First Nations Confront Legacy of Violence Against Women

Native women in Canada confront a growing number of disappearances and tragic deaths.

By Michelle Chen Aug 23, 2010

While few countries can rival the United States in its long, sordid history of brutalizating its indigenous peoples, our neighbor to the north harbors its own shameful legacy of violence against First Nations communities. Indian Country Today has reported extensively on the systematic abuse and assault of native women, which is reflected in government policy and the massive number of disappearances and tragic deaths.

At a gathering of traditional healers and spiritual leaders in the Turtle Lodge earlier this summer, the national tragedy of more than 582 murdered and missing First Nations women became a focus for discussion and prayers. Several people spoke of relatives missing in Winnipeg, Vancouver, Toronto and Edmonton, and along the Highway of Tears. It seems to be happening everywhere. Chief Donovan Fontaine said at least four women from the local community were missing – one six months pregnant – and later found murdered, some dumped along highways.

The pattern of violence is paralleled in the United States, well documented by human rights advocates, of the sexual victimization of native women, often facilitated by failures of law enforcement (though new federal legislation could change that situation). Activists trace the roots of the tragedy to child welfare organizations and boarding schools that ripped apart families and sought to obliterate indigenous culture through social engineering. In many ways, the vestiges of trauma wrought by child welfare and boarding school programs are still evident today throughout indigenous communities–in the epidemics of gender-based violence, drug abuse, suicide, and economic destitution. But First Nations advocates are connecting the dots between family crisis, poverty and the criminal justice system, according to Indian Country Today:

Experts agreed that discrimination, economic inequalities, and racially discriminatory policies continue to play a major role in the disproportionate placement of indigenous youth in detention, custody, foster care and adoption. They cited many examples of discrimination including: Defining suitable households for care-giving primarily based on economic factors, both in justifications for removal of children and in determining placements for children in foster or adoptive homes; significant disparities in funding levels and services provided to Native communities; border security laws that fail to acknowledge the specific needs and rights of indigenous children and youth; and blaming the over-representation of indigenous youth in custody and care on Native peoples themselves, rather than on Canada’s system and policies. Experts recognized that the cycle of institutionalization for Native people often begins with foster care, continues on to youth detention programs and then to custody in the adult criminal justice system. This cycle is often repeated for the children of incarcerated adults. "In any discussion of solutions to these problems, issues of racism within law enforcement and the overarching reality of colonization and residential school are what need to be addressed and redressed," [Angela MacDougall, executive director of Battered Women’s Support Services in Vancouver] said.

While the scars of history won’t fade any time soon, they’re fresh enough teach us new lessons.