11/04/2014 12:16 EST | Updated 01/04/2015 05:59 EST

For Canada's Indigenous Women, Going Missing Is a Terrifying Possibility


There's an epidemic in our country that our government is refusing to respond to. For Indigenous women in Canada, the idea that they might go missing is a terrifying reality. The United Nations has urged Canada to launch a national inquiry on missing and murdered Indigenous women. But Harper has not been willing to act. Disappointing as the news is, it's, unfortunately, not surprising that a settler-colonial state does not value the lives of Indigenous women as much as other citizens.

The RCMP recently released information stating that the number of missing and murdered is around 1,200 women. The rate that Indigenous women go missing is disproportionately larger that any other group in this country and Indigenous women are three times more likely to experience violence than non-Indigenous women are.

All these statistics are part of the narrative of a country that has marginalized Indigenous women for centuries. It's time to hear their voices.

"We have entire communities living with knowing that it's a fact that, in their lifetime, their mother or their sister or their daughter or at least someone they know is going to go missing," says Jessica Brant, a Mohawk woman who participated in the recent VIA rail blockade protest to bring attention the issue of missing and murdered Aboriginal women.

"There's proof in numbers the fact that Aboriginal women are the most at risk group," says Brant. "There is proof in the numbers that Aboriginal women are sought out, they're targeted, they're preyed upon, simply because they are Aboriginal."

Marian Horne, president of the Yukon Aboriginal Women's Council and the former Minister of Justice and Attorney General for the Yukon, believes that the government has not done nearly enough in addressing this issue. And she's absolutely right.

"I'm absolutely appalled with our federal government for not doing something about this issue," says Horne. "It's been ongoing for so long and it's being ignored." She points out that when the Rehtaeh Parsons, a Halifax teenager, killed herself due to cyber-bullying, Prime Minister Harper reached out to the family personally and quickly put forward an anti-cyber-bullying bill. No such action has been seen for the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women.

Horne says that when Loretta Saunders went missing and was eventually found dead, Harper did not reach out to her family in any way whatsoever.

Horne is a survivor of the controversial residential schooling system where many Indigenous children were subject to horrific abuse. She says she feels that public education and awareness on this issue is one of the key ways in tackling it and reducing the number of Indigenous women who go missing.

"The public just goes on every day thinking that this is something normal that should happen," says Horne. "It's taken as a norm because it has been made so. It is systemic racism in our society that has lead to the situation that we're in."

Samantha Dawson, an Indigenous woman and journalist based out of the Yukon, believes that the media needs to be doing more about addressing the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women.

"As journalists, what we need to do in this situation is bring out the human element of the people that we're writing about," says Dawson, "so the fact that these women aren't just prostitutes, they aren't just sex workers. They had families, they were sisters, cousins, wives, auntie, granddaughters. There's a whole narrative there that doesn't often come out."

Dawson is referring to the increased media attention on Indigenous women who are sex workers that go missing, even though according to Pearce's dataset, 80 per cent of the Indigenous women who went missing were not in the sex trade. Dawson feels that the Loretta Saunders case garnered more media attention than other cases, because Saunders was a bright student with a future of potential ahead of her, rather then the popular narrative of sex workers going missing.

"In the media, it's pretty prevalent that Aboriginal women and girls- the idea that they are disposable members of our society is perpetuated a lot," says Dawson.

Horne feels similarly. "That's why so many First Nations women are targeted, because it's believed that our lives are useless, that we don't contribute to society, we're seen as lesser, not equal to non-First Nations," says Horne.

"As an aboriginal woman," says Dawson, "I am mostly disappointed by the coverage that I see, as the framing is always around victimization and sexualization. Aboriginal women and girls are not objects, they are people, and this is something that I think all self-identifying non-white women contend with."

Dawson urges journalists who are covering this issue to do more research and educate themselves on the colonial history of Canada that has allowed an issue like this to exacerbate.

Brant says she feels that though the media has taken a while to home in on this issue, the recent attention is a victory in and of itself.

Still, there is much more work to be done to adequately tackle this issue. Horne says she would like to see more representation of Indigenous people in the government and more education on the history of Indigenous people in Canada being a requirement for recruitment in all levels of government.

"Although we say were not racist, its there. It's just under the surface. I've seen it in the government," says Horne. "They don't know us, they don't know our culture. That's why these issues keep multiplying. It's a vicious circle."

But there is hope for the issue. Increased media attention, as well as extensive research on how many Indigenous women go missing and high-risk areas being done by the Native Women's Association in Canada and Sister's In Spirit, means that the issue is slowly, but surely, coming to the forefront of Canada's consciousness. Though there is collective frustration and pain among Indigenous communities, many continue to speak out.

"It's important for me as an Aboriginal women, as a person, to get up and bring light to an issue that other people don't have the ability to do," says Brant. "I feel like it's my job as another person to stand up for other people."


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