Campaign honours missing native women

Published January 1, 2004

They are Canada ‘s lingering question mark.

In the last 20 years in Canada, more than 500 aboriginal women have disappeared. This month, the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC), the Anglican Church of Canada and the United Church of Canada will issue a poster in support of a project called Sisters in Spirit. It is an awareness campaign that also serves as a memorial to the missing.

The coalition’s poster, which will be sent to Anglican parishes and ministry partners in January, will include resources developed by First Nations women including liturgical material, biblical resources, prayers and a pastoral reflection.

NWAC has designated Saturday, Feb. 14, as a national day of honour and remembrance for the missing women and is asking churches that weekend to include prayers for the missing during worship services.

A nationwide public campaign will launch on March 22. Its goal is to lobby the federal government to commit $10 million to develop education programs and workshops for the families of the missing, in addition to establishing a hotline and registry for reporting the women’s disappearances and documenting their cases.

Kukdookaa Terri Brown, president of the Ottawa-based NWAC, suspects that apart from those who loved them, very few people in Canada even care about the disappeared. She says most of the cases have never been properly investigated, and many have never even been formally recorded, although Amnesty International is asking for a record of the human rights abuses surrounding these women’s lives.

Ms. Brown wants to make Canada a safer place for native women like her younger sister, Ada, who died three years ago in Prince George, B.C. The 39-year-old woman had been brutally beaten and her head injuries were left untreated. The case was never investigated.

“She went to the doctor three times complaining of a massive headache. But she was sent away,” says Ms. Brown. “When she died, and we went to the funeral home, my sister and I didn’t recognize her. It was obvious she had been badly beaten ? several times ? yet the authorities had ruled she died of ‘natural causes.’ It is a sad thing when you realize your baby sister was marginalized in life and in death.”

Ms. Brown and her family are not alone in their grief and frustration. Each time she speaks at native and non-native gatherings, she hears other heart-rending stories.

“People come to me with names written on little scraps of paper. Sometimes they tell me they haven’t seen their sister or daughter or aunt or cousin for more than 30 years,” says Ms. Brown. “The families have lost hope that they will ever be found alive, but they want to find out what happened to them. Mothers and grandmothers have gone to their graves not knowing what happened. Families need the closure of knowing.

“When DNA evidence from the pig farm in Port Coquitlam (B.C.) showed that aboriginal women had died there, the country started to see what people in the native population have been living with for years. It is shocking to think that more than 50 native women disappeared in Vancouver, but we also know there are more than 110 missing aboriginal women in Alberta. I’m sure that when we finally compile the database of the missing we will be horrified at the numbers.”

Ms. Brown says racism and apathy about the plight of native women are at the heart of the issue.

“It is not as if their families did not report they were missing,” she says. “When they are reported missing, they are largely ignored. The focus always seems to be on the missing woman’s lifestyle. If there’s a disappearance in any other racial group, there are tremendous resources put into the investigation. The neglect of this issue, and the lack of responsibility taken by the authorities, is racism.”

Last February, Ms. Brown was a speaker at an Ottawa meeting of the aboriginal program of Kairos, the Toronto-based ecumenical organization devoted to social justice issues. She told the gathering her organization was doing its best to tell these women’s stories, but a national effort was needed to get the word out across the country.

Chris Hiller, indigenous justice co-ordinator with the Anglican Church of Canada, says she had heard various stories about women missing from individual communities, but she remembers the shock of hearing the collective numbers.

“When you are talking to people in native communities, you hear these stories from everywhere (in Canada ), but I didn’t realize the full extent of it until the Kairos meeting,” she says. “The racism is well documented all the way through the justice system, and aboriginal women in Canada top the list in terms of those most affected by violence.”

Choice Okoro, human rights and reconciliation initiatives staff person at the United Church of Canada, says that once a native woman leaves a reserve, she becomes vulnerable. In urban settings there is seldom a supportive environment for those who left their families to find jobs.

“Often, the women end up on the street. And in the cities, the attitude seems to be they should stay on the reserve and live in poverty,” says Ms. Okoro. “In 1996, Indian and Northern Affairs released a report which found that aboriginal women between the ages of 25 and 44 were five times more likely to die violently. The system knows this is the case. Now, we want to know what we are going to do about it.”

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