BY ALISON GONDOSCH
When Canada launched an investigation into the crisis of violence against Indigenous women and girls last year, activists applauded the move. But they say more needs to be done.
“We will always need more resources to educate all Canadians about Indigenous heritage, Indigenous culture, and relationships with Indigenous people. Education is the key to prevention,” says Amy Ede, director of communications at the Native Women’s Association of Canada. “More resources for shelters, mental health services, and health services for Indigenous women are also needed now.”
The expectations of many Indigenous groups continue to grow after being courted during the 2015 Canadian election. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised to build a partnership based on mutual respect and understanding. Since Trudeau took office in October of 2015, his administration has promised to address issues such as housing, infrastructure, health and mental health care and education. More specifically, during the campaign, Trudeau vowed to work alongside Indigenous Organizations and communities in order to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould has since claimed, however, that it cannot be adopted word for word into current Canadian law.
While Ede says Trudeau’s promises are vital in the short term, she points out how the rights of Indigenous Women transcend any one administration. “The work we’re doing to end violence against Indigenous women will continue long after this administration. The inclusion of an Indigenous women’s lens in the analysis of all issues, as well as outlining how Indigenous women will be involved in addressing them, is the first step towards positive change.”
Since 1947, representatives of member states have gathered at the UN headquarters in New York to speak about and evaluate gender inequality in the world. This year,. panelists came from all parts of the globe to address specific challenges and opportunities facing Indigenous women and girls and to generate ideas for empowerment.
While the exact number of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls is disputed, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police conducted a statistical analysis in 2014. This analysis looked into 1,181 cases, 1,017 murders and 164 reports of missing women. The analysis concluded that Indigenous women make up 16 percent of murdered women and 11.3 percent of missing women despite only accounting for 4.3 percent of the Canadian population.
With all the political promises and activists searching for answers, one question remains: where are these women going when they disappear? There is a place in northern British Columbia known as the highway of tears. Since 1969, at least 18 young women have disappeared or been murdered along this 450 mile stretch of the Trans-Canada highway, half of them Indigenous. Where did the rest go?
The highway of tears is symbolic of a much larger obstacle. “Positive change is happening but eradicating the systemic racism and sexism which perpetuates this violence will take generations,” Ede says.
For some activists, this issue hits more close to home than others. Nikki Fraser, a youth representative for the British Columbia Native Women’s Association, spoke last year with Trudeau himself about the issue. “I lost my auntie and my cousin…so I am here for them and the many other families that have been through the same things that my family is living through right now,” Fraser said she told Trudeau.
While Fraser remains optimistic about Trudeau’s administration, she wants immediate action. “I know the government inherited difficult relationships that the previous governments had with the Canadian Indigenous people,” says Fraser. “I respect that big change does not happen overnight. I do acknowledge and respect the efforts that have been made and addressed, but in reality, that’s just the first layer of issues we have faced as Indigenous peoples for decades.”
One of the accusations set at the feet of the government is the role of law enforcement. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police has been accused of withholding data on certain cases with others remaining unreported. With the launch of the inquiry, Fraser is more optimistic with the role of law enforcement. “Since the commitment to the inquiry and moving forward, I respect the efforts the RCMP is now giving. I only wished and prayed that these efforts were there for our stolen sisters 2015 and back.”
According to Fraser, there is no one quick solution to the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Trudeau will not be able to fix everything overnight. “One step I would ask for now that the government do immediately is to properly fund programs that support our women and girls in both urban and rural areas. It is vital to make opportunities just as accessible for our young women who live on reserves,” says Fraser. “There are many steps that need to be taken to heal our families and steps to make sure our future daughters, sisters, mothers, aunties and grandmas aren’t ever stolen again.”