disappearances and murders of aboriginal women in Canada
INTERVIEW of EMMANUELLE WALTER by Sporenda
Emmanuelle Walter is an independent journalist. She has worked for the French daily « Libération », « Le Nouvel Observateur », Arrêt sur image, Arte Radio and Terra Eco. She has been living in Montreal for several years and her book « Stolen Sisters » published in French in 2014 was recently published in English.
S. : A few figures as an introduction to give an idea of the scandal of these disappearances of aboriginal women : 181 of these women have disappeared or have been murdered in the last 30 years in Canada. Taking into account the relatively small number of these women in the whole female population (4% of the total number of women), proportionnally this amounts to the same percentage as if 30 000 Canadian women or 55 000 French women had been killed or had vanished during the same period. These women are 7 times more likely to be murdered than other women. You speak of a low key femicide and you mention a double crime, the crime of the killers and the criminal indifference of public opinion, governments and institutions. Did all the political parties that have been in power in Canada display the same indifference toward these crimes ?
EW : Anyway, the beginning of these crimes dates back to colonisation. One always gives the figures dating back to 1980, because the statistics have been collected from this year on, but the femicide starts during the 15th century. The violence begins with the prostitution of First nations women, even if at the onset the trappers and fur traders rather married these women. And this indifference starts with this violence. No political party has really tackled this problem…
S : Is there really no difference between the parties on this question ?
EW : One can say that the Liberals who were in power before the Conservative party (and have just won the elections again NDLT) have cared more about this question than the Conservatives. Under their tutelage, there was a parliamentary committee which has drafted a report « Un cri dans la nuit » , a very accurate text, really excellent, but when a synthesis was drawn from it, the Conservatives were back in power, and this synthesis lost all the density of the report. There is a difference—but it’s a difference that did not change anything in the situation of these women—except that this topic was finally emerging in the media when I was finishing my book.
I did not expect that at all, because I worked in the dark on this book, and it got media coverage because of the very shocking death of a young girl in Winnipeg, Tina Fontaine, and also because aboriginal militant women finally got heard. Since this death, the parties opposed to the Conservatives have been very clearly in favor of a national inquiry, they meet aboriginal women and have visited Rinelle Harper, who is related to the young girl who has survived a violent rape along the Annissiboine river in Winnipeg. Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau, who are the two leaders of the Liberal party in Ottawa, are very openly in favor of First nations’ rights, but they are in the opposition . When they are in power, I am afraid it’s going to be business as usual…
S : You observe that the excuse given by the police for not starting searches immediately after the disappearance of these young girls is that aboriginal girls often run away, and that they will come back. But contrary to what the police think, psychologists emphazise that teenagers running away from home are no trivial matter and that it makes them extremely vulnerable, since it’s precisely when they try to escape the violence they face at home that they fall prey to pimps who are waiting for them in railway stations, bus stations and airports. This is how the crucial two weeks after a crime are lost due to lack of reaction by the police– because it’s during this time that evidence and witnesses can be found. You seem to explain these negligences by an unconscious or conscious racism—but there are similar slow reactions and prejudice in the judiciary treatment of rapes in Europe. What do you think about that ?
EW : I would like to mention that the figures provided by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police show that the rate of resolution (88%) is rather within average. One can also say that they don’t have all the figures, that the data they have are insufficient because the different polices don’t take note of the ethnicity of the victims. Another thing to underline is that in Canada, 90% of the men who kill women are known by their victims. And the last figure that came up –and created a scandal within the community–is that 70% of the murderers of aboriginal women are aboriginal men. I told my aboriginal friends : « of cause, the killers are close to the victims, it’s the same thing for women the world over, this is not the question », but it’s very difficult for them to accept this figure.
Why is there a feeling of major laxness in the police, mixed with sexism and racism ? Because the 12% of unsolved crimes are difficult cases, crimes committed by predators, pimps, sadists, travelling men, men the victims don’t know. These crimes are very difficult to solve by the police. And it’s equally dificult when the victims are not aboriginal. The difference is that when these disappearances concern non aboriginal women—one should say white women because it must not be the case for black women— the police is fully involved. Public opinion is also involved : there are calls for witnesses, major search parties organised with the whole local community, infra-red, helicopters, etc. When it’s about abriginal women, the reaction is : « don’t worry, she’ll come back ! » . So there is a double standard there. The result is the same, the body and the murderer are not necessarily found.
