Last year, in its first report card for Canada in ten years, the United Nations suggested a national inquiry into the status of its indigenous women. After her November appointment by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Canadian Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett was put on the case. She’s spent months connecting with over 2,000 people to discuss how Canadian policies have failed First Nations people and to get their input on what a national inquiry would look like and what it would accomplish. She has acknowledged that the number of murdered and missing is well above government estimates due to lack of follow-through by police and government organizations and a long history of racism and discrimination that feeds distrust in authorities among indigenous people, suggesting that any commonly accepted figure is likely low due to unreported crimes.
On Thursday, at the Women in the World New York Summit, Bennett joined Melina Laboucan-Massimo and Michele Pineault, whose family members are among those women missing or killed, and former Vancouver detective Lori “Lorimer” Shenher to discuss the racist, sexist, classist roots of this injustice in a panel moderated by John Hockenberry. “Coast to coast to coast, those are the stories that bother us and bother police. The file’s empty. It’s just an assumption that this death or missing person is inevitable,” Bennett explained.
One-third of Canada’s indigenous women live in poverty. One in four report having been the victim of domestic violence. Among the nation’s most vulnerable populations, indigenous women are six times more likely to be victims of homicides — as only 4.3 percent of the entire Canadian population, they make up 16 percent of all homicides and 11 percent of all missing people. Activists believe well over 4,000 women have gone missing or been murdered since 1980, although a 2014 government report acknowledges only a fraction of this number. “No one is making this up. This is real for these families,” Bennett said. “[They] have been talking for a very long time and it is time we get on with it.”
Tied to a history of racism, colonization and sexism that pushed indigenous people to the margins of society, these cases were also often ignored because the women involved were sometimes sex workers who used drugs. More so, the Canadian government for over a hundred years had a stated policy that placed indigenous children in residential schools to promote assimilation – “in effect, take the Indian out of the child,” Bennett explained. At least 3,000 died out of the tens of thousands of young people who were taken from their families, stripped of culture and language, and sometimes sexually abused. “There were people who were here first and when the settlers arrived, they thought they were superior,” Bennett said. “They thought their lives were worth more.” Canada’s final residential school closed in 1998. Its government apologized to First Nations people a decade later, but intergenerational scars from the trauma of this practice remain.
“It’s Canada’s secretive shame,” Bennett said, explaining that in school, “none” of the country’s 96 percent non-indigenous people learned about this history, nor its effects.
Climate change activist Laboucan-Massimo’s father was kept from residential schools by his parents, putting her grandparents, who spoke only their native tongue, at risk of arrest. Even though she comes from a line of powerful native people, she believed that her indigenous roots were a source of shame while growing up. “One of my first memories is racism, being called a ‘dirty Indian’,” she explained. “Mainstream society made me feel like she was making too much noise.”
When her sister, 25-year-old Bella Laboucan-McLean, was found dead in 2013, she was shocked. Bella was three months out of college and preparing to attending fashion school in the United Kingdom, but police insisted she was a drug user despite not having run a toxicology report. They also suggested that the young woman jumped 31 stories to her death, but the death is still considered a mystery that Laboucan-Massimo believes would be solved if her sister had been white. “She was labeled as an indigenous woman, not a college graduate,” Laboucan-Massimo said. “Indigenous women’s lives are undervalued…it’s a systemic issue and has to be addressed from the root.” For comparison, Laboucan-Massimo noted that in the time some policies were drafted, South Africa’s notorious system of apartheid borrowed lessons from Canada’s treatment of its indigenous people. The trauma from her sister’s murder wakes her each morning at 4:50am, the time of Bella’s death. “I can’t stop. It’s trauma, it just continues,” Laboucan-Massimo said through tears.
Vancouver-born Michele Pineault endured the 1997 disappearance and death of her daughter, Stephanie Lane, who at 20 was murdered by pig farmer and serial killer Robert William Pickton. After six years, Pineault got a call: police had misplaced Lane’s partial skeletal remains in storage from 2002 through 2014. The oversight kept Pickton from being charged with Lane’s murder. “I had no justice and not a lot of answers,” Pineault said. It wasn’t until she was in her forties, coping with the pain of a missing daughter, that she realized her indigenous roots were the source of discrimination throughout her life. “I just thought people didn’t like me,” she explained.
“When you hear stories like this you understand that even some of the families were judging whether they should admit if they’re indigenous because they think the quality of the search will be lessened,” added Bennett.
By July 1998, when Shener was assigned to Pickton’s case as a detective with the Vancouver Police Department, Canadian police had long been dropping the ball. Then the only detective assigned to investigate the Downtown Eastside area’s growing number of missing women, [[/he/OR SHE?]] received a tip about Pickton on the second day on the job. An administrative hellstorm, lack of cooperation and continuous department flubs kept Pickton from being brought to justice until an unrelated property search lead to his arrest in 2002–this despite his having been booked for attempted murder of a prostitute in 1997 while wearing clothes covered in the DNA of other missing women. The investigation ended when police decided the female witness was not credible enough. (Police also ignored a tip from an indigenous woman Pickton hired to clean his house, and who reported finding women’s purses and identification cards in the home). He was charged with the murder of 26 women and convicted to life behind bars for killing six in 2007, though he admitted to killing at least 49 people whose bodies he sometimes fed to pigs. “Bad policing is what took you so long to catch me,” he told police. Racist assumptions by police about his victims—one third of whom were indigenous women—contributed to their failure.
Police culture in her district was toxic, and the department treated cases involving missing indigenous people “as a housekeeping issues,” Shener explained, noting that rape culture is prevalent in police culture and Canada’s culture at large. “There’s that overarching attitude that women don’t matter, these investigations don’t matter.” The disenfranchisement of Canada’s indigenous peoples is akin to the treatment of black and brown people in the United States, who are often overlooked or mistreated by authorities, the very systems put in place to protect citizens, the activists said.
“It’s the truth,” Bennett said, speaking to the differences between how indigenous and non-indigenous people are treated in Canada. “Without the truth, we will never fix this problem.”