The Canadian government has not lived up to its responsibilities to stop disapperances, critics say [GALLO/GETTY]

As human rights activists around the world marked the International Day of the Disappeared by focusing on Peru, Iraq, Nepal and Mexico, Leslie Spillett sat in her office in Winnipeg, contemplating the fate of more than 500 indigenous women who have disappeared in Canada.

The violence, primarily targeting young women from disadvantaged backgrounds over the past three decades, is "truly appalling" according to Amnesty International and, say human rights groups, has not been properly addressed by security forces in one of the world's richest countries.

When framed purely in numerical terms, the disappearances in Canada pale in comparison to the 15,000 who vanished during Peru's battle with Shining Path fighters in the early 1990s and come nowhere near to the estimated one million who have disappeared in Iraq during 30 years of dictatorship and occupation.

But these facts provide little comfort to the families of the missing women.

"The measurement of what is worse is a pointless question," Jessica Yee, an indigenous youth activist in Ontario province, says. "Do you really brush something off because it is not open war?"

'Disappeared'

Disappeared, as a pejorative verb, first entered the popular lexicon in the 1970s, during a series of dirty wars in Latin America, notably Argentina, says Marieke Van den Berg, a spokesperson for the International Coalition against Enforced Disappearances.
 
"Since the 1970s hundreds of thousands have disappeared and most have not resurfaced alive," Van den Berg says.

"Families must be able to retain the remains to mourn"

Nicole Engelbrecht, ICRC 

Enforced disappearance, in its most basic definition, refers to actions undertaken by a state, or its proxies, and while there is no systematic campaign by Canadian security forces to murder indigenous women, Nathan Derejko, a doctoral fellow in international humanitarian law at the University of Galway, says: "If there are a specific group of individuals who are going missing, the state has an obligation to investigate."

"Canada has both negative and positive obligations under international human rights law," Derejko says.

"Negative obligations [include] refraining from taking certain action [such as torture or extra-judicial killings].

"For its positive obligations, the state must take legislative and judicial steps [to deal with abuses] even if they are committed by non-state actors."

'Starlight tours'

Most of the disappeared indigenous Canadians are thought to have been killed by sexual predators or serial killers like William Pickton, who was convicted of murdering six women and is thought to have killed dozens more.

But there have been isolated cases of security forces actively attacking indigenous people - hauling them to the outskirts of cities and leaving them to freeze in a process that has become known as the "starlight tour".

In 1990, 17-year-old Neil Stonechild was found frozen to death in a remote field outside Saskatoon. The temperature was -28C that night and Stonechild was found wearing only one shoe.

His mother and indigenous leaders believe police drove him out of the city and left him for dead, in what could be considered an extra-judicial killing.

After years of stalling and bad press, the government called an inquiry into the teenager's death.

Police admitted to bungling the investigation, and closing his case file without interviewing the proper witnesses.

The two officers blamed for driving him out of the city were fired from the force, but no one was charged over his death.
 
In 2000, two veteran police officers admitted to picking up Darrell Night, an indigenous man, and driving him to the outskirts of Saskatoon, leaving him alone in -22C weather.

A jury found the men guilty of unlawful confinement, not murder, and sentenced the pair to eight months in jail. They served half that sentence.

Law undermined

These cases do not count as enforced disappearances because the bodies of those involved were found, but comparisons have been drawn with extra-judicial killings.

However, even if Canada was considered to have participated in enforced disappearances, it could not be held accountable under international law as it has not signed the 2006 International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance - joining Algeria, Colombia, Israel, Saudi Arabia and a host of other countries.

"We are calling on states to ratify the convention, because it still has not entered into force," Nicole Engelbrecht, a spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), says.

Women have been holding protests and memorials for their missing 'sisters' [GALLO/GETTY]

Canada is particularly troubled by article 33, which demands that states "adequately investigate ... those responsible for the death and disappearance of indigenous women" and article 26 which calls for taking "measures to combat socio-economic discrimination which is a cause of continuous violence against Aboriginal women".

While international treaties on forced disappearance are often not worth the paper they are printed on, signing conventions at least signals a willingness to address the issues.

Presently, 19 countries have signed the agreement.

But it does not come into force until 20 states ratify, meaning that Canada's lack of participation plays a role in undermining the entire framework.

"As soon as 20 countries have signed on, states that have ratified have to [follow through with their obligations]," Van den Berg says.
 
Canada and the US have also refused to sign the 2007 Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which does not help the situation for disappeared women.

History of colonialism

Spillett believes the current violence must be framed within the history of colonialism.

"We have been displaced from out land, so people come to the cities thinking there might be some opportunities, but there aren't any," she says.

When young women leave their families in search of work or a better life, they can become vulnerable to predators, addiction and other forms of marginalisation.

But regardless of the historical roots, not knowing what has happened to their loved-ones is often the hardest part for family members.

"It is a universal phenomenon and something needs to be done," Engelbrecht says. "The families must be able to retain the remains and mourn."

After military rule in Argentina, the mothers of the Plaza de Mayo - women who had lost their children to fates unknown - played an important role in pressuring the government to find out what happened to the disappeared, to seek justice and to preserve the memories of their children.

And despite the many differences between the plight of missing indigenous women in Canada and those who have been made to disappear by violent governments, the desire to know what happened and to seek justice transcends ethnicity, class and national divisions.

Source: Al Jazeera