As the din from an International Women’s Day march could be heard from outside on the street, about 100 people were gathered inside Toronto’s downtown Church of the Redeemer on March 8 for a teach-in event about missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls in Canada.
The aisle was lined with black signs that bore the names and ages of women who have been murdered. Following a prayer and aboriginal songs and drumming, keynote speaker Dr. Dawn Lavell-Harvard, president of the Ontario Native Women’s Association and vice-president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, began the day of discussions with a powerful presentation on the challenges aboriginal women and girls face, from poverty and predators to systemic oppression and racism.
Her presentation included a video about Claudette Osborne, a young aboriginal mother of three who went missing from the north end of Winnipeg in 2008, and her family and fiancé’s efforts to find her. Although her disappearance was reported, police didn’t investigate for weeks. Family photos of Osborne’s children growing up without her included a card from one of them that said, “I love you Mommy. Come home” alongside a lit candle.
That kind of police indifference is an ongoing problem, said Lavell-Harvard. She mentioned the case of a teenaged boy, several years ago in Barrie, Ont., who ran away from home after his parents took away his X-box. There was a huge public reaction, with police and volunteers searching for him until his body was found three weeks later. It was a tragedy, she said. At about the same time, two aboriginal teenage girls went missing. They were supposed to be staying at a friend’s home, but when they did not return in the morning, their parents were worried, especially when they saw that the girls did not have their bags, wallets, ID or cell phones. Police said they were probably just partying and waited weeks to investigate. “Where are the amber alerts, where are the search parties when our young ones go missing?” she asked.
The Native Women’s Association of Canada has documented the cases of more than 600 missing or murdered women, and are tracking them at a rate of three to four new cases each month, Lavell-Harvard said. “These are just the ones we’re finding in media reports, just the ones that have made the news. We know that there are many more out there whose identity was not tracked. This is just the tip of the iceberg,” she said.
She drew attention to media reports of human trafficking of girls boarding freighters in Thunder Bay, Ont., for what they are told are parties and who are then taken to Duluth, Minnesota, or who are never seen again. Once they are in international waters, she said, there is no way of tracking them.
“Our women experience greater rates of poverty, incarceration, child welfare apprehension, more violence; they are more likely to go missing, more likely to be murdered and less likely to ever see justice,” she said.
The event also included a panel discussion with Mary Eberts, a human rights and aboriginal issues lawyer; Crystal Basi, executive director of the Native Women’s Resource Centre of Toronto; and Carolyn Bennett, Toronto MP and Liberal critic for aboriginal affairs. Questions from participants and small group discussions focused on what can be done to end violence against aboriginal women and girls.
Lavell-Harvard talked about the importance of addressing poverty and supporting aboriginal families. “How many times have you heard that our women choose to live a high-risk lifestyle? But I say to you, we were born into a high-risk lifestyle because of generations of oppression, because of abuse, because poverty in our communities creates a high-risk environment for our children.”
More than half the aboriginal children in Ontario live in poverty, and aboriginal children are less likely to be taken into care for abuse than for neglect, she said. “There are more children in child welfare care than we have ever had at any other point in history and more than were ever in residential schools.” She painted a picture of the situation for some families. “Child welfare comes in and sees a child who’s not had lunch, sees a child…who’s living in a home where they don’t have proper windows, no proper insulation, no proper water, no sewers-you have 10, 12 people living in a house with a…bucket in the corner-and the solution is to make those parents go to parenting classes,” she said. “Some of our women are the best credentialized parents because they have taken so many parenting classes, but that will not change the fact that they have no sewers, that they have no plumbing, that they have no water in their homes.” She added that time spent in child welfare care is cited as a common factor among girls and women who enter the sex trade, pointing to the current system contributing to the continuation of a destructive cycle.
She expressed anger at the federal government’s refusal to call a national inquiry into murdered and missing women. “We are all standing with open-mouthed shock at the position of the federal government,” Lavell-Harvard said. “The very people who were mandated and put themselves in the position of taking care of our indigenous peoples are the very people who are now denying the need for national public inquiry. They’ll spend millions on inquiries looking into the future fate of salmon in the Fraser River, and I ask you: do our women and our girls not deserve that same commitment, that same investment?”
Many of those attending the event, including several teachers, talked about the need to better educate the Canadian public about aboriginal history and issues. Lavell-Harvard agreed, but emphasized the importance of not separating aboriginal history from Canadian history. “It’s the same people and events in the same country,” she said.