An investigation into the abuse and exploitation of aboriginal women in Canada and the authorities’ failure to stop it.
Canada’s aboriginal women make up a small fraction of its population, yet for decades they have suffered disproportionally from abuse, exploitation and murder.
Since the 1980s, over 1,000 indigenous women have been murdered in this developed North American nation, yet, according to campaigners and human rights groups, too few of these cases have resulted in arrests or prosecution.
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Amid mounting claims of official indifference to the problem that some say has its roots in racism and the country’s colonial past, People & Power asks why police and the government are not doing more to tackle crimes against Canada’s first nation females.
By Sarah Spiller
Sharon Johnson has made the same walk for the past seven years. On Valentine’s Day, in the teeth of an Ontario winter, she marches to commemorate her sister Sandra, murdered in 1992.
Woven into this and so very many stories of loss is the question, why have so many of Canada’s aboriginal women gone missing or been murdered?
Aboriginal women make up little over four percent of the country’s female population, yet account for around 16 percent of female homicides. Nearly 1,200 aboriginal women have disappeared or met violent deaths in the country over the past three decades.
Travelling across three provinces, People & Power heard allegations about the police here, and arguments that the roots of violence against aboriginal women can be traced back to a bitter colonial legacy.
This month Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission reported on one of the darkest chapters in the country’s history. The removal of over 150,000 aboriginal children from their families to residential schools, places that became notorious for abuse.
On a drive through the Fort William First Nation Reserve outside the Ontario city of Thunder Bay, former Chief Georjann Morriseau described how this policy has impacted on generations, up until the present time.
“The residential schools were to take the Indian out of the child. When your children get taken away you kind of lose your sense of purpose,” she says.
Leaving indigenous reserves, more problems could lie ahead in Canada’s cities, she said. “Thunder Bay ain’t even that big. If you take somewhere like Toronto and Vancouver, you’re lost.”
In their home outside Toronto, John Fox shared pictures of his daughter Cheyenne. A teenager giggling as the family cleared snow away; a young mother cradling a newborn baby son.
John said Cheyenne had lots of friends at school in Thunder Bay, was bubbly and sociable. But when she moved to Toronto, her life was troubled. He says she was assaulted, became homeless, and got involved in sex work to survive.
Cheyenne’s body was found in a Toronto suburb in 2013. The 20-year-old had fallen from an apartment block. But for father and brother the police verdict, that Cheyenne committed suicide, just does not seem possible.
“I think they disregarded her because she wasn’t your average Canadian woman,” says her brother Jonathon. “The fact that she was aboriginal pretty much threw her out, like garbage in a dumpster.”
Toronto police told us their position was clear. They had done a thorough investigation. Cheyenne’s ethnicity played no role in their investigation.
“When you find a 15 year old, wrapped up in a garbage bag, disposed of, like they’re garbage in a river, it effects us all – indigenous or not.”
In Winnipeg, in the Province of Manitoba, Bernadette Smith described the death of another young aboriginal girl last August. A loss that led the community here to take things into their own hands; to drag the Red River running through this city in the hope of finding other remains, other evidence.
Bernadette says they had pushed police to do more, but they were not willing to help community efforts. “That was the whole premise of us doing this. Not having the confidence in them to find our women.”
Bernadette’s own sister went missing in 2008, aged 21. The crime is still unsolved.
Nahanni Fontaine, an advisor to Manitoba’s provincial government, questions the years she says it has taken for families to have their voices heard. Years when she maintains calls to address the disproportionate numbers of aboriginal women disappearing or being killed, simply fell on deaf ears. “Nobody cared.”
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) finally produced their findings last year: 1,017 aboriginal women were murdered from 1980 to 2012; 164 women went missing.
The RCMP would not be interviewed for our film. Nor did they answer our questions.
In Northern British Columbia, the RCMP is responsible for policing vast areas of wilderness. Winding through this wild landscape is Highway 16, connecting isolated communities, a road that has come to be known as “The Highway of Tears”.
An RCMP task force is investigating 18 cases of violent deaths and disappearances here, dating back to 1969. Others have suggested up to 40 may have gone missing or been murdered around Highways 16, 97 and 5, the majority young aboriginal women.
Ramona Wilson, a bright 16-year-old student, went missing one June night in 1994. She told her family she had plans to go to a graduation party. Her murder too, remains unsolved.
“We just want to understand why there are no answers to these young ladies cases,” says Ramona’s sister Brenda. “It’s not acceptable to our families, and it’s not acceptable to our communities that we don’t have the answers we need.”
On top of frustrations over unsolved crimes, People & Power heard further disturbing claims about the use of excessive force in RCMP dealings with aboriginal people in this province, and a fractured relationship with indigenous communities.
One activist told us: “I’ve had so many women say to me – why would I ever call the RCMP?”
Calls for an inquiry
In March 2015, yet another international report, from a UN expert committee, joined voices calling for an inquiry into Canada’s murdered and missing aboriginal women. It is a call rejected by the country’s prime minister.
And so the rallies, the marches, the questions, continue. The stories told and re-told.
Before she walks, Sharon Johnson told us she prepares a feast, goes out into the bush and makes a fire.
“I ask the spirits of all the women to come, to talk about their lives. I ask them to come as I talk about my sister, as I tell her story.”
Editor’s note: This documentary was first broadcast on Al Jazeera English in June 2015.