At a young age, girls are taught about safety. They are taught that there are threats everywhere, especially at night. They are discouraged from going out in the dark, sometimes even forbidden from going out alone.
These dangers escalate for Aboriginal women, who are five-times more likely to die as a result of violence than any other women in Canada. In 2010, the Native Women’s Association of Canada found that almost 600 Aboriginal women and girls have gone missing or been murdered over the past 20 years.
This problem haunts Aboriginal communities across the country. Mothers are worried about their daughters; sisters are worried about their sisters; friends are worried about their friends. Everybody seems to worry.
Brenda Dubois is an example of a worried woman. She was only a teenager when her grandmother was murdered in the 1970s, a mere two blocks away from her home. A young impressionable teenager at the time, Dubois learned a lesson about safety and security from her grandmother’s death.
“It made me aware that if you go [out] at night, you may not come home,” she said.
Now a mother of five, she finds herself worrying about her own children, and she isn’t alone. Although it isn’t an unusual phenomenon for parents to worry about their children, Aboriginal mothers have an extra lesson to teach their daughters: the daunting statistic that puts Indigenous women at a significantly larger risk of violence and crime.
How does a woman explain to her daughter that she is five times more likely to be in danger than her non-Aboriginal friends?
It isn’t easy.
Jacqueline Anaquod, lead organizer of the Sisters in Spirit Vigil in 2012, is one mother burdened with such a task.
“It was hard explaining to my teenage daughter,” she said. “She would ask me why I get so worried. I had to explain to her some of the issues around her being a target. She’ll be a target because she is visibly a young First Nations girl and the way that society views our women … it makes them vulnerable to predators.”
There are all too many cases to illustrate the reality of such danger. The murder of Regina resident Pamela George in the late 1990s is a disturbing example; as it emphasized elements of sexism and racism, both subtle and overt.
George, a 28-year-old mother of two was sexually assulted and beaten to death by university students Steven Kummerfield and Alex Ternowetsky. In court, George was portrayed as a prostitute who consented to the sexual assault. The judge residing over the case, Ted Malone, claimed George was “indeed a prostitute.”
Kummerfield and Ternowestsky were sentenced to 6 1/2 years in prision, each for manslaughter. George never got her justice.
Kim Karpa, executive director of the University of Regina Women’s Centre,
is researching the issues of missing and murdered indigenous women, particularly the families’ experiences with the criminal justice system. She explains what the Pamela George case represents.
“You’ve got racism and sexism clearly operating within that trial. [Judge Malone] tries to justify the actions of the young men involved in her murder, the ‘boys will be boys’ attitude. This idea that she was disposable and that her life actually didn’t matter, but the lives of these two university students who had bright futures ahead of them, that’s what mattered.”
The judge’s words still haunt the Aboriginal community to this day. Sue Deranger, a volunteer involved with the Sisters in Spirit vigils, remembers bringing her youngest daughter, only eight or nine years old at the time, to the trial.
“That’s when the judge said, ‘keep in mind she was only a prostitute,’ and we all stormed out of the courtroom,” she said. “My daughter started crying. She said why do they do that? I said, in Canada, an Aboriginal women’s life means nothing and we cried together.”
Racism and sexism are not exclusive to the Pamela George case. For many people, these two issues are the root of the problem.
“It’s almost like the whole case of Pamela George … reeked of racism, sexism, and classism,” said Deranger. “If you know a system is really not going to do anything to you, than why not target those people?”
“That’s when the judge said, ‘keep in mind she was only a prostitute,’ and we all stormed out of the courtroom. My daughter started crying. She said why do they do that? I said, in Canada, an Aboriginal women’s life means nothing and we cried together.” – Sue Deranger
It appears that the system has slowly improved in some ways. The Sisters in Spirit vigil has grown in number and recognition, as more people become aware of the issue effecting Indigenous populations in Canada. The relationship between the Aboriginal community and the judicial system has also improved since the days of the Pamela George trial.
“The judicial system has made [an] effort,” Anaquod said. “They’ve built special taskforces and they do more work in the community.”
The historically rocky relationship between the Aboriginal community and the police has also improved.
“From what I understand, the police services are starting to address this issue much better, I think because [of] some of the comments from family members about the difficulties they’ve experienced,” explained Karpa. “I know for a fact that Chief Clive Weighill, with the Saskatoon Police, from what I’ve heard, this issue is at the top of his agenda. He has taken measures to really address this.”
But this doesn’t appear to be the case for everybody. Deranger has heard mixed reviews from friends and family about the police.
“I think it is on an individual basis,” she explained. “I’ve heard people say yes, they’ve been wonderful and I’ve heard people say, no they aren’t. I think it is luck of the draw.”
While the police and the judicial system have made some efforts to end the epidemic of missing and murdered Aboriginal women, many people think that the government should do more.
“I would say the government has made no effort at all,” said Anaquod. “They proved that when they pulled the funding to the Sisters in Spirit organization.”
Sisters in Spirit was an initiative of the Native Women’s Association of Canada. It had previously received funding to operate the missing and murdered Aboriginal women’s database. Without the funding, the database could not be sustained. Brenda Anderson, a Women and Gender Studies professor at the University of Regina, explains the fate of the database.
“It is going to be part of the RCMP’s database, but the RCMP are not going to look for race as a determinant, therefore you aren’t able to evaluate the intersections of racism and sexism. You’re not able to look at the racialized and sexualized violence against Aboriginal women.”
While many people are disappointed by the government’s lack of efforts, they count the increased awareness in the community as a success because many believe the only way to end this epidemic is to educate people and change their attitudes towards Aboriginal people.
“Society and Canadians need to change their attitudes and their views of Aboriginal people,” said Anaquod. “It will take a transformation of an entire country to make these changes. If we were able to do that, that would be something that, as Canadians and as people, we could [be] proud of.”
Anderson agrees. “This isn’t just an Aboriginal issue. This is an issue for all Canadians.”