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Systemic inaction in tackling the deaths and disappearances of Indigenous women, girls and the gender-diverse

Last Updated Apr 6, 2021 at 2:22 pm EDT

CityNews and OMNI News have launched a new investigative series “Behind Closed Doors” detailing the epidemic of family violence plaguing our communities. If you or someone you know is a victim of abuse, please visit our dedicated resource page.

WARNING: This story contains graphic content related to violence and abuse, and may be disturbing to some readers.

The names and identities of the victims in our stories have been changed to protect them.

Their stories and circumstances aren’t unique. Thousands more are being silenced as their trauma continues daily behind closed doors. These are just some of their first-hand accounts.

To watch this story in Punjabi, click here.

As Canada prepares to mark the second anniversary of the national inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and 2SLGBTQ individuals (MMIWG2S), no one still knows the true number of victims.

CityNews and OMNI NEWS have been uncovering stories of family and intimate partner violence in the multi-part series Behind Closed doors. While family violence does not discriminate, the numbers show that Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQ+ individuals are targeted at much higher rates.

Canada has still yet to release a federal action plan to combat or prevent future instances of what the inquiry concluded was race-based genocide.

Systemic inequities that endured during years of residential school systems, colonialism, economic marginalization and racism have had lasting impacts, particularly in violence and trauma perpetrated against women and girls.

Statistics show that of the women and girls killed in 2019, 38 per cent – almost 2 in 5 – lived in remote, rural and northern regions or small towns. Last year alone, 23 of the 155 women on Canada’s femicide list, which tracks homicides targeting women from coast to coast, identified as Indigenous.

According to the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC), Indigenous women represent 14 per cent of all homicides, despite only making up five per cent of all women in the country.

Connie Greyeyes is a MMIWGT2S case worker who provides support for the families of missing and murdered loved ones in Northern B.C. She is the one they reach out to when the unthinkable happens.

Because Greyeyes has been in their shoes before and felt that pain.

Her cousin, Joyce, was murdered in Edmonton in 1993. Greyeyes said she had been beaten and burned alive by a stranger she asked for directions.

“She knocked on the wrong door, and he decided that he might rob her and decided after that, that he would beat her up,” Connie said.

“He lit her on fire.”

It would take another seven years to find the person responsible. In 2000, a man was arrested and pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. He was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 15 years.

Greyeyes said she also has had several friends have gone missing in the northern B.C. community where she lives.

“I do have a very deep connection to MMIWG because it’s personal for me as well.”

Thousands of women’s deaths or disappearances have likely gone unrecorded over the decades, according to the national inquiry.

Greyeyes said the stereotypes inflicted on Indigenous women and girls, for example that they are “partiers” or “promiscuous,” greatly affects what happens if they go missing.

“It’s so harmful, not only to the case, but it’s so very harmful for the families. You are already in trauma and then to have that thought that people don’t care enough to want to help you right away,” said Greyeyes. “It’s gut wrenching when you get a call from a family that their daughter, or even their son is missing because you know you have precious time.”

“Everything goes so slow because nobody takes it seriously,” added Greyeyes. “It’s critical when someone goes missing, you need to start looking now and you have to start caring.”

“I do have hope that more and more Canadians are starting to get educated and understand systemic racism that happens that plays into the actions or reactions that the public has when a woman goes missing and is murdered.”

The report listed 231 strategic calls to end this violence- calling for solutions within our governments, industries, institutions, healthcare, child welfare, correctional services and policing.

However, an action plan has yet to be released by the federal government and a date for when one might be released has not been given either.

A statement from the Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations said the co-development of the National Action Plan is a priority for the government and they are making progress with their partners.

“We continue to take action across the government to address the root causes of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA+ people,” read the statement.

The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic

The violence against Indigenous women and girls has persisted in the two years since the national inquiry, and the crisis has only been elevated during the pandemic.

Experts add that most reserves don’t have emergency shelters for those who need to flee.

