Aboriginal Women in Canada: Lives Valued in Pennies
Date: Wednesday, October 12 2005
Canada and its law enforcement officials have become notorious for their indifference to the deaths and violence inflicted upon Aboriginal Peoples. Yet, more importantly, Canada has been found to be increasingly indifferent to the value of life placed upon the head of an Aboriginal woman. Canada has often failed to provide an adequate standard of protection to Aboriginal women and it has become more readily apparent as more Aboriginal women go missing, more are found murder and a huge majority of the cases are not investigated. They, the missing and murdered Aboriginal women, seem to be seen as just another dead Indian. The fact still remains that the life of an aboriginal woman is a life valued in pennies. This article will hopefully show you, the reader,how the RCMP and Canada has failed to adequately address the discrimination, racism and violence against Aboriginal women but more importantly, how the RCMP and Canada has failed to protect them.
See the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Article 6 of the Covenant provides, in part, as follows, “Every human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.” The failure to respond quickly and appropriately to threats to Aboriginal women's lives means that Canadian officials have failed to live up to their responsibility to prevent violations of Aboriginal (Indigenous) women's fundamental human rights. Statistics from 1996 show that Aboriginal women, between the ages of 25 and 44, who had status under the Indian Act, were five times more likely to die as a result of violence. They were five time more likely to die of violence as opposed to non-Aboriginal women between the ages of 25 and 44.
Due to the fact that a disproportionate number of Aboriginal women that are in the sex trade, either to support a drug habit or to make ends meat, they are considered expendable by the RCMP and the Canadian government. This apathy towards women in the sex trade is doubled when it comes to Aboriginal women in the sex trade. The role of racism and sexism in compounding the threat to Aboriginal women in the sex trade was noted by Justice David Wright on the 1996 trial of John Martin Crawford. Crawford, a serial killer, was convicted in 1996 of killing three Aboriginal women--Eva Taysup, Shelley Napope, and Calinda Waterhen--in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. The isolation and social marginalization increased the risk of violence those three Aboriginal women faced. The resulting vulnerability of Indigenous women has been exploited by Indigenous and non-Indigenous men to carry out acts of extreme brutality against Indigenous women (this information coming from an Amnesty International Report). Mr. Crawford has noted that the reason why he killed those three women were because one, they were young; second, they were women; third, they were native; and fourth, they were prostitutes. Crawford treated them with contempt and brutality, and was determined to destroy whatever the victims had left of their humanity. Warren Goulding, one of the few journalists to cover the trial, has commented: "I don't get the sense the general public cares much about missing or murdered aboriginal women. It's all part of this indifference to the lives of aboriginal people. They don't seem to matter as much as white people." While look at more cases, Goulding’s observation seems to be based upon facts and I agree.
Another more recent case of neglect and failure to protect the lives of Aboriginal women happened in 2000. The case is more commonly known as the Winnipeg 911 murders. Two aboriginal women, Corrine McKeown, 52, and Doreen Leclair, 51 were murdered after having called 911 five times over an eight-hour period to get help. No help came and they died from the wounds inflicted upon their bodies. Many have speculated that if the call had come from a wealthier neighborhood or from someone who was white the women would be alive today. Is it true that had they not been Aboriginal women and had the call come from a wealthy neighborhood, would their lives have been saved (CBC News-In Depth, Film, July, 2, 2004)? Yet, less than 24 hours later, William Dunlop, Corrine's former boyfriend, was arrested. He pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, and is serving a life sentence with no possibility of parole for 17 years. No one knows for certain, but a lot of native activist believe that this systemic racial discrimination, that was apparent during the Winnipeg 911 Murders, has cost more than 500 Aboriginal women their lives and cost them to lose their right to justice (Sisters in Spirit Campaign, 2004). These tragedies experienced by the First Nation communities are becoming so common that they appear at least once a month in the newspapers circulated around Canada.
