Indigenous women in Canada protesting (Image via: Red Women Rising)
Indigenous women and girls in Canada continue to face disproportionate levels of violence and insecurity rooted in colonialism.
Violence against Indigenous women is “escalating like never before,” the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) has warned. A series of tragedies have rocked the city of Vancouver (unceded Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh lands) in recent months, including the discovery of the body of a 14-year-old Indigenous child, Noelle O’Soup, in May.
“Apathy and injustice prevail among the authorities while the intersecting crises of MMIWG2S+ [missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, Two-Spirit, and others], the colonial child welfare system, homelessness, and the opioid crisis are literally killing our people,” said Kukpi7 (Chief) Judy Wilson, UBCIC secretary-treasurer, according to a press release by the organization.
Noelle O’Soup was found in an apartment approximately a year after she went missing from a group home in Port Coquitlam, while under the care of the Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD), British Columbia. Reports on the circumstances of her disappearance and the investigation into her death have revealed negligence by both the police and the government. “The major investigative oversight occurred despite multiple visits to, and apparent inspections of, the single room occupancy unit where Noelle O’Soup’s remains would finally be discovered,” stated Global News. Her case, unfortunately, is more the rule rather than the exception in Canada.
An ongoing genocide
In 2019, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (NIMMIWG) released its final report, declaring that the violence against Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA (Two-Spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, and asexual) people amounted to “genocide.”
The NIMMIWG emphasized that this genocide had been “empowered by colonial structures evidenced notably by the Indian Act, the Sixties Scoop, residential schools, and breaches of human and Indigenous rights, leading directly to the current increased rates of violence, death, and suicide in Indigenous populations.”
The inquiry found that “Indigenous women and girls are 12 times more likely to be murdered or [go] missing than any other women in Canada,” with the figure soaring to 16 times when compared to white women in the country.
A report by Statistics Canada released in April 2022 stated that 56 percent of Indigenous women have experienced physical assault, while 46 percent have experienced sexual assault in their lifetime. Constituting approximately 5 percent of Canada’s population of women, Indigenous women accounted for 24 percent of all women homicide victims between 2015 and 2020, according to the Statistics Canada report.
The likelihood of experiencing violence seems to be higher in cases where Indigenous women live in rural and remote areas, if they have a disability, have experienced homelessness, or have been in government care—81 percent of Indigenous women who have been in the child welfare system have been physically or sexually assaulted in their lifetime, according to Statistics Canada.
“Across multiple generations, Indigenous peoples were and continue to be subjected to the detrimental harms of colonialism,” acknowledged the report. Not only are Indigenous children disproportionately represented in Canada’s child welfare system (52.2 percent), but advocates have also found that more children have been forcibly separated from their families now than during the brutal Indian residential schools period.
Along with its final report, the NIMMIWG also made a key intervention in prevailing definitions of genocide, stating that “In actuality, genocide encompasses a variety of both lethal and non-lethal acts, including acts of ‘slow death,’ and all of these acts have very specific impacts on women and girls.”
“This reality must be acknowledged as a precursor to understanding genocide as a root cause of the violence against Indigenous women and girls in Canada,” the NIMMIWG added, “[n]ot only because of the genocidal acts that were and still are perpetrated against them, but also because of all the societal vulnerabilities it fosters, which leads to deaths and disappearances.”
‘The police don’t protect us’
The remains of Noelle O’Soup were found in Downtown Eastside (DTES), a neighborhood referred to as “ground zero” for violence against Indigenous women. Residents face disproportionate levels of “manufactured and enforced violence, poverty, homelessness, child apprehension, criminalization, and fatal overdoses.”
Indigenous women have an acute vulnerability to violence, and yet the institutional response has been to stigmatize the women in DTES for having “high-risk lifestyles.”
