Debates of the Senate  
1st Session, 41st Parliament, Volume 148, Issue 125
  Tuesday, December 4, 2012
 
Inquiry: Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women

.Hon. Lillian Eva Dyck: Honourable senators, I would first like to thank my honourable colleague and friend Senator Sandra Lovelace Nicholas, who initiated this inquiry in the Senate. She dutifully used the honours and privileges of this chamber to act on this important issue, while the government continues to turn a deaf ear to the cries for a national inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada.

I would like to congratulate the honourable senator on her continued efforts to bring this issue to the attention of other senators, the government and the general public.

We share the same passion and urgency on this issue. In fact, in 2007, or thereabouts, with the support of my friend Senator Lovelace Nicholas, I wrote a proposal on missing and murdered Aboriginal women, which we submitted to the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples. Unfortunately, the committee as a whole was not in favour of undertaking a study of missing and murdered Aboriginal women at the time.

Over the past three years, both Senator Lovelace Nicholas and I have actively asked this government for an action, a national inquiry, into this issue. Over that time, through Senators' Statements, questions in Question Period and speeches in the chamber, I have consistently raised this issue on over 10 different occasions, often through lengthy Question Period exchanges with the Leader of the Government in the Senate.

I have attended conferences on the issue of missing and murdered Aboriginal women, attended and/or spoken at several Sisters in Spirit vigils in Saskatoon and Ottawa. In 2005, I was one of the founding members of the Iskwewuk E-Wichiwitochik, which is Cree for "women walking together." This is a grassroots group with people from many walks of life and a variety of community organizations whose primary aim is to support the families of missing and murdered Aboriginal women by bringing attention and memory to the issue.

I asked two of the key grassroots members what their main concern was. Both of them told me that there was still not enough attention given to the family members of missing and murdered Aboriginal women; that family members should have more input into developing the strategy for a national inquiry; and that there should be more opportunities for all families to tell their unique stories through speaking, writing or videotaping.

Honourable senators, I have also used my voice to speak about the need for a public inquiry outside of the Senate at Sisters in Spirit gatherings and other events.

Missing and murdered Aboriginal women is an issue that I and the Liberal official opposition in the Senate have consistently pushed this government on.

I have given many speeches and was even asked to write a summary of my reflections and insight after attending a Missing Indigenous Women conference held in August 2008 at Luther College in Regina. I would have liked to read my chapter into the record, but with such short notice, I have not had time to get permission from the publisher of the book, Torn From Our Midst: Voices of Grief, Healing and Action from the Missing Indigenous Women Conference, 2008. I also provided personal sponsorship to offset expenses for members of the families of missing women to attend this conference.

These days, I no longer need a prepared text to give a speech at the Sisters in Spirit vigils. I speak from what I have learned in the last seven and a half years. More important, I speak from the heart, as my elders have taught me. I will, however, read into the record a prepared speech that I gave at a Sisters in Spirit vigil in 2008 in Saskatoon. Here it goes:

Good morning to you all, and thank you for being with us here today. I thank Elder Corrine Eyahpaise and Maria Linklater. Because of their prayers, drumming and singing, we will have a successful event. My goal today is to give you some background information about this vigil and the startling statistics concerning missing Aboriginal women.

The Sisters in Spirit vigils have been held annually across Canada since 2006 to remember and honour the Aboriginal women who have gone missing or who have been murdered. This year—

Remember, honourable senators, this was in 2008.

— 37 communities across Canada are holding vigils. The Native Women's Association of Canada chose to use the full moon, depicted in West Coast style, as a symbol for these vigils. Grandmother Moon represents the sacredness and power of women. The artist chose blue for the moon, and to me that represents water. Water is one of the four elements, and our bodies are comprised mostly of water. The moon's gravitational pull on water creates the tides, and the moon pulls on the water in our bodies as well. When women are menstruating, we are said to be on our Moon-time. It is a time of great spiritual power and sacredness, not at all a time of shame or dirtiness, as taught in mainstream culture.

Through their research work, NWAC has confirmed that more than 500 Aboriginal women have gone missing or have been murdered across Canada in the last 30 years. About half of these Aboriginal women were under the age of 25. One third are still listed as missing, and two thirds have been murdered. In other words, about 170 Aboriginal women are missing and about 340 have been murdered. Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and B.C. have the highest numbers of missing or murdered Aboriginal women.

According to the Saskatchewan Association of Chiefs of Police website, there are 28 missing women in Saskatchewan, and 16, or nearly 60 per cent, of these are Aboriginal women. Yet only about 14 per cent of the provincial population currently is Aboriginal. These numbers clearly demonstrate that being Aboriginal puts a woman at a much greater risk of being abducted and "made" missing.