But the way these communities and the families see the society that is supposed to take care of them is very different : it shows that, when aboriginal girls are concerned, nobody seems to care, whereas when white girls are concerned, no stone is left unturned. The figures show that the percentage of crimes resolved is within average but police expenditure of energy is much less. Sexism and racism– yes sexism is present, but when white girls are murdered, the police do their utmost to solve the cases. Aboriginal men also disappear and die in great numbers—but not for the same reasons : there is a frightening number of these men who die violent deaths, are killed or disappear. They share the same social vulnerability as women, but they are men, and they die because they beat each other up : settling of accounts, brawls, petty crime, misdemeanors, organised crime. There are also lots of suicides. And honestly, the police doesn’t behave any better when these men disappear than with women—it’s even worse. In the Prairies, the Provinces of Manitoba, Alberta and Saskatchewan, when one of these guys behaves like an ass, the police may take him 5 kilometers away from town, with the temperature at 30° below freezing, and they leave him in the middle of nowhere—some people died this way. They don’t do that with women to my knowledge. But in British Columbia, the Human Rights Watch Report mentions that the police is being violent with women.
S : That’s what you say in your book : there is a judge who has been accused of raping aboriginal women. And when the police conduct investigations, the questions asked are clearly discriminatory : these young women are systematically accused of being prostitutes and drug addicts and their murders are explained by the « risky behaviors » they « choose ». Can you tell us about these « risky behaviors » and are they really chosen ?
EW : Of course not. In fact, these are processes that are difficult to understand, it took me some time to understand because if one doesn’t live in these groups, one can’t get it : one can’t understand how a girl aged 14 to 17 can end up in prostitution. You understand it intellectually, but you can’t visualize it nor can you figure out the way they can end up there. The « typical » itinerary of Tina Fontaine (with quotation marks because each itinerary has its own logic) illustrates that perfectly : she is 15 year old, her father has been murdered in a drunken brawl 3 years earlier, her mother abandoned her when she was 4 because she is a drug addict, she has been raised by her aunt who does what she can in a remote area of Manitoba. So she decides to leave her aunt to meet her biological mother in Winnipeg. When she leaves, her aunt tells her « ok, but come back afterward ». In indigenous communities, girls are very precocious, they are emancipated very young, get pregnant very young—and this is linked to poverty. She goes to Winnipeg to find her mother, who is a druggie and completely irresponsible. She is placed in foster care, then she runs away, her aunt loses track of her, she warns the police of her disappearance. She gets into prostitution immediately, and after a few weeks, she is murdered. It’s clear : in this course of events, the vulnerability begins at birth. And later on, it only gets worse –so it’s not a choice—never ! Yes one can say she chose to run away, to leave the foster care place, it’s a form of choice and it has consequences. At one time, she was taken back by the police because she passed out in an alley in Vancouver, people alerted the police, they came to get her, they handed her to social services. And the social services put her up in an hotel because they ran out of places to put up people—so young people are put up in hotels with hardly any surveillance. And right away, she left the hotel to prostitute herself.
S : It’s hard to understand why the police doesn’t take into account the extreme vulnerability of run away girls. If a young girl runs away from her family, it’s often because there is violence or incest at home. And if they run away from foster care, it’s often because life in these places is difficult…
EW : And it’s often in foster care that these girls get pointers about prostitution. About these « risky behaviors », one must underline that the police has created special units geared to people with these backgrounds. This expression « risky behavior » has been used as a criterion for young girls who have been killed in special contexts. It’s interesting to note that the Royal Canadian Police and other police bodies are now using the word « vulnerability ». In the Royal Canadian Police Report (May 2014), the expression « social vulnerability » is used frequently, they support it and they want to use it because they understand the importance of this concept : the police, in some cases, can acknowledge the social origin of a situation. Much more than the Conservatives who are obscurantists influenced by fundamentalist Christians and refuse to see all the social handicaps present in these murders. The police is much more progressive and this report is of high quality and it’s accurate but the conservative government can’t even read the report of its own police.
