By Chelsea Craig.
Featured image via Adrian Wyld, CP.
This time last week the federal government was announcing the official launch for the long anticipated inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women. The launch took place at the Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec, with three ministers at hand, who shared their thoughts and their hopes for the report as they introduced the inquiry’s independent commissioners. Such an inquiry was far overdue; and, like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) before it, there are big hopes for this commission to respond to the differences in Canada aboriginal women and non-aboriginals experience nation-wide with regards to sexual violence, victimization and the justice system itself.
If you were to have driven north four hours from the conference in Gatineau, however, you might have stumbled upon the small town of Val d’Or, Quebec near the La Vérendrye Wildlife Reserve where an all too familiar legacy of police abuse over the past decade has sent shockwaves rippling across the rest of the province. Found at the entrance of Val d’Or, a statue of two hands coming together with a cross held up in the middle greets visitors. To passersby, this may seem like a simple monument, but for residents it’s a constant reminder of the injustice they face daily at the hands of the police.
Val d’Or has a population of about 32, 000 people with the native population claiming about 2.7% of the residents. In the days leading up to the general election last fall, Radio Canada presented an in depth documentary (Enquete in French) set in Val d’Or. But when Radio Canada set out to the region in an attempt to get the real story as to why so many women went missing or worse ended up dead, what they found was shocking, especially considering that it is happening right here in Canada, receiving so little attention nationally. Over fifteen indigenous women came forward to talk about violence they had seen or heard about at the hands of local SQ officers, (Securité du Québec) and their testimonies ultimately resulted in eight officers being suspended for misconduct.
Plagued by a reputation of being alcoholics, avid drug users and prostitutes, many native women of Val d’Or feel as though the police do not believe them or take their pleas seriously. Sindy Ruperthouse’s family can attest to this, their daughter went missing in 2014 and has yet to be brought home. Ruperthouse was an alcoholic: she frequented the local watering hole for years and often had violent disputes with her boyfriend which resulted in multiple visits from police, yet when she disappeared police never followed up with her abusive ex. Her case was transferred to Rouyn-Noranda, another rural community nearby and eventually made it all the way to Montreal with no leads.
Not unlike Rupethouse’s story, Jeannie Poucachiche was murdered on the eve of her twentieth birthday. Every year since, the community comes together in October to lay flowers in her memory and in the memory of all the women whose fates remain unknown. But Poucachiche and Ruperthouse are just a couple of the Aboriginal women whose horrible fate has been met with so little justice.
Enquete continued to dig deeper into what was happening to these women in Val d’Or, interviewing numerous women who came forward with information. They told tales of being driven out of town by police and left on the side of the road while intoxicated; the police thinking, rather than putting them in danger, the walk back into town would sober them up. “Baie des Carrières” is a dirt road infamous for being a drop off spot for police to bring native women to rape them. There are stories of police paying for their silence, up to $200 dollars one woman claimed was the sum she was given: $100 for her silence, another $100 for her to perform oral sex on the officers.
And the problem is far from being isolated to Val d’Or.
The Native Women’s Association of Canada reports 53% of all homicides involving Indigenous women have been solved to this day while 67% of all the missing women were confirmed dead. Although only making up about 3% of the Canadian population, between the years of 2000-2008, Aboriginal women accounted for 10% of all female homicides leaving over 440 children without mothers.
But the discrepancies do not end there unfortunately: native women are three times more likely than non-native Canadian women to be killed by a stranger or to experience domestic abuse nation-wide. And although these facts are not hidden from the public, until the change of government happened last fall, Ottawa was simply unwilling to act.
Despite pressure from the provinces, civil society and international authorities, former Prime Minister Stephen Harper continued to argue that these events were tragedies and not the result of a deeper social problem. But the facts don’t lie, and as more stories were brought forward by victims across the country, it’s become a narrative that Canadians could no longer ignore. How can we boast about our equality and openness, after all, when our own First Nations are facing such serious social discrepancies?
Despite apologizing for residential schools in 2008, it’s clear that the Harper administration’s talks of reconciliation early in its mandate were simple election ploys of a government hungry for a majority.
When pressed on the issue, Harper, then prime minister, continued to say that these missing women were a case of “law and order,” and that the RCMP would deal with these cases like any other. The RCMP followed the prime minister’s comments by claiming to have solved 90% of all female homicides they were presented with. But this statistical rodeo, meant to placate voters, rather than relatives, could hardly comfort the families whose search for their mothers and daughters has continued unresolved.
During Harper’s time in office, forty studies were done into the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women, the Globe and Mail found.
These studies reported then that 164 women remained missing and 1,017 were dead. But while facts such these continue to mount, the government action that followed was underwhelming to the ire of First Nations and Inuit communities. Did Harper have the resolve to do anything about it, they wondered? One could argue Harper knowingly distanced himself from the indigenous file when he found he could win a majority without them. Much like he has done to other groups of voters in the past (i.e., youth) through micro-targeting the electorate, Harper neglected some issues in order to focus on the electors who would vote for him. His failure to shore up the ‘woman vote’ led the Conservatives to slowly, but surely, back away from women’s issues altogether.
While Harper’s silence led native communities to expect nothing more from him, the world remained an audience waiting on Canada to act. Back in places like Val d’Or, that silence was most deafening, especially for families of missing woman like Sindy Ruperthouse. A year later at a local Giant Tiger, a woman claimed to have seen Sindy even but was taken aback when she did not look at her. Mentioning it at work the next day, the woman was told that Sindy had been missing for over a year and she should report having seen her. When Radio Canada asked what had happened to the follow up, the woman told her that police requested the store owner to review the footage and identify women who could potentially be Sindy. The owner was reluctant though, claiming that to him, ‘all indigenous women looked the same.’ Evidently, nothing further came of this and Sindy remains to this day one of the many missing indigenous women in Canada.
Even the United Nations has said the federal inaction has diminished Canada’s international reputation. The provinces have called for action, the UN have called for action, Canadians have called for action, all the while Ottawa has sat silently, continuing to claim that these issues were dealt with and that the cases were being solved.
And predictably, as things routinely unfolded during the Harper years, when the federal government refused to act the provinces attempted to take charge themselves. In 2013, nine of the ten provinces pleaded with the federal government to take action after hearing multiple testimonies from victims and their families. Although many provinces wondered where the money to launch such inquiries would come from, they firmly stood in support for one. British Columbia was among the forefront of those calls as 28% of the women in question reside there. Although more than half of the cases come from the Western provinces and over 55% of all cases involve women under the age of 31.
This week’s launch of an independent inquiry into the missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada stands to help bring justice to families who have lived experiences beyond the pale. We often sit north of the border and point fingers at racism of American society while showing a bias of our own. But justice needs to be brought to the families of these women and with said justice comes healing and reconciliation. Canada needs to stand together as a country and recognize that just because it isn’t happening in your backyard does not mean that it isn’t happening. These women are mothers, daughters, sisters, but most of all these women are Canadian, and this is not how we treat Canadians.
Chelsea Craig is an advocate for youth engagement in politics. She recently graduated from Concordia University with a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and is particularly passionate about Canadian and Quebec relations.