complex social and economic issues – such as poverty or a lack of access to mental health services. Also worth considering is that, of those women whose murderer was identified, 90 per cent knew their killer, 89 per cent of which were male and had a history of violence with their eventual victim.

Yet the federal government has repeatedly approached these murders as discrete instances of violence, instead of addressing the underlying factors. It has placed a great deal of emphasis on policing and plans to establish a DNA-based missing persons index. While these efforts may help to solve murders or disappearances, they will do little to prevent such tragedies from occurring in the first place.

The government has also resisted calls for a national inquiry into the issue, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper maintaining that the issue should not in itself be viewed as a sociological phenomenon. Justice Minister Peter MacKay further emphasized this opinion:

“Some 40 studies have already been completed over the years dealing with the issue of missing and murdered aboriginal women. We must continue to take concrete action now, not just continue to study the issue.”

In September, the federal government announced their Action Plan to Address Family Violence and Violent Crimes Against Aboriginal Women and Girls, and has since dedicated $25 million to select community projects including those aimed at breaking the cycle of abuse in Aboriginal households. It has also committed $158.7 million in funding for women’s shelters and violence prevention projects.  The Action Plan was based on the recommendations of the Special Committee on Violence Against Indigenous Women, and includes initiatives both on- and off-reserve.

Many of the community projects supported by this plan are measures first called for by The Assembly of First Nations. However, the government has been heavily criticized for failing to develop the plan in a collaborative manner with those communities that it aims to serve. It has been further criticized for failing to adequately address the systemic violence against Aboriginal women.

Despite this new commitment on the part of the federal government, calls for a national inquiry have continued. Many believe that an inquiry would force the government to fill in significant information gaps that persist in relation to the complex social and economic roots of the issue, and pressure Prime Minister Harper to provide even greater funding to preventative measures. The United Nations, federal Liberal and New Democratic parties, the Canadian Human Rights Commission, and the Native Women’s Association of Canada have all expressed support for such action.

An inquiry involving collaboration with Aboriginal peoples and with a clear government commitment to implementing its recommendations could prove to be a powerful tool for change. Inquiries play an important role in shaping the public record and have immense symbolic value; they have the ability to garner significant national attention and to apply pressure on the government to address an issue at hand. However, it has been estimated that a national inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women could cost the government anywhere from $13.3 million to $60 million – money that the federal government believes is better spent on its Action Plan initiatives.

There is no doubt that Canadians are hopeful – although perhaps skeptical – that the federal government’s plan will provide greater protection to Aboriginal women. The year 2015 was rung in with a Round Dance in Winnipeg – a unity vigil in remembrance of Tina Fontaine and the many missing and murdered Aboriginal women across Canada. Perhaps with a continuing spotlight on this issue, and a federal election on the horizon, a national inquiry will finally be conducted in the new year.

Alexis Mulvenna is a 2017 Master of Public Policy candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance, and a 2017 Juris Doctor candidate at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law. She holds a Bachelor of Management and Organizational Studies from Western University, where she completed a double major in business management and psychology. Alexis has a keen interest in the intersection of law and policy, and in many areas of social policy.