S : In the cases you mentioned, the 12% of unsolved murders where the investigations are not thorough due to insufficient means—contrary to what happens when the victims are white, what steps are taken by aboriginal women to be heard despite this lack of concern ?
EW : There is a lot of solidarity, a very simple solidarity that one does not expect in our very individualistic societies. The way they confort each other through social networks is very striking : Maisy’s mother posts a status saying : « today was very hard, I can’t take it, I am crying ». She posts a picture of Maisy and immediately, 95 people post little hearts, etc. It’s a detail but it’s striking how, in these communitites that are in very poor shape with lots of violence, there is also a lot of solidarity.
In all the Provinces, there are also associations of aboriginal women in support of missing women. They are present in each and every Province, and they are official subsidized organisations, like those that emanate from « Aboriginal Women of Canada » (this is the federal organisation) with a branch in every Province. The fact that they are official organisations doesn’t mean they are not efficient or active ; but since they receive money from the government, it’s been said that they can’t talk quite as freely.
Another criticism is that they are abolitionists, whereas the non-official organisations are less abolitionists, more in favor of the legalisation of prostitution. In all the Provinces, there are also non-official/non subsidized communities organisations, and they are all led by women. They organise a lot of « gatherings », it’s very centered on traditional medicine and it’s very important. It’s worth noting also that there are separate shelters for aboriginal women, they don’t go to regular shelters because they need a type of support adapted to their culture—in France, it would be very shocking, but one must admit it works better. In Québec for instance, there is a shelter, the Missinak House, and they organize traditional healing. They go to the forest, they sing, they hold hands. Today, this mode of healing is seen by research as what works best for women who have been abused by men, it’s better than sending them to a psychotherapist. I am moved to tears when I see how they manage to overcome traumas that would crush us, they have a culture of surviving, they have rituals and behaviors that help them to overcome traumas.
S : You recall an episode of Canadian history little known in France : the abduction of aboriginal children (at least 150 000) taken away from their families by the police and placed in boarding schools (Indian Residential Schools) to « kill the Indian in them ». Later on, from the 60s to the 80s, the children were placed in white families faraway from the reservations. You mention the concept of an « intergenerational transmission of traumas » dating back to the colonial era and you say that this episode of the Residential schools plays a very important role in the high level of violence in aboriginal communities (8 times higher than the rest of the country). How can these past events explain the present violence ?
EW : In fact, children are still placed, there is a disproportionate number of aboriginal children who are placed compared to their real number and it’s relatively normal : the families are not doing well. But they are also placed abusively.
S : I thought that these placements had decreased significantly… It’s no longer at the level of the 60s, is it ?
EW : Comparatively, it’s the same or even worse than during the 60s but of course the conditions of these placements are better. There is no longer the « kill the Indian in the child » policy, they are not raped, it’s completely different. But due to demographic factors—the high birthrate—there are not enough indigenous families judged adequate to receive these children. The criteria to be met by the foster families should be more flexible, because these requisites are very strict : if there should be no more than 2 children and at least 4 bedrooms, forget it ! It’s a scandal, aboriginal people have enormous housing problems and they are told : « if you want to be a foster family, you must have 3 bedrooms for 3 children ». There are not enough « sound » indigenous families authorized to host children, the criteria are way too demanding, considering their situation : it’s a double penalty, not only they are poor but they can’t foster any children due to their poverty. That’s why the situation is so dramatic, most of these children are placed in white families and there are not many of those families wise enough to maintain the link of these children with their native culture.
S : So you say that this placement in white families explains the high rate of violence ?
EW : What matters most in this level of violence is what’s called « Residential schools syndrome », the transmission of the traumas incurred in these schools generation after generation.
S : Even decades later ?
EW : I am talking about the fact that in 150 years, 150 000 children were traumatised, seven successive generations were concerned. When these children left these schools, they had no idea of the meaning of the words « love » or « to be loved », they did not know what it is to have someone who takes care of you, it’s more than deculturation, more than cultural destruction, –it’s totally dehumanizing. Some of these children were not as badly mistreated as the others : I know one of these men who have been in these schools, he was beaten up but not raped. These men have a syndrome of hate and self-hate which is transmitted from generation to generation, from the parents to the children, even if the children are not placed. For instance, there is the case of an aboriginal family that seems to be doing well, the mother writes poetry, she travels, she goes to Europe, but her son let himself die of pneumonia.