“Harmful stereotypes that are perpetuated against Indigenous women are used as an ongoing tool of colonization to enforce their vulnerability to violence,” stated Christine Wilson, director of Indigenous Advocacy at the Downtown Eastside Women’s Center (DEWC), in an interview with Peoples Dispatch.
In 2019, the DEWC published “Red Women Rising,” a historic report produced in direct collaboration with 113 Indigenous survivors of violence and 15 non-Indigenous women in the DTES who knew Indigenous women who have experienced violence, have gone missing, or have overdosed. “Red Women Rising” was published in response to the final report of the NIMMIWG.
Echoing the argument put forth in “Red Women Rising,” Wilson reiterated that “the criminal justice system constructs Indigenous women as ‘risks’ that need to be contained, which leaves them unsafe and exacerbates inequalities.” Widespread bias within the policing system has not only influenced whether police take Indigenous women’s complaints seriously, Wilson explained, but also whether Indigenous women approach the police at all.
“The police don’t protect us; they harass us,” stated DJ Joe, a resident of DTES, in the report by DEWC. “Native women face so much violence but no one believes a Native woman when she reports violence.”
In cases involving missing or murdered women, there is a lack of proper investigation and adequate resources, Wilson stated, adding that family members of victims were subjected to insensitive and offensive treatment, alongside general jurisdictional confusion and lack of coordination among the police.
Police have also been actively hostile and abusive toward Indigenous women in Canada. They continue to be targets of sexual violence by police forces, particularly the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), which has been deployed on contract policing services in 600 Indigenous communities.
Lack of police and judicial protection also overlaps with criminalization, thereby exacerbating violence against Indigenous women and girls. Wilson added, “Indigenous women are more likely to be violently attacked by their abusers and then more likely to be counter-charged by the police, compared to non-Indigenous women.”
Colonial patriarchy poses the highest risk
As “Red Women Rising” outlined, “Settler-colonialism intentionally targets Indigenous women in order to destroy families, sever the connection to land-based practices and economies, and devastate relational governance of Indigenous nations.”
The report identified “[m]ultiplying socioeconomic oppressions within colonialism,” including loss of land, family violence, child apprehension, and inadequate services, which worked to displace Indigenous women and children from their home communities.
Forty-two percent of women living on reserves lived in houses requiring major repairs, according to the report, and nearly one-third of all on-reserve homes in Canada were food insecure, with the figure soaring to 90 percent in some areas. Meanwhile, 64 percent of Indigenous women lived off-reserve, in areas such as DTES.
Displacement is closely linked to housing insecurity, with all members of DEWC having experienced homelessness at some point in their lives.
The violence that Indigenous women face is tied to poverty, which in turn “magnifies vulnerability to abusive relationships, sexual assault, child apprehension, exploitative work conditions, [and] unsafe housing,” stated the “Red Women Rising” report.
Not only are Indigenous women disproportionately criminalized for “poverty-related crimes,” but Indigenous families are also investigated for “poverty-related ‘neglect’” eight times more as compared to non-Indigenous families. “[H]igher stressors associated with living in systemic poverty such as drug dependence and participation in street economies are used against Indigenous women in order to apprehend Indigenous children, thus perpetuating the colonial cycle of trauma and impoverishment,” the report pointed out.
As a result, activists argue that what is needed is an “assertion of Indigenous laws and jurisdiction, and restoration of collective Indigenous women’s rights and governance,” and “individual support for survivors such as healing programs.”
“Red Women Rising” had made 200 recommendations to address violence against Indigenous women. Meanwhile, the NIMMIWG had issued 231 “Calls for Justice,” stressing that they were legal imperatives, not recommendations. However, in the three years since the release of both these reports, the Canadian government has made “little progress.”
“While there have been crucial acknowledgments on the subject of violence against Indigenous women,” Wilson told Peoples Dispatch, “now we need actions. We need funds for reparations, we need housing, and we need clean water on the reserves.”
Tanupriya Singh is a writer at Peoples Dispatch and is based in Delhi.