For decades, the loved ones of Indigenous women who’ve gone missing or been murdered have known that Canada had a problem. But it took many years, and many more deaths, for that problem to become a national debate, and for official investigations to show how bad it really is. That’s what the National Inquiry Into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls sought to do on Monday, when it issued long-awaited findings about how many have died, the systemic causes and how law enforcement and government can try to undo a deadly legacy of colonialism.
Investigations by The Globe and Mail over the past five years have helped to uncover some of the grim statistics and tragic stories that brought us to this point. Here’s a primer, focusing on three high-profile cases and the debate the inquiry’s report has generated over one word.
B.C. serial killer Robert Pickton’s arrest in 2002 began to reveal how many Indigenous women in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside met grisly fates, and how official indifference from the RCMP and city police stymied efforts to find out what happened to them. That year, the Native Women’s Association of Canada and Amnesty International launched the “Stolen Sisters” project, the first of many attempts by researchers to find out how many women had vanished or died over the years. But while Statistics Canada had plenty of data showing Indigenous women were disproportionately likely to be victims of violent crime, the lack of detail about specific deaths made it hard to get an accurate database of all the victims.
The Globe and Mail began compiling its own database after the NWAC and researcher Maryanne Pearce shared their data with the newspaper in 2014. That led to the 2015 investigation The Taken, which revealed that Indigenous women were about seven times more likely than non-Indigenous women to die at the hands of serial killers. Another investigation the following year, The Trafficked, focused on how Indigenous women are exploited by the sex trade.
In The Taken, Globe journalists focused on five women’s stories. One was Sereena Abotsway, a sex worker with fetal alcohol syndrome who was among the women Mr. Pickton was convicted of killing. The tumultuous life that brought her to the Downtown Eastside, and her disappearance in 2001, echoes many of the themes in the MMIWG inquiry’s report: intergenerational trauma, alcohol and drug abuse, the foster-care system and a sex industry that leaves Indigenous women vulnerable to predators. Read more about her here.
MORE READING: THE GLOBE’S INVESTIGATIONS
Cindy Gladue was 36 years old and a mother of three when she died bleeding out in an Edmonton motel bathroom in 2011. To her family, the trial of the trucker charged with killing her was traumatic: she was called “native” or prostitute more than 50 times by the defence and Crown, the judge allowed prosecutors to bring her preserved pelvic tissue into court as evidence, and in the end, a jury acquitted the trucker, Bradley Barton, of first-degree murder. The case made its way to the Supreme Court of Canada, which ruled last month that the court failed to protect her dignity, made “devastating” legal errors and Mr. Barton should be tried again for manslaughter.
For the national inquiry, which advocated in Mr. Barton’s case, Cindy Gladue’s posthumous treatment by the justice system exemplified how racism reduces Indigenous women to objects. In its report, the inquiry said, “The trial is emblematic of how Indigenous women are seen as less believable and ‘less worthy’ victims than non-Indigenous women, and that justice does not serve Indigenous women.”
MORE READING: THE GLADUE CASE
Indigenous people’s grief, anger and disappointment in the system crystallized in 2014 around the case of Tina Fontaine, a 15-year-old Anishinaabe girl whose body was pulled from Winnipeg’s Red River. Her family accused the police and child-welfare services of failing her as details emerged about how she was put in Child and Family Services care, reported missing, then encountered by police and paramedics on the last day she was seen alive, but not brought to safety. Sixteen months passed between her death and the arrest of a suspect, Raymond Cormier – but in 2018 he was acquitted of second-degree murder.
Tina Fontaine’s death renewed calls for a national inquiry, which then prime minister Stephen Harper rejected. That made it a wedge issue in the 2015 election: Justin Trudeau’s Liberals promised to hold an inquiry if elected, and they officially launched one in 2016. It got off to a shaky start: critics accused it of having too limited a scope, a commissioner and staff members quit, and Inuit and Metis groups said they weren’t being properly represented. But over three years, more than 2,380 people participated, including 468 family members and survivors of violence, setting the stage for this past Monday’s report.
MORE READING: TINA FONTAINE’S STORY
June 3′s final report, titled Reclaiming Power and Place, had 231 “calls for justice” for every stratum of Canadian society. It called on the RCMP and other police forces to create specialized squads for Indigenous communities and better teach officers about Indigenous history, culture and language. It called on all levels of government to come up with an anti-violence action plan and a national human-rights tribunal and ombudsperson for Indigenous people. It called on the news media, academics and the entertainment industry to “ensure authentic and appropriate representation” of Indigenous women and dispel stereotypes.
It also called the deaths of Indigenous women and girls a “race-based genocide,” and much of the post-report debate centred on the semantics of what genocide is. The report argued genocide is not just a planned, systematic act to exterminate an identifiable group, but can also be systemic neglect that achieves the same result. It cited precedents in international treaties and the Canadian Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act, which defines genocide as:
[…] an act or omission committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, an identifiable group of persons, as such, that, at the time and in the place of its commission, constitutes genocide according to customary international law or conventional international law or by virtue of its being criminal according to the general principles of law recognized by the community of nations, whether or not it constitutes a contravention of the law in force at the time and in the place of its commission.
Mr. Trudeau and cabinet ministers initially demurred on accepting the finding of “genocide" when the report was first released, but a day later, he did accept it publicly. He also stressed that the debate about how to move forward should focus on action and not words:
We thank them for their work, we applaud their work and we accept their findings, including that what happened amounts to genocide. There are many debates ongoing around words and use of words. Our focus as a country, as leaders, as citizens, must be on the steps we take to put an end to this situation.
MORE READING: THE POLITICS OF GENOCIDE
Compiled by Globe staff
Based on reporting from Kathryn Blaze Baum, Jill Mahoney, Matthew McClearn, Tavia Grant, Gloria Galloway, Sean Fine, Nancy Macdonald, Wendy Stueck and Andrea Woo