IACHR Issues Report on Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women in Canada

IACHR visit to Canada in 2013.Credit: IACHR
IACHR visit to Canada in 2013.
Credit: IACHR

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has published a new report on missing and murdered indigenous women in British Columbia, Canada. The report, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in British Columbia, Canada, examines the context and efficacy of Canada’s response to the pattern of violence and discrimination against indigenous women. The report also offers recommendations to assist the Canadian government in improving its efforts to protect and guarantee the rights of indigenous women. IACHR, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in British Columbia, Canada, OEA/Ser.L/V/II. Doc 30/14 (2014).

Although indigenous women represent only 4.3 percent of Canada’s total population, the rate of killings and disappearances of women in this group is four times higher than for non-indigenous women. Id. at para. 2. Indeed, over 150 indigenous women were murdered in the years from 2000 to 2008, accounting for an alarming 10 percent of the total number of female homicides in Canada. See Native Women’s Association of Canada, What Their Stories Tell Us: Research Findings from the Sisters in Spirit Initiative (2010), Key Findings.

Upon the publication of the Commission’s report, Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief Cameron Alexis stated:

First Nations will continue to do all we can to address and prevent violence against Indigenous women and girls, but we need direct response and action from all levels of government as well. The police have a major role to play and must be responsible and accountable … This report underscores the need for a national inquiry that would examine root causes, identify and address these long-standing, systemic issues that make our people more vulnerable to violence.

[Assembly of First Nations]

2013 Country Visit to British Columbia

The Inter-American Commission conducted a four-day working visit to Canada in August 2013 to learn more about the disappearances and murders of indigenous women in British Columbia. The delegation – comprising then-Commissioner and Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Dinah Shelton, Commissioner and Rapporteur for the Rights of Women Tracy Robinson, and staff of the Executive Secretariat – visited the cities of Ottowa, Vancouver, and Prince George, meeting with relatives of murdered or disappeared indigenous women and girls, federal government authorities, tribal organizations and leaders, and other civil society organizations.

During the Commission’s visit, Canadian authorities acknowledged that indigenous women are much more likely than their non-indigenous counterparts to be victims of homicide, violence, and domestic violence. IACHR, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in British Columbia, Canada, Executive Summary, para. 5. The authorities also agreed that “a history of discrimination beginning with colonization” was at the root of this problem. [IACHR: Presents Report]

Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in British Columbia

In its report, the Inter-American Commission first examined the characteristics of the murders and disappearances of indigenous women in British Columbia. Noting that a non-profit organization, Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC), had gathered more comprehensive information on the murders and disappearances than the State had, the Commission observed the following information:

  • as many as 824 indigenous women are feared dead or missing across Canada;
  • police recorded 1,181 incidents of homicide of indigenous women and missing indigenous women over the past several decades, of which 225 are unsolved;
  • of the 582 cases of killings and disappearances recorded in NWAC’s database, 160 cases (28 percent) occurred in British Columbia; and
  • only 53 percent of murder cases involving indigenous women have resulted in homicide charges, compared to Canada’s national clearance rate for homicides of 84 percent.

IACHR, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in British Columbia, Canada, paras. 35-43.

The Commission also highlighted three highways in British Columbia along which numerous women, mostly indigenous, have been murdered or gone missing in recent decades. Dubbed “the Highway of Tears,” a 724-kilometer stretch of Highway 16 has been the site of approximately 30 killings or disappearances between 1969 and 2006. Id. at paras. 44-45. In many circumstances, the missing or murdered women were hitchhiking along the highway because there was no public transportation alternative. Id. at para. 45.

For more information on “the Highway of Tears,” visit the Carrier Sekani Family Services’ website.

Violence and Discrimination against Indigenous Women in British Columbia

The Inter-American Commission’s report also outlined the broader pattern of violence and discrimination against indigenous women in Canada. Whereas indigenous women enjoyed high levels of respect prior to colonization, the report described how “[p]atriarchy and male dominance were introduced through missionaries and subsequently made law through the Indian Act. Colonialism turned woman into Squaw … the female counterpart to the Indian male savage.” IACHR, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in British Columbia, Canada, para. 60. The Commission highlighted two policies that have furthered the marginalization of indigenous women: the laws determining Aboriginal status and the residential schools program that separated indigenous children from their families. Id. at para. 61.

First, under the Indian Act, adopted in 1876, indigenous women could be stripped of their “Indian” status if they married a non-Indian, they would lose their formal band affiliation if they married an indigenous man from another band, and some children born to indigenous and non-indigenous parents were not recognized as indigenous. If an indigenous man, however, married a non-indigenous woman, both wife and children were granted Aboriginal status. Reforms to the Indian Act have since been made, but obstacles still exist that prevent indigenous women from recovering their Aboriginal status. Id. at paras. 62-72.