“COVID-19 has increased the violence in the community with women and girls,” said Lorraine Whitman (Grandmother White Sea Turtle), President of NWAC said there just aren’t enough shelters for the women experiencing violence, particularly in remote and isolated areas.

“Our centers aren’t as open due to COVID because we have social distancing. If you are in a crisis situation, where are you going to go?”

“We don’t have the transportation modes … They are in isolated areas. How are we going to help our women, our girls and our two-spirited gender-diverse people,” added Whitman. “There are big problems. We have a lot of work to do and we can’t do it alone.”

Memorandum with male abusers

Recently, the Native Women’s Association of Canada and the Moose Hide Campaign Development Society signed a historic memorandum, committing to end violence against indigenous women, girls, and gender-diverse people.

The Moose Hide Campaign is a grassroots campaign that calls on men from all backgrounds to be a part of the solution in addressing violence against women.

“Men are the problem and we need to look at the areas and resources that they can help,” said Whitman. “We need to work together and we need proper data.”

“It’s time for men to be called out, including Indigenous men, to acknowledge that they are a very large part of the problem and it’s time for them to be part of the solution.”

The rate of intimate partner violence reported to police is 10 times higher in Indigenous communities and family violence is 16 times higher, than in non-Indigenous communities. The unreported number may be even higher.

“The fact that men are killing a disproportionate number of Indigenous women in this country is something that has to change,” said Whitman.

The NWAC says these facts are also not the whole picture because of the lack of data when it comes to missing and murdered Indigenous women.

“These two organizations will support each other and work together to ensure culturally appropriate programs are available to all Indigenous to curtail the national tragedy,” added Whitman. “We need for the men and the women to have the proper skills so we can work together so the violence de-escalates.”

Many families have had to live without answers for decades now not knowing where their loved ones are and seeking justice for these senseless acts.

Even when certain cases do make it to court, Greyeyes said justice is often not served.

“The court rulings for Tina Fontaine and Colten Boushie, it’s painfully clear there are two justice systems that are at work in Canada. And until we level that playing field for all, we will continue to see this,” said Greyeyes.

The men accused of killing 15-year-old Tina Fontaine and 22-year-old Colten Boushiewere both acquitted, sparking outrage across the country against a justice system that many say doesn’t value Indigenous lives.

“What’s to stop somebody from harming our girls, men when there’s absolutely no repercussion for this?” asks Greyeyes.

Though some steps have been taken, Greyeyes said, elders have told them there is a long way to go and it will be generations before there will be real change.

“Until we get the majority of Canadians in this country … to care enough that an individual has gone missing or has been found murdered and care enough to put that cry out for justice for families, we are kind of at a stalemate.”

Greyeyes recently brought international attention to the issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous women and girls following a chance encounter with Whoopi Goldberg.

Greyeyes had commissioned beadwork from a member of Sagkeeng First Nation, Mish Daniels, and gifted the necklace to Goldberg after The View host dropped in on a Vancouver conference she was attending.

Goldberg later wore the piece on at least two episodes of The View, speaking out passionately about it the second time.

Greyeyes also had a two hour phone conversation with Goldberg, about the important work that plays into MMIWG, and the poverty rates on reserves.

“She’s talking to me about working with me to raise awareness about missing and murdered women and girls in Canada and the United States,” Greyeyes explained. “I was just floored.”

Whitman said while the government eventually did admit what happened to Indigenous women was a genocide, she said it took too much work to get there. But she says now that it has been acknowledged it’s time to start righting wrongs.

“It took pulling teeth to say it was a genocide. Now that it’s there, let’s move on. We’ve stated it. We’ve acknowledged it. Let’s move on and start making things right. Start overturning the wrongs… and start being a true ally to the Indigenous people,” said Whitman.

“Until the systems that are designed to hold Indigenous people down are dismantled or changed in a meaningful way, we will continue to have issues with missing and murdered women, girls, boys, men- without justice,” concluded Greyeyes.

With files from Mahnoor Yawar and The Canadian Press