In 2004, Amnesty International released the Stolen Sisters report, which showed that Indigenous women in Canada face gender- and race-based discrimination, and that this is further compounded by discrimination due to poverty, ill health or involvement in the sex trade. The Stolen Sisters report stated that Aboriginal women (aged 25 to 44) are five times more likely to die of violence.

In 2005, the Native Women's Association of Canada launched the Sisters in Spirit initiative, the main objective of which was to address violence directed against Aboriginal women. The Sisters in Spirit initiative is committed to increase public awareness across Canada about the impact of racialized, sexualized violence against Aboriginal women which leads to their disappearance or death.

The statistics which I mentioned earlier clearly show that Aboriginal women are much more at risk for being made missing or murdered, but sadly, societal indifference helps perpetuate this. In 1996, Warren Goulding, a journalist, stated:

I don't get the sense the general public cares much about missing or murdered Aboriginal women. It's all part of this indifference to the lives of Aboriginal people. They don't seem to matter as much as white people.

Indifference by mainstream society may be part of the problem, but in my opinion there is a deeper and more disturbing problem. The problem is that there are some men who act out their disdain and disgust towards Aboriginal women. These men by virtue of their maleness and perceived superiority feel entitled to violate and murder Aboriginal women.

Three years ago, Iskwewuk E-Wichiwitochik, a community group, arose from concerns that Aboriginal women in Saskatchewan were continuing to be disappeared and were still being murdered at a greater rate than other women. Individuals and people from different organizations in Saskatoon joined together to bring awareness to this issue and to provide local support to the families of missing Aboriginal women. Iskwewuk E-Wichiwitochik is a co-organizer of today's event.

Unfortunately, it is a shameful fact that the abduction and murder of Aboriginal or Indigenous women is a global phenomenon. In Mexico, for example, since the early 1990s, thousands of women have disappeared and hundreds have been killed in the city of Juarez. In both Mexican and Canadian society, our colonial legacy has persisted and resulted in a society where systemic sexualized and racialized violence is the norm.

In August, I attended The Missing Indigenous Women Conference at the University of Regina. The mothers of missing Indigenous women from Mexico told us about their struggles and they shared with us the ways in which they remembered and honoured women who had been disappeared or murdered. A black cross on a pink background was used to represent the spirits of the missing and murdered Indigenous Mexican women.

At the conference in Regina, pink cloth banners painted with a black cross were tied around the trees between Luther College and the Conexus Arts Centre, and these pink banners guided us on a protest walk, just as we were guided by the pink banners on our walk this morning. These banners reminded me of the prayer cloths that we tie around trees, and I took some of them from the Regina conference to a sweat lodge to be smudged and blessed, and will present them to our speakers to help them find the wisdom, the strength and the courage to take the necessary steps to put a stop to violence against all women.

The spirits of our missing sisters, as represented by Grandmother Moon and the pink banners, give us the guidance and the strength to work to end the violence directed against women, and Aboriginal women in particular.

That is the end of my 2008 speech.

Honourable senators, I may not have the written a song about missing and murdered Aboriginal women, but I have sung the "Strong Woman" song many times at various marches to protest the violence directed against Aboriginal women. As recently as October 4 of this year, I sang this song along with other Aboriginal women at the Sisters in Spirit vigil in Saskatoon. It is a song that honours the strength and resilience of Aboriginal women and is said to have originated in the prison for women in Kingston by Aboriginal women who sang to the Grandmother Spirits to keep them safe during a prison riot. They were not harmed. If we had a drum here and other singers, we could sing the "Strong Woman" song for you.

Honourable senators, in 2005 the Native Women's Association of Canada initiated the Sisters in Spirit project and the Grandmother Moon logo. In the first phase of this project, Sisters in Spirit conducted research and gathered statistical information on violence against Aboriginal women through over 200 variables and indicators. This sophisticated database led to the breakthrough of the first glimpse of the problem — over 582 missing and murdered Aboriginal women throughout Canada. This information was collected over five years, with initial funding from the then-Liberal government at $5 million over that five-year term.

Honourable senators, I cannot stress enough the importance of this groundbreaking research by Sisters in Spirit and the Native Women's Association of Canada. For the first time, we were able to statistically collect, track and investigate cases of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls. With this research, the first cracks of light were coming to the darkest corners of our Aboriginal communities. This research then allowed the Sisters in Spirit team to investigate the root causes of violence against Aboriginal women and provide unique expertise in the development of tools to help stem the violence. This research was the reason that so many Canadians called for a national inquiry.