Second, a mandatory residential schools policy for indigenous children entailed placing the children in boarding schools where they were “cut off from their indigenous traditions and cultures.” Id. at para. 73. The policy continued from 1879 to 1996, after which the Canadian government established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate what occurred at the schools and issued an official apology to the former students and their families. Former students still struggle to repair the lost family and community bonds and to recover from the psychological effects of abuse that took place. Id. at paras. 73-76.

Canada’s Obligations

The Inter-American Commission also presented a detailed analysis of Canada’s obligations to protect indigenous peoples and individuals. Under the State’s own national framework, in addition to its international obligations, Canada is obligated to guarantee women’s rights to equality, non-discrimination, and non-violence. Id. at paras. 123-52. Furthermore, Canada is obligated to act with due diligence in response to human rights violations, generally by taking steps to prevent such violations, investigate violations that do occur, punish those responsible, and make reparations to the victims. Id. at para. 153.

The Commission also discussed the connection between lack of due diligence and violence and discrimination. “[A] lack of due diligence … leads to impunity, and engenders further incidents of the very violence that was to be targeted, [and] is itself a form of discrimination in access to justice,” the report states. Id. at para. 183.

Canada’s Response to Violence against Indigenous Women: Progress and Shortfalls

In its analysis of Canada’s response to the situation of murdered and missing indigenous women and girls, the Commission highlighted some of the accomplishments the State has achieved, in addition to some of its failings. For instance, the State has developed a seven-point strategy for addressing the situation, which includes establishing a National Centre for Missing Persons and Unidentified Human Remains, creating a national website aimed at matching missing persons cases to unidentified human remains, and working with indigenous communities to develop community safety plans. Id. at para. 288. The federal government also reported on several initiatives to address structural discrimination and economic disparity and the provincial government indicated that it funds transitional and safe housing for women leaving abusive situations Id. at paras. 277-87. Conversely, the need for a “reliable source of disaggregated data on violence against indigenous women and girls” has worsened due to Canadian police officers’ failure to consistently report and record whether victims of violent crimes are indigenous. Id. at para. 251. Moreover, plans to promote safer transportation options along Highway 16 remain under development. Id. at para. 289.

The Inter-American Commission’s Conclusions and Recommendations

The report concludes that the “disappearances and murders of indigenous women in Canada are part of a broader pattern of violence and discrimination against indigenous women in Canada … Addressing violence against women is not sufficient unless the underlying factors of discrimination that originate and exacerbate the violence are also comprehensively addressed.” Id. at paras. 305-06.

To that end, the Commission recommended that Canada take the following steps:

  • apply a comprehensive, holistic approach to violence against indigenous women and, in particular, address institutional and structural inequalities in Canada;
  • address social and economic marginalization by taking steps to “combat poverty, improve education and employment, guarantee adequate housing and address the disproportionate application of criminal law against indigenous people”;
  • immediately provide a safe public transportation option along Highway 16;
  • ensure that the different levels and sectors of government are better coordinated;
  • tailor initiatives, programs, and policies to the needs and concerns of indigenous women and encourage participation by indigenous women through collaboration with recognized associations of indigenous peoples and indigenous women;
  • create a national-level action plan or inquiry into the issue of murdered and missing indigenous women and girls, in consultation with indigenous peoples and particularly indigenous women;
  • develop a data collection system to gather accurate statistic on murdered and missing women;
  • implement a policy “aimed at ensuring an appropriate response” when missing persons reports are filed;
  • appoint a new Chair of the Advisory Committee on the Safety and Security of Vulnerable Women as soon as possible;
  • require police officers, prosecutors, judges, and court personnel to receive mandatory, ongoing training about the “causes and consequences of gender-based violence in general and violence against indigenous women in particular”; and
  • adhere to the principle of due diligence by ensuring effective access by indigenous people to judicial protection and guarantees, making sure that family members can obtain effective legal aid, and holding State officials accountable through administrative, disciplinary, or criminal measures.

Id. at paras. 304-15.

Responding to the Commission’s recommendations, Canada’s Minister Responsible for the Status of Women Dr. Kellie Leitch stated, “Our Government takes the issue of crimes against Aboriginal women and girls very seriously. Now is the time for action and not for further studies.” [Vancouver Sun]

For more information on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, visit IJRC’s Online Resource Hub.