Tuesday, November 18, 2014
NWAC President Michele Audette speaks during a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on February 13, 2014, calling on the federal government to act on violence against Indigenous women. PHOTO: CP/Sean Kilpatrick
By Angela Sterritt
It’s a heart-wrenching story now etched in the minds of Canadians: more than 1,100 Indigenous women have gone missing or been murdered across the country since the 1980s. But just as tragic as the reality of hundreds of lives lost is what seemed to be decades of public indifference. Only recently has that pervasive apathy finally shifted to a public outcry—thanks to the tremendous work done by the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC)
In 2003, NWAC president Terri Brown, of the Tahltan Nation in British Columbia, broke the silence, speaking out about the disturbing estimate of more than 500 Aboriginal women gone missing over the past two decades. She underscored the limited investigation into most cases and called for action to support Aboriginal women in the struggle for their human rights to life and safety.
“I was the interim president when Terri Brown was elected in 2000-2001,” says current NWAC president Michèle Audette. “She was the one who had the courage to bring the issue to the board, who made it a national issue.” At the time, Audette says, it was important to take the lead from families and supporters to draw attention to the alarming rates of missing and murdered women
along a section of Highway 16 between Prince George and Prince Rupert, B.C., now dubbed the “Highway of Tears.”
Gladys Radek’s niece Tamara Chipman disappeared along that stretch of highway in 2005; she was last seen hitchhiking from Prince Rupert. Since then, Radek has organized five walks across the country to raise awareness for missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada.
“All our communities are in mourning—all of us—because not one community is untouched by this level of violence happening to our women,” Radek says. “It’s because of NWAC’s persistence, because of their travelling to all the communities to meet with family members, that [the public] is now listening to the families.”
In 2004, NWAC launched the monumental Sisters In Spirit (SIS) campaign, calling for solutions to the violence against Aboriginal women in Canada. It asked the federal government for $10 million in funding. A year later, the government announced it would provide $5 million.
NWAC’s groundbreaking research initially showed that almost 600 Aboriginal women were murdered or had gone missing in Canada since roughly 1980. Such information was previously scattered and highly deficient. As recently as the fall of 2013, the RCMP’s number was significantly lower.
According to the RCMP’s 2014 report on missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW), in September 2013 the RCMP reported to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women that it had only 36 ongoing investigations where foul play was suspected and 327 Aboriginal female homicides in its jurisdiction. The 2014 RCMP report acknowledged and paid tribute to NWAC’s research for the more accurate numbers—1,181 MMIW, with 164 missing and 1,017 victims of homicide.
While the data collected by NWAC was paramount, especially for a country that seemed reluctant to see the magnitude of the problem, the organization also pushed to ensure that the issue would be seen in the larger context of a social and political phenomenon.
“The overrepresentation of Aboriginal women in Canada as victims of violence must be understood in the context of a colonial strategy that sought to dehumanize Aboriginal women,” NWAC stated in the 2010 Research Findings from SIS.
The organization helped open and shape a public dialogue about the intergenerational, historical and current political context of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada. Through conversations with government, Indigenous communities, the RCMP and the public, NWAC members have revealed that the severity of the issue is linked to persistent poverty, racism, lack of housing and, most of all, the egregious rate (up to 70 per cent in some provinces) of apprehension of Aboriginal children by child protection agencies.
In 2010, Rona Ambrose, then the federal minister for status of women, announced that funding for the SIS database would be redirected, with the bulk of it going to a national police support centre for missing persons.
NWAC quickly expressed its concern, but it continued to support the families of missing and murdered women, holding annual family meetings, sharing stories, convening community workshops and developing tools and resources through a new project called Evidence To Action (ETA).
The project continued where SIS left off, operating programs to address the root causes of violence against Indigenous women and girls. ETA ran from 2011 to 2014 and was funded by a $1.8-million contribution agreement with Status of Women Canada, the federal government agency promoting women’s equality. About 58,600 people were involved in the project through SIS vigils, community engagement workshops, family gatherings and other activities.
Today NWAC is working on a new initiative, Project PEACE, to continue the work of ETA and SIS and expand their mandates to engage and provide programming for Aboriginal men and boys.
Audette says it is extremely positive to finally see the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women garner national attention. “It was not just the small group at the office who were able to push this to a national platform; it was a huge wave of people—volunteers, supporters and families, who had the courage to plant the first seeds and ultimately get the media calling us about Sisters In Spirit. When you add it all up, [this Vox Libera] Award will be shared for everyone who walks with us on the tragic issue.”
CJFE’s Vox Libera Award honours Canadians committed to advancing the principles of free expression and access to information. Without the tremendous and tireless efforts of NWAC, Canadians would still be largely in the dark about the dire situation surrounding missing and murdered Indigenous women. CJFE thanks NWAC and all the families, supporters and communities it is a part of for bringing this incredibly important issue forward, and for engaging and empowering Canadians to create change.
Angela Sterritt (@AngelaSterritt) is an award-winning broadcast journalist who recently became Massey College’s first Aboriginal William Southam Journalism Fellow. She’s been a journalist for over 15 years. Since 2003, she has worked at the CBC as a TV, radio and online producer, reporter, host and online writer.