Canada and Australia share a dark secret: in recent decades thousands of Indigenous women have been murdered or gone missing. What can Australia learn from Canada’s attempts to address the problem?
Across Canada, a staggering number of Indigenous women are targets and victims of violence.
For families of the victims, their lives are consumed by the struggle for justice or the feeling of hopelessness that comes with years of searching for a missing person.
This week on Dateline, reporter Laura Murphy-Oates explores an issue Canada is finally attempting to address, and sees firsthand the devastation violence has wrought on families and whole communities.
One of the more high profile cases of violence against an Indigenous woman in Canada was the murder of Tina Fontaine – who was 15 at the time of her disappearance and eventual murder.
Tina’s death brought attention to an issue that for years was largely absent from the public conscience. “My girl was going to be something,” her great aunt and primary caretaker Thelma Favel, tells Dateline. “She was going to make something of herself, of her life, but she did it in death.”
While it attracted nationwide attention and condemnation, the death of Tina Fontaine is one case in a wave of targetted violence.
Thousands of Canada’s Indigenous women have been murdered or gone missing in the past decade, at a disproportionately higher rate than other women in the country. A study from 2014 shows nearly 1,200 Indigenous women were murdered or went missing between 1980 and 2012, based on police reports – although advocacy groups believe the figure to be closer to 4,000. Aboriginal women in Canada report rates of violence 3.5 higher than non-Aboriginal women, and young Aboriginal women are five times more likely than other Canadian women to die as a result of violence.
In 2015, recognising the scale of the crisis, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government announced a National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, a $50 million project to report on systemic causes behind the violence and recommend actions to protect Indigenous women and girls in the future. The inquiry has brought national awareness to the issue, but many women already believe the inquiry has failed them.
These issues are entrenched in Canadian society, culture and law enforcement. The families of victims and advocacy groups claim that for years, violence towards Indigenous women has been ignored by authorities.
“It all goes back to this colonial narrative of Indigenous women being less than, and unworthy and disposable,” says Nahanni Fontaine, a First Nations politician who has worked on this issue for years.
“I firmly believe that the belief that there was such inaction, in respect of files for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, [meant] that people thought that they could just kill with impunity.”
Some communities have reacted to police inaction by taking matters into their own hands. In Winnipeg, where Tina Fontaine and a number of other missing or murdered women are from, a volunteer group called the Bear Clan goes on regular patrols, looking for missing women and girls.
“When Tina Fontaine’s body was found, that was when I had enough,” says James Favel, the founder of the Bear Clan. “My wife, my family, my community, they all wanted more – so we were thinking about more boots on the ground, a direct approach.”
Winnipeg is the capital of Manitoba, a province which has one of the highest rates of missing and murdered women in Canada.
Nine years ago, Bernice Catcheway’s daughter Jennifer went missing after last being seen in Grand Rapids, a Manitoba town several hours north of Winnepeg. Each year the family searches for Jennifer. Since her disappearance they’ve covered thousands of kilometres looking for her remains.
“People don’t realise what we go through,” says Wilfred Catcheway, the Jennifer’s father. “People don’t know, people don’t care. They don’t care.”
Wilfred quit his job to work full time on investigating the disappearance of his daughter. He’s convinced the police have given up on the case, despite saying they’re actively working on it.
This feeling is common among the families of victims – many believe the police have not done enough to find their loved ones, and say racism is the reason why.
Police officer Jeanette Theisen denied the claims of the Catcheway family in an interview with Dateline. She the police are still “actively investigating” the case and that “everything that should be done on a missing persons investigation was completed”.