Skip to main content

Police tape demarking a crime scene.JOHN LEHMANN

A brutal sexual assault of a native woman in northwestern Ontario that is being investigated as a hate crime has thrown fresh fuel on the fires of discontent being expressed in protests and demonstrations by first nations people across Canada.

A candlelight vigil to pray for female victims of crime was held on Wednesday night at a reserve adjacent to Thunder Bay, where the unnamed woman is recovering. She has told police she was assaulted, strangled and left for dead by two men who hurled racial epithets and denounced indigenous rights.

The assault comes at a time when native leaders are calling for a public inquiry to explore the depth of violence against women. Simultaneously, the grassroots Idle No More movement is inspiring natives and supporters to stage flash mob dances and blockades across the country to protest against federal legislation that first nations people say will hurt their communities, and native leaders are calling for a national day of action on Jan. 16 to support a hunger strike by Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence.

The Ontario assault was far from an isolated incident. At least 600 aboriginal women and girls have gone missing or been murdered in Canada in the past two decades. Native leaders say the number of victims actually runs into the thousands.

"It is systemic discrimination," Michéle Audette, president of the Native Women's Association of Canada, said in a telephone interview on Wednesday.

Joyce Hunter helped arrange the Thunder Bay vigil and is a lead organizer of the local branch of Idle No More. "We were reminded when this attack occurred that oppression takes many forms, and it is a very strong and potent reminder that there is so much work still that needs to be done in order for first nations people in Canada to achieve the parity that we are looking for," she said.

Idle No More protests continue to erupt. On Wednesday, part of Portage Avenue in Winnipeg was blockaded for several hours.

Chief Spence, who has been on a hunger strike for 23 days, is demanding a meeting between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and first nations leaders to discuss treaty rights. Chief Wallace Fox of the Onion Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan and Chief Isadore Day of the Serpent River First Nation in Ontario have written to Mr. Harper to affirm their "complete commitment" to Ms. Spence, to support Idle No More, and to warn of the plans for the national day of action.

The letter is the result of telephone conferences with chiefs across Canada over the weekend, Mr. Fox said. It says the native leaders will appeal to the international community, including U.S. President Barack Obama, to press the Canadian government to "correct the relationship it has with the indigenous peoples."

Meanwhile, police in Thunder Bay say they have a full team of investigators on the assault, which the unnamed victim says took place last Thursday night as she was walking to the store. "We are treating this very seriously and this is a major investigation for us," said Chris Adams, a police spokesman.

The woman said she was walking down the street when two white men in a green car pulled up beside her.

"They called her squaw and dirty Indian as she was walking and they were throwing things at her from the car, pieces of garbage and cans," said Christi Belcourt, a noted Canadian artist who is a friend of the alleged victim and is speaking on her behalf.

The woman says the men then stopped the car and pulled her by her hair into the back seat.

"She tried to fight back, but there were two of them and the one was stronger than she was and he sat on her and they drove her to the outskirts of Thunder Bay," Ms. Belcourt said. "They said what they were going to do to her as they were driving and she started to panic and she was fighting back, but they overpowered her."

The men told her they had done similar things before and would do it again, Ms. Belcourt said.

"And they told her, as they assaulted her, that 'you Indians deserve to lose your treaty rights.' They wouldn't have said that if it wasn't for Idle No More," Ms. Belcourt said.

"Psychologically, she is traumatized," Ms. Belcourt said of her friend, who does not want her name made public because she is afraid the men will track her down and kill her when they find out she didn't die.

The vigil in Thunder Bay was organized with heavy hearts but also lots of hope that change may be coming, Ms. Hunter said.

Ms. Audette of the Native Women's Association said an inquiry is necessary because Canadians "need to know that it's happening in their own backyard here in Canada. We hear that it happens a lot in Mexico or India, but it is happening here in Canada because we are aboriginal and we are women.

"There are at least 600 other women who are of first-nations descent who have experienced that kind of violence, and their killers are still walking free today," she said, "and it's so disturbing that that kind of violence has gone unanswered in a real and meaningful and honest way."

Interact with The Globe