Sisters in Spirit vigil focuses on plight of indigenous women

Posted September 11, 2014

Written by Beth Lyons

If you’ve spent any time on social media, particularly Twitter and Facebook, in the past week you’ve likely come across the ‘Am I Next?’ campaign. In the campaign, indigenous women tweet and Facebook-post photos of themselves holding a sign asking Am I Next? In some cases, they include the hashtag #MMIW, the social media shorthand for the Canadian crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women. The term ‘indigenous’ denotes First Nations, Inuit and Métis people.

Am I Next? was launched by Holly Jarrett, a cousin of Loretta Saunders, the 26-year-old Inuit woman who was found dead near Moncton in February of this year. Ms. Saunders was murdered, allegedly by two individuals she was subletting a Halifax apartment to and who are now awaiting trial. Just days before she was killed, Ms. Saunders submitted a thesis proposal for her Honours degree in Sociology at Saint Mary’s University. Her topic was missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada.

Indigenous women in Canada are, according to Statistics Canada, almost three times more likely than non-aboriginal women to be subject to violent crime, with the violence often being more severe than that faced by non-aboriginal women. The Native Women’s Association of Canada has documented cases of 668 missing and murdered indigenous women in recent decades; the RCMP recently confirmed the existence of nearly 1,200 unresolved cases of murder or disappearance involving Aboriginal women in Canada.

The Native Women’s Association of Canada also points out that if the rates of murder and disappearance amongst aboriginal women were applied proportionally to the non-aboriginal population of Canada, we would be looking at a country in which 15 per cent of women and girls had been taken from us.

Amnesty International recently released a report calling the violence faced by indigenous women a human rights crisis.

Despite the statistics and horrific accounts of violence like that suffered by Ms. Saunders, the Government of Canada ignores calls for a national inquiry into the rates of missing and murdered indigenous women.

It was, in fact, another rejection of this call from Prime Minister Stephen Harper himself that helped to launch the Am I Next? campaign. In August, in the wake of the murder of another indigenous woman – this time a 15-year-old in Winnipeg – Mr. Harper took a moment during his annual tour of the North to reiterate that there would be no inquiry. Of the rates of violence against indigenous women, Mr. Harper said “We should not view this as a sociological phenomenon.”

In other words: we shouldn’t understand this issue within the context of racism, within the context of patriarchy and misogyny. Perhaps, in fact, we shouldn’t seek to understand it at all. We should just trust existing institutions like the criminal justice system to address this violence on a case-by-case basis.

Because placing the well-being of indigenous peoples in the hands of institutions – such as residential schools – has worked to curb violence against said peoples in the past, right? Of course not: institutions are often perpetrators of violence. On that note, have I mentioned that indigenous women comprise about four per cent of Canada’s total female population – and just over 30 per cent of Canada’s population of federally incarcerated women? The criminal justice system may not be the ideal tool with which to address this crisis of violence.

While part of the aim of Ms. Jarrett’s Am I Next? campaign is to pressure the Government of Canada into calling an inquiry, it’s worth noting that there are Indigenous activists and organizations that do not support the call for a inquiry. Some critique an inquiry as a bureaucratic exercise, while others insist that it cannot be carried out appropriately (i.e. in adherence with principles of decolonization) by the Government of Canada.

What groups on either side of the call for an inquiry do agree on is the fact that there is a pattern to the violence and that it must be understood within the context of Canada’s historical and ongoing colonialism. To do anything else would be to misunderstand the issue and, almost certainly, to generate inappropriate responses and solutions to it.

Individuals who wish to support an inquiry can visit the website of the Native Women’s Association of Canada to sign their petition on the issue. Those who would like to commemorate missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada can contact the Moncton campus of the New Brunswick Community College for information on the Sisters in Spirit vigil that will be held there on Oct. 4.

Beth Lyons, associate director of YWCA Moncton, writes about equality issues and social justice.

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