Why do certain deaths bring on a tidal wave of sorrow from citizens while other deaths do not?
Three fallen RCMP officers. Canada mourns. A “profound sadness and searing grief,” says the Prime Minister. In a sea of red serge uniforms, thousands of Mounties come to honour the lives of these three men. The three dead officers deserve the honours bestowed upon them. They merit every bit of our love and remembrance.
But why do these murders compel an entire nation to mourn? Why do certain deaths bring on a tidal wave of sorrow from citizens while other deaths do not? Is one class of murdered persons more deserving of our grief and remembrance than another?
I too felt a sense of grief for the dead Mounties. But I also felt rage at the absence of comparable pain for the more than 1,000 Aboriginal women in this country who have been murdered or remain missing, women and girls who have been torn from their families and from their communities. And I am compelled to ask: Why did the murder and disappearance of over a thousand women not provoke national mourning, a collective cry of grief and rage, with thousands of Mounties lining the streets in tribute? When will Canadians cry out, “No more! Enough!”?
The RCMP report Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women: A National Operational Overview puts the number of women murdered since 1980 at 1,181, though the lack of an authoritative list leads many to believe that the number is much higher. Think of it: 1,181 women and girls; 1,181 families. When crunched, that number gathered from police forces across the country tells us that since 1980, an Aboriginal woman is four times more likely to be murdered and three times more likely to disappear than other Canadian women.
The Native Women’s Association of Canada, among other organizations, has called for a formal inquiry, but that proposal has been rejected by the federal government as unnecessary. Indeed, we already have plenty of evidence to show that we face an extraordinary problem. A 2013 Human Rights Watch field report exposed systemic police abuse in the investigation and treatment of missing women in northern British Columbia along what is known as the Highway of Tears. And another 2013 report, submitted to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women by the Native Women’s Association of Canada and the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action, gives a searing account of Canada’s systemic failure to protect indigenous women and girls. It points out Canada’s failure to recognize the human rights violations that are occurring — its failure to prevent these disappearances and murders — and calls upon the authorities to bring perpetrators to justice.
Having rejected a formal inquiry, Ottawa argues that the answer to the problem lies in better policing. The federal government did agree to spend another $25 million over five years to address violence against Aboriginal women and girls, continuing a program begun in 2010. Most of that money targets improvements in law enforcement, including the creation of a National Centre for Missing Persons, not specifically targeted at Aboriginal women. Policing is certainly a problem. The British Columbia commission of inquiry into the province’s deplorable handling of these crimes against Aboriginal women pointed to “blatant failures of police investigations.” And what has happened since? Of the inquiry’s 65 recommendations, 3 had been implemented by last November, according to a report in the Globe and Mail.
Better policing does not address the deeper phenomenon that places the murders of Aboriginal women on a spectrum of violence perpetrated against women, in Canada and around the world. If we are to understand what is happening to Aboriginal women in this country, we must see it as part of persistent violence perpetrated against women and the impunity that surrounds it.
Femicide has been applied as the term for women being killed by men since the early 19th century, and its context has widened as we become increasingly aware of its variants. The range of crimes is disturbing: verbal and physical abuse, rape, assault, incest, sexual slavery, child sexual abuse, sexual harassment, denial of food and genital mutilation. All of these horrors, very much still with us, are linked to the pervasiveness of violence against women.
Anti-female violence — and the failure of authorities to pursue those who commit it — reflects an enduring gender inequality.
A 2005 report by the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of the Armed Forces, which monitors the conduct of national security sectors such as armies and police forces, estimated that between 1.5 million and 3 million women and girls are lost to gender-based violence each year. The organization called it a “hidden gendercide.” Rashida Manjoo, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, warned in a 2012 report that the different manifestations of gender-related killings around the globe are increasing, and a lack of accountability for such crimes is the norm. Canada is not exempt. Our record for failing to end the killing of indigenous women and girls is included in this UN report as part of a “global trend.”
Violence against females — and the failure of authorities to pursue those who commit it — reflects an enduring gender inequality. According to Manjoo, “Gender-based violence has been recognized as one of the most extreme and pervasive forms of discrimination, severely impairing and nullifying the enforcement of women’s rights.”
The potent mix of identity and citizenship also leads to the predominant killing of women who are brown and of women who are poor. In Canada, it is Aboriginal women who are at higher risk. In Mexico, the Juarez murders involve the systematic killing of women and girls who are among the city’s poorest and most powerless, many of them working in the large and powerful maquiladoras, whose activities are licensed by free trade law.
In 2004, the Mexican feminist Marcela Lagarde developed a more complex definition of what she renamed feminicidio — or “feminicide” — to encompass a range of crimes against women and girls including murder, kidnapping and disappearance. It holds responsible not only the perpetrators, but also the government and judicial structures that normalize misogyny.
Latin American countries such as Chile, Mexico and Peru have responded to increasing cases of feminicide by pushing through reforms to national criminal justice systems, including the criminalization of feminicide in national penal codes. The UN is currently developing a model protocol for the investigation of feminicide in Latin America.
The Canadian government must face our own shame in what is happening to Aboriginal women here. It must work toward implementing a more comprehensive strategy for preventing and eradicating feminicide.
Canada should be showing a leadership role in the struggle to end feminicide in all its forms, by developing a country protocol on the issue. A good start would be for Ottawa to commit to a national inquiry into the feminicide within our borders.
We can no longer be indifferent to our terrible failure to prevent the murders and disappearances of Aboriginal women. When we turn away, we allow misogyny to continue to run deep in all of our social structures and we partake in a complicity of silence. This is a silence that we can break.
So let us mourn as a nation for those women who are already lost. Let us feel profound sadness and searing grief for all the women and girls who have been murdered and remain missing. We know the number is well over 1,000. Let there be 1,000 days of continuous remembrance to bring public recognition of each and every one of these women, each one a victim of our betrayal.