Canada’s social liberalism and multiculturalism is often celebrated as a shining example of modern Western democracy. But for its original inhabitants, the reality is much darker. The brutal legacy of settler colonialism remains effectively unaddressed. As in many settler-colonial societies, Indigenous people in Canada are denigrated to second-class citizens. Nowhere is this legacy more apparent than in the ongoing epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW). Indigenous women and girls have been disappearing and being murdered at disproportionate rates throughout Canada for at least decades.
Much of the data on MMIW was historically collected by the victims’ families and communities. In 2012, under a conservative government led by Stephen Harper, and after pressure from Indigenous activists and the general public, Canada’s federal police, the RCMP, launched an investigation into MMIW. They reported 1,181 disappearances since 1980. 1017 of these had resulted in murders. 164 women remained missing. Indigenous organisations place the figure more in the ballpark of 4,000 (1). Indigenous women account for 4% of the female population yet make up 16% of Canada’s female homicides (2). The majority of this violence occurs in cities, with the exception of a stretch of BC’s Highway 16 that has come to be known as the ‘Highway of Tears’.
Beyond statistics, these women’s lives are rarely historically and politically contextualised. Narratives instead focus on the victim’s ‘high risk lifestyle’ or the morbid figure of a serial killer. Victims are portrayed as runaways, drug addicts, single mothers, bad mothers, women hailing from irreparable broken homes; destined from birth to a life of violence and a violent death. I argue instead that this crisis isn’t a new phenomenon, but the continuation of a structural pattern of colonial, racist, sexist and economic violence against Indigenous women.
Intersectionality can be useful in helping us re-frame this issue. The original two intersecting systems of oppression articulated by Kimberlé Crenshaw (racism and sexism), are compounded by colonialism and poverty in my analysis of this crisis. Revealing the complex causes of a situation of extreme vulnerability and violence for Indigenous women.
To get a glimpse at the dimension of this crisis, we’ll begin by looking at historical instances of violence against Indigenous women. Then follows an analysis of the structural nature of poverty and deprivation suffered by many Indigenous women, and how this impacts the spaces they inhabit and the vulnerability they are subject to. Finally, we reflect on the discourse surrounding these women after their disappearances/deaths, and how law enforcement and the government respond in their aftermath.
Residential Schools and Intergenerational Trauma
In 1831, the colonial government set up a series of boarding schools across Canada with the purpose of assimilating Indigenous children into, according to Canada’s first prime minister, “the habits and modes of thought of white men” (3).
The last residential school closed in 1996. There are an estimated 80,000 survivors alive today. Some will be too young to have had children yet. Survivors of these ‘residential schools’ recounted the widespread presence of brutal physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. Many also described developing a deep, subconscious hatred of their families and of themselves because they were Indigenous (4).
Mass violence like this creates a phenomenon known as intergenerational trauma. Throughout their formative years, the original victims learn violent relationship patterns from their abusers, whether directly experiencing or by witnessing violence. Some then repeat these patterns with their own descendants. In turn, the second generation is traumatised by this violence and the cycle repeats. Trauma from the original event permeates through generations who did not suffer the violence first-hand.
The effects of intergenerational trauma are widely documented and include: mental health issues, substance abuse and addiction, abuse and violence, poverty and family disruption (5)(6). Children of parents who attended residential school experience higher rates of suicide ideation than those whose parents did not (5)(7)(8). The use of alcohol and drugs as a coping mechanism within residential school survivors is widely documented (4)(9). Rates of intimate partner violence (IPV) are three times higher amongst Indigenous women compared to non-Indigenous women (10). IPV is more likely physical and severe in cases where the victim is an Indigenous woman (10). When we portray Indigenous women in the media as drug addicts, alcoholics or hailing from irredeemable broken homes, without considering the context of two centuries of direct, institutionalised violence, we are failing to understand the complexity of this crisis, and we fall into dangerous narratives that inhibit progress and solutions.