S : You use the expression « transgenerational transmission of trauma »…
EW : Yes, it means that suddenly, in a family, there is one member who is going to be affected by events that took place very long ago. From generation to generation, families are unable to raise their children. The daughter has not been raised by her mother, who was not raised by her grandmother, who was not raised by her great grandmother. There is the typical case of these women who have 4 or 5 children and who leave their house alone to « prendre une brosse », as they say, who drink and party for 3 days—and all the while the children are left at home unattended. And indeed, there is major male violence who is expressed on other men and on women—and which is seen as a consequence of their being in these schools where they were raped, beaten, starved. They saw kids committing suicide before their very eyes, there was voluntary starvation, there were even experiments conducted on these children—it’s evocative of WWII sometimes.
S : Are you talking about medical experiments?
EW : There were some. And from the last figures published by the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, the estimate is that at least 6 000 children died in these schools, from untreated diseases, mistreatment, from cold when they ran away etc. Yes indigenous men are very violent with women—and women are too, but their violence has different motivations, often it’s a reaction, they kill the husband who mistreats them. I have been accused of angelism when I suggest in my book that before colonisation, there was a form of equality between men and women in indian communities. I have read a lot on this topic, and I warned myself about that, but everything I read points in this direction…
S : It depended on the group, there were major differences between different groups. The culture of the Indians of the Great Plains, like the Comanches and the Apaches, were quite macho and violent—it was observed by the colons as soon as they landed. But what you say seems true about the Iroquois…
EW : Or even the Algonquins…
S : According to what I have read, the Algonquins did not belong to the six Iroquois nations, but their language belonged to the « family » of Iroquois languages, and their culture was similar to theirs…
I have read also that, when the colons arrived, the men in these groups where women played an important role changed, they seem to have understood quickly that the European patriarchal system was more advantageous for them and they adopted it rather quickly. They had to anyway, because the Europeans did not want to deal with women, so only men could negociate with them…
EW : During the era of the fur trade, indigenous women were important as guides, diplomats and helpers to survive in the forest but at the same time, there was prostitution around the trading posts, and men were often involved in this prostitution …
S : But one can say also that there was no prostitution before the colons came…
Let’s talk about the « Highway of tears » , the highway #16 that runs North of British Columbia, where 46 murders and disappearances of mostly indigenous women took place. There is no public transportation in these mountainous and isolated areas : without cars or adequate public transportation, it’s impossible to find work. Since they don’t have enough money to buy a car, aboriginal girls hitchhike and put themselves at risk. Can one say that these areas are abandoned due to racist and/or hyper-capitalist policies that have a negative impact on the security and living conditions of these women ?
EW : It doesn’t justify this abandonment at all—but one has to remember the immensity of this territory. Morevover, some of these aboriginal communities are very isolated. Either it’s because they always lived there or because they were relocated there. These groups might have been brutally relocated by white people because they occupied a strategic location. In British Columbia, these communities are very isolated, and in a capitalist system, nobody is going to spend billions of dollars to provide public transportation for them, because it’s not at all profitable. It’s also about the same in Montreal, it’s a huge territory and the density of population is very low : if they start a bus line, it will be useful for the inhabitants but they will lose money.
Regarding the « Highway of tears » and two other connected highways where murders took place, there is an added factor : the communities are very poor. In the areas without public transportation, people usually buy cars. So it’s a vicious circle : I live in a reservation, it’s lousy, it’s not at all an environment where I can thrive nor find work, and there is violence. I don’t have a job and I feel like moving around–they don’t move around just to find work, they travel to see their pals, their aunt, their mother—they move around a lot, that’s what’s left of nomadism. They can travel 1 000 kms just to see a friend—and in extreme conditions, because they have no money. So they want to go places, but they have no car because they are poor. And since they have no car, they can’t get a job—you see the vicious circle—so they hitchhike. But the murders of the Highway of tears are not just hitchhiking stories. And there is a Greyhound bus on this highway but it’s too expansive for them.