A number of high profile cases of assaulted, missing or murdered Aboriginal women and girls have appeared in mainstream media. This has helped to focus greater public attention on violence against Aboriginal women in specific cities but in most cases this public attention has come very late. For example, in two separate instances in 1994, 15-year-old Aboriginal girls, Roxanne Thiara and Alisha Germaine, were found murdered in Prince George, British Columbia. The body of a third 15-year-old girl, Ramona Wilson, who disappeared in 1994, was found in April 1995 (Amnesty International October 2004, Report, p.14). Ramona’s body was found in Smithers, British Columbia. Only in 2002, after the disappearance of a 26-year-old Caucasian woman, Nicole Hoar, while hitchhiking along a road that connects Prince George to Smithers, did media attention focus on the unsolved murders and other disappearances along what has been dubbed “the highway of tears.” While doing some research for NWAC (Native Women’s Association of Canada), Terri Brown, after interviewing many people from Tsimshian, Gitksan and Nisga’a Nations has found 31 missing women to be the unofficial number of those victims of “the highway of tears.”
A second and more prominent case in recent history is the case against Robert Pickton. Robert Pickton of Port Coquitlam, British Columbia has been called Canada’s worst serial killer. He is responsible for the deaths of 27 women and 60% of those women were Aboriginal. Sixteen of the missing women are Indigenous, a number far in excess of the proportion of Aboriginal women living in Vancouver (Amnesty International Report, Oct/04, p.14). Police and city officials had long denied that there was any pattern to the disappearances or that the women were in any particular danger. Nearly three-quarters of the Vancouver East Side’s prostitutes were Aboriginals. The official search for the missing women began in September 1998 after an Aboriginal Group send police a list of victims allegedly murdered in Downtown Eastside, with a demand for a thorough investigation. Only then were the missing women of Vancouver’s Eastside actually looked at seriously and investigated. Several Aboriginal families complain of "interference" by Vancouver Police Department’s native liaison unit, allegedly telling them not to speak with journalists. Victim Helen Hallmark’s mother defied the ban, declaring, "We need to meet among ourselves and I’m tired of the native liaison unit telling us what to do." (Vancouver, CBC British Columbia) In response, Helen Hallmark’s mother, has decided to retain legal counsel and resolve the matter in court.
A shocking case of sexual and physical assault at the the hands of a former British Columbia Provincial Court Judge grabbed Canada’s attention in May, 2004. David William Ramsey pleaded guilty to buying sex from and assaulting four Aboriginal girls aged, 12, 14, 15 and 16, who had appeared before him in court. The crimes were committed between 1992 and 2001. In June, David William Ramsey was sentenced to seven years in prison. Aboriginal and women's groups say former judge David Ramsay's attacks on young aboriginal women highlight the big problem of child sex abuse. Ramsay had admitted he had picked up the young aboriginal women on the streets of Prince George and taken them into the woods where he paid for sex. The reckless disregard of Aboriginal women and female aboriginal children’s bodies and their physical health was disregarded by former Judge David William Ramsey. "Aboriginal women and their children suffer tremendously in contemporary Canadian society [and] the justice system has done little to protect them," the Manitoba Justice Inquiry declared. Judge David William Ramsey used his power for personal gain at the cost of Aboriginal women and children he assaulted sexual and physically. This has furthered the mistrust Aboriginal Canadians and Aboriginal women have of the Canadian Justice System and its governing and enforcing bodies.
Aboriginal women are not safe on reserves as well and they are not safe from battery in their own home by the hands of there Aboriginal partners. A March 1991 study by the Manitoba Association of Women and the Law found that the statistics of a 1980 federal study, Wife Battering in Canada: A Vicious Circle, still held: women endure anywhere from 11 to 39 episodes of abuse before seeking help, and then they seek help more often from a shelter than from police.
The Government of Canada and the RCMP have failed to protect the Aboriginal women of Canada. Individuals they are sworn to protect but those in power have essentially marginalized and isolated the Aboriginal women and children instead. Amnesty International believes that the first step to ending violence against Aboriginal women would be to acknowledge the seriousness of the problem. All levels of government should publicly condemn all violence against Aboriginal women and children and to make it publicly known their plan of action to exterminate it. What this author believes Canada and its law enforcing bodies needs to do first, realize that the value they place upon Aboriginal women and children’s lives is a life valued in pennies. That worthlessness seems to stem from an entrenched sexist and racist ideology held close to those in power when it comes to Aboriginal women and children, mainly those involved in the sex trade. They, Aboriginal women, are still human beings and deserve to be treated as such. With the lack of justice and--in many cases--its pursuit at all, Aboriginal women will continue to go missing and murdered.
[Proofreader's note: this article was edited for spelling and typos on October 12, 2005]