The case of IPV is a good example of the value of intersectionality in this case. The internalisation of strict patriarchal roles within Indigenous communities, partially instilled in residential schools, contributes to the gendered nature of IPV (11). So, although the violence of residential schools was suffered by Indigenous people regardless of gender, Indigenous women suffer further as colonial violence is compounded by patriarchal violence.
The Indian Act: an anachronistic, harmful law
The Indian Act legislation of 1876 charges the federal government with providing healthcare, education and other benefits (such as annuities: historical, rarely proportional, payments to Indigenous people in exchange for their lands) to Indigenous people now confined to reserves. These reserves operate through Indigenous governing units known as ‘bands’ but depend on the federal government for funding.
However, Indian Act hinges on the problematic concept of ‘status’. Only people who have ‘status’ are allowed to live on reserves and access these federal services. Status has historically been a tool of literal patriarchy, contributing to the dispossession of Indigenous women by removing them from their reserves and stripping them and their descendants of property rights were they to marry a non-status man.
The government attempted to fix this in 1985, when the status of 35,000 Indigenous women and their descendants was reinstated. However, that same bill granted reserve bands the power to control their membership criteria. Due to chronic underfunding by the federal government and ingrained misogyny regarding the returning women, many found themselves unable to access land and annuities that were rightfully theirs (12).
Without access to land and resources, many Indigenous women find themselves in situations of extreme poverty. Canada consistently ranks in the top 15 of countries for Human Development Index (HDI). However, if the HDI of Indigenous communities in Canada represented the country, it would score 63rd (13)(14).
A 2019 UN report called the living conditions of Indigenous people in Canada “abhorrent” (17), with many living in homes exposed to the elements and suffering from water and food insecurity.
Urban Indigenous people are 8 times more likely to experience houselessness than non-Indigenous people in Canada (18). Houseless Indigenous women experience significantly higher rates of trauma, suicide, addiction and violence than men (19).
Education on reserves is estimated to be underfunded by $169 million a year (18), undoubtedly affecting employment opportunities. As a result, many Indigenous women take up sex work to meet basic subsistent needs (20).
In many rural communities, public transport is often non‐existent. Hitchhiking along isolated highways (like the Highway of Tears) is a survival strategy for many Indigenous girls escaping dire situations (21)
So many victims of this crisis were women who lived in these precarious conditions. The deprivation they lived in made them vulnerable to predators.
Their stories after death: what do we really think of Indigenous women?
The historical image of Indigenous women is marked by the derogatory ‘squaw’ stereotype. A squaw is a woman who “has no human face, she is lustful, immoral, unfeeling and dirty” (22). She is an Indigenous woman who is promiscuous, sexually deviant, who exists solely for the consumption of the male coloniser.
These narratives permeate to this day, where Indigenous women are frequently portrayed as sex workers, drug addicts, bad mothers, and generally unworthy of sympathy. They are made targets for predators by 200 years of discourse that dehumanises them and makes them disposable. When they’re murdered, what happens next? What does society say about them and their murders? What does the state do about it?
The media routinely engage in narratives that criminalise the victims of this crisis. One 2014 study (23) found that 73% of recent articles covering MMIW mentioned drug-using survival sex workers, rarely without any mention of drug use as a coping mechanism or sex work as an economic survival strategy.
Stereotypes like these box Indigenous women into the categories of ‘prostitute, transient or runaway’. More specifically, they box them into the symbolic spaces that these categories suggest. Since violence in these spaces is thought of as routine, so becomes violence against Indigenous women. Even more problematic is the apparent freedom of choice that these categories imply. When we separate someone’s social location, for example as a sex worker, from its backdrop of intergenerational trauma, poverty, and lack of appropriate employment opportunities, what we get is a neoliberal narrative of ‘free choice’. A ‘lifestyle’. The victim is believed to have ‘chosen’ her ‘lifestyle’, and in turn, judgement is passed on her when any violence occurs.