Sadly, this government in 2010 eliminated the funding for the Sisters in Spirit initiative. Instead of rewarding this outstanding group of researchers and front-line workers to continue to expand their database, this government made sure that none of the $10 million that was promised in Budget 2010 to address this disturbingly high number of missing and murdered Aboriginal women went to Sisters in Spirit. Additionally, this government imposed measures on the NWAC-Sisters in Spirit initiative if they sought additional funding in a new agreement. These conditions were, first, Sisters in Spirit must promise to quit working on the internationally acclaimed database; second, they had to stop using government funds for research and policy; and third, if they were to use federal funding they had to change the name to Evidence and Action and discard the Grandmother Moon logo associated with Sisters in Spirit.

When asked why these changes were necessary for any new proposal for funding, the then Parliamentary Secretary for Indian Affairs, Shelly Glover, said, "That project was finished. Now we are working with them to pursue other projects."

Honourable senators, never did NWAC or Sisters in Spirit insist that their research and database project was complete. It really was just the starting point.

The Hon. the Speaker pro tempore: I regret to inform the honourable senator that her 15-minute speaking time has expired. Are you prepared to ask the chamber for more time?

Senator Dyck: Could I have a few more minutes, please?

The Hon. the Speaker pro tempore: Is leave granted, honourable senators?

Hon. Senators: Agreed.

Senator Dyck: Sisters in Spirit and its logo, a West Coast pictogram of Grandmother Moon — and I have one pinned to my bag — the symbol of life and healing for Aboriginal women, honoured the lives and stories of these lost women. The decision of the federal government to ask NWAC not to use the Sisters in Spirit name and logo was such a bad decision. It was disrespectful of the cultural importance of Grandmother Moon to all Aboriginal women. Despite the federal ban, though, Aboriginal women and men still rally around the Sisters in Spirit vigils and the Grandmother Moon logo.

Initially, there was hope that the new $10-million investment by the federal government meant that they were taking the issue of missing and murdered Aboriginal women seriously. There was hope that that would be the start of an investment into a national inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls. Unfortunately, we would yet again be disappointed by the lack of leadership of this government. Instead of $10 million for Sisters in Spirit, instead of $10 million for a national inquiry, the funding went to a new missing persons unit for the RCMP. This unit will not be running until early next year and will not have a dedicated section for Aboriginal women.

Honourable senators, three years will have passed since this government made a terrible funding cut. Three years will have passed before this missing persons unit will even be up and running. Additionally, there is no certainty that missing and murdered Aboriginal women will even be a focus of this new unit: wrong decision after wrong decision, more and more disappointments.

We are left with the present situation. The Native Women's Association of Canada continues to try to add to their database through other means of funding. Their list now reaches over 600 missing or murdered Aboriginal women. We still do not have any other credible alternative avenue where this research could be done or a similar up-to-date database. We have now lost three years: three years without a sufficient mechanism to track new cases of missing and murdered Aboriginal women, to update old files, to help families move on by providing them with closure and adequate support.

I hope the government will take heed of this inquiry here in the Senate. I encourage senators from both sides to engage in this inquiry and to take it back to their provinces and communities. Hear the stories of these Aboriginal women and their families, and perhaps then the wheels of justice will finally gain the momentum required to push this government to initiate a national inquiry. I am encouraged that the Honourable Senator Brazeau has recently come onside with the need for a national inquiry. I hope he can convince his Conservative colleagues to also come onside and make a national inquiry a reality.

As I noted recently in Question Period, though three federal ministers were invited to attend the National Aboriginal Women's Summit in Winnipeg just a few weeks ago, none showed up. This was disappointing, to say the least. It is time for Ministers Ambrose, Duncan and Nicholson to step up and show Canadians that they are concerned, that they really do care about this issue, by taking action and initiating a national inquiry and a national action plan. It is time to take this action requested by both the Native Women's Association of Canada and the Assembly of First Nations.

Amnesty International has just launched a "Write for Rights Canada: No More Stolen Sisters" initiative to put pressure on the Prime Minister to collaborate with indigenous women's organizations to develop and adopt a comprehensive coordinated national action plan to stop violence against women, including addressing both the social and the economic inequalities that lead to increased risk for indigenous women. It is time for action.

Honourable senators, let me conclude with a Cherokee saying: A nation is not defeated until the hearts of its women are on the ground; then it is defeated no matter how strong its weapons or how brave its warriors.

I will repeat that: A nation is not defeated until the hearts of its women are on the ground; then it is defeated no matter how strong its weapons or how brave its warriors.

How many more of our women's hearts have to hit the ground before this federal government takes action?