A woman researcher sent me an incredible mail where she told me that she picked up in her car some girls who were hitchiking. These girls told her : « we are coming from Vancouver and we are going back to our community in the North but we are not afraid because in our community, it’s worse ». They have no money, so when they travel, they put themselves at risk. And these places are very isolated so if agressions take place, there are no witnesses.
S : In your book, you mention that the feminism of aboriginal women is different from the kind of feminism advocated by non-aboriginal women : for the latter, feminism is an emancipation project supposed to take place in the future. For aboriginal feminists, it’s rather going back to the past, to return to the balance of power betwen men and women that existed in the past in First nations. Is there a complete rejection of modern feminism and could this view be some kind of retrospective idealisation ?
EW : It’s more complicated than that. Because they say that things were better for women before Western colonisation but they are no reactionnaries.
S : So they might be doing a sort of synthesis ?
EW : In my book, I am quoting aboriginal feminists who have very strong discourses, they are very radical, they are afraid of nothing. They are not close to white « bourgeois » feminism, equal pay for working women does not concern them. Equal sharing of domestic chores either—although they might discuss this topic at home. They are critical of the fact that white feminists have ignored their specific problems, whereas feminism has been very visible in Canada : feminism is mentioned everyday in the media in Quebec. I have been interviewed with three other female authors for having written the four feminist essays of the year. I am happy about that but I had not perceived my book as specifically feminist, just talking about indigenous women.
Feminism is very powerful in Canada but these feminists have ignored for years the suffering of indigenous women. Today, things are changing in a big way, the Fédération des femmes du Quebec (FFQ) is headed by Alexa Conradi and she belongs to the Third Wave that is concerned with the question of intersectionnality. It’s been a game changer : I have seen Alexa and Viviane Michel, the leader of aboriginal women, holding hands in demonstrations–it’s a political decision and they are really close. And indigenous feminism can’t be summed up by : « it was better before ». Today, it goes much further than that but I don’t know enough about it to say more.
S : In your book, you show the very difficult situation of aboriginal women : 70% are victims of sexual abuse (Etude sur l’abus sexuel dans les Premières nations du Québec, 2005), the proportion of aboriginal underage prostitutes is 90%, the lifespan for these women is 5 to 10 years shorter, they are three times more likely to be the target of domestic volence, twice more often single parent. You say that these young women cumulate all sort of violence : domestic violence, sexual violence, racial violence, street violence. But the consevative government has refused the creation of an investigative committee and a plan of action at the national level against the violences on indigenous women. Has this situation evolved since the publication of your book ?
EW : To my great surprise, this book stirred up lots of reactions in Quebec, it got major media coverage, because this topic was very rarely discussed.
S : Were you the first one to deal with it ?
EW : There were a lot of articles lately, but I am the first person to have written a general book on the question ; there were books about serial killers of aboriginal women in Vancouver and Saskatoon, but it was fiction. And people in Quebec were even less informed than elsewhere…
S : You say that people in Quebec think it happens very far, on the other coast…
EW : There are less aboriginals here and more interbreeding, so it’s possible that there are more aboriginal people who don’t consider themselves as such and less who are declared. And aboriginal communities are further from urban centers, whereas in the Prairies for instance, these populations live downtown where they panhandle. In Quebec, they are particularly invisible—so my book has been seen as a revelation.
But in the West, there was a general awakening of the media—not as a result of my book, because it had not been translated in English yet. It was so strong that the channel CBC has decided to start a long term investigation of these facts and it’s going to be permanent. They have created « CBC Aboriginal » which is animated mostly by aboriginal journalists, with a site etc. They have investigated these disappearances, they went to see the 110 families of the victims, they asked them what happened etc. , which brought up lots of stories. And by revealing these stories, they helped police investigations, new facts were discovered in investigations that had been abandoned by the police. There are two good news for the future : there is a new media awareness and political awareness—and now it’s become a political stake : during the federal elections, this topic is debated. The less positive side is that deep down nothing changes. The police does its job a little better, they pay more attention to aboriginal families and there might be a decrease in the disappearance figures. One must admit that Canadian society, when it becomes aware of a problem, is able to react–in France, it’s slow. But it’s still very hard.
S : Anyway, change will take time. Thanks for this interview.