Another common narrative framing device is to to portray Indigenous women as dutiful mothers, sensible daughters, feminine and maternal, and therefore ‘worthy’ of grief and justice. Rescuing them from these spaces and bringing them back into the (patriarchal) norm. Often this counter-narrative comes from families themselves, who rightfully want society to see their loved ones as they do. Inadvertently, however, they further marginalise the categories of sex worker/addict and suggest that Indigenous women’s lives only gain value when they assimilate into patriarchal gender roles (24).
There are, unsurprisingly, no formal statistics detailing how many Indigenous women have been victims of police abuse. Women in Vancouver’s street sex trade speak of “daily harassment” (25). Numerous inquiries, including one CEDAW report (26), cite the issue of racism and gendered violence perpetrated by law enforcement as both a cause and a barrier to the resolution of this crisis. One inquiry cited repeated treatment of sex workers by police as ‘sub-human’ (27).
Only 54% of murder cases involving Indigenous women lead to charges of homicide, compared with the national rate of 84%. But a carceral solution to this problem is not the way forward. Indigenous women themselves represent 42% of the incarcerated female population despite only accounting for 4% of the general population (28).
Instead, this is a chance to bring Indigenous forms of justice and healing to the foreground. Letting Indigenous leaders and families of victims collectively decide what the justice process will look like and materially supporting this in whichever form it may take, would be a start to reconciliation.
The Infamous Inquiry
One of Trudeau’s biggest campaign promises was an inquiry into MMIW, in contrast to his conservative opponent’s repeated dismissal of the issue. Presenting its final report in 2019, one of its most striking findings was its inability to provide an accurate figure for the number of disappearances and murders of Indigenous women.
The final report also included a collection of 231 ‘calls for change’. These failed to acknowledge the state’s role in creating and perpetuating violence against Indigenous women and failed to look into police involvement in this crisis. The most disappointing ‘call for change’ came as the inquiry encouraged citizens to ‘confront racism, sexism…in your home, in your workplace, or in social settings’. Given that the commission had set out to “examine how law enforcement, judicial system and social services can be more responsive” (2), this conclusion reinforces the belief that this is a crisis perpetrated by racist/sexist individuals, and not the result of centuries of oppression perpetrated in its majority by the state.
Talk of the ‘legacy’ of colonialism lurks in the background of any discussion of MMIW. But can we talk about a ‘legacy’ when faced with the ongoing, brazen, legislated dispossession Indigenous people in Canada? Canada’s liberal, multicultural government has picked an ongoing fight with the Wet’suwet’en First Nation over the construction of a gas pipeline through their (unceded) land. The RCMP have spent over $13M so far on intimidating Indigenous land defenders on behalf of fossil fuel corporations. This fundamental contradiction is why this crisis will not be solved by a neoliberal government.
This particular moment of global reckoning has created the space to connect the dots between a colonial past and a capitalist, neoliberal present. The poverty Indigenous women experience occurs in the context of global economic structures, built on the base of racialised women’s exploited labour. Their severed connection to and expulsion from their land occurs in the context of the environmental destruction and resource extraction necessary to prop up capitalism. These are the systemic legacies of colonialism that permeate throughout society to create this crisis and its myriad of causes. This is why it won’t be solved within neoliberal party politics.
The striking deprivation many Indigenous people face in the areas of housing, education, employment, and transport, stemming from the reserve system and chronic federal underfunding, does not need a big, expensive inquiry to be ascertained. My work aimed to directly link these forms of structural violence to the vulnerability experienced by many Indigenous women when they are forced into “risky” survival strategies, and to highlight the need for Indigenous socioeconomic conditions to be made a priority by the government if it wishes to tackle the crisis of MMIWG.
I won’t attempt to frame this as a simple solution, no one sweeping legislation will solve this crisis. Intersectional, comprehensive policies for long-term enfranchisement and reconciliation will not be achieved through top-down policy.
The power to draw up and enact policy initiatives and redress and reconciliation strategies must be passed on to Indigenous women and the families and communities of victims. Only then, when colonial hierarchies of power and respectability are dismantled, will Indigenous women’s lives cease to be disposable, and this crisis ends.