For many Indigenous people, the vicious slaying of Tina Fontaine was just one more tragedy among the close to 1200 women documented as murdered or missing in Canada.
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Angela Sterritt is an award-winning journalist, artist, and filmmaker from the Gitxsan Nation. She's been a working journalist for over 15 years and is currently a CBC reporter in television, radio and online. She was recently awarded a prestigious William Southam Journalism Fellowship—the first Indigenous person of Canada to receive the award since its inception in 1962.
Stepping onto the sandy shores of the Red River, a Winnipeg man and his son noticed a bundle floating on the sun-tinged water. It was later found to be the lifeless body of a petite 15-year-old Anishnaabe girl, wrapped in a bag.
The news of Tina Fontaine’s murder in the summer of 2014 flooded the headlines as thousands of shocked Canadians took to the streets to demand action. At a press conference, a Winnipeg police sergeant said, “Society should be horrified by the violent death of a child.” Members of Parliament stood up in the House of Commons stressing the need to have a national conversation about violence against Indigenous women. There was no question: justice was needed for a girl who had perished before her life even seemed to begin.
But for many Indigenous people, as troubling as the vicious slaying was, the news was all too familiar. It was just one more tragedy among close to 1200 Indigenous women documented as murdered or missing in Canada—a disturbing pattern spanning decades.
Helen Betty Osborne is one of those tragic stories, one of the most high profile cases in Canada and one of only a handful of murdered or missing Indigenous women that many Canadians know by name.
Betty, as friends and family called her, was walking home from a dance in The Pas, Manitoba, on the night of November 13th, 1971, when she was approached by four young white men who asked her to “party.” When she refused one of the men jumped out of the car and forced her into the back seat between two men who sexually and physically assaulted her. They drove her out of town to an isolated area where they brutally beat her and stabbed her over fifty times with a screwdriver, finally leaving her for death.
In search for answers as to why such violence happens, advocates look at the vulnerability of Indigenous women, pointing to age and social and economic marginalization. Sometimes stories illustrate experiences of poverty, abuse, and addictions. However, too often, a girl or a woman’s vulnerability is simply insofar as she is Indigenous.
"Too often, a girl or a woman’s vulnerability is simply insofar as she is Indigenous."
For 19-year-old Osborne, the injustice of her brutal murder didn’t stop the night she died. Her murderers were not brought to justice for 16 years, while rumours tore through the community like wildfire, the killers even bragging about the assault and killing. During the trial, both journalists and the Crown spoke to townspeople who claimed the circumstances of Osborne’s death had been no secret.
The 1988 Aboriginal Justice Inquiry into the murder of Helen Betty Osborne suggested that “because Osborne was an Aboriginal person, the townspeople considered the murder unimportant. Allegations of racism, neglect, and indifference, on the part of the citizens of the town, the police and of the Attorney General’s department, were made.”
Navigating this dark sea of tragedy for many Indigenous people has been a lonely road and an uphill battle—one marked by several decades of public apathy. The 2014 RCMP report into Missing and Murdered Indigenous women sparked a public outcry, but families of missing and murdered women have been voicing these concerns for over 50 years.
"The 2014 RCMP report into Missing and Murdered Indigenous women sparked a public outcry, but families of missing and murdered women have been voicing these concerns for over 50 years."
Helen Betty Osborne’s story is not just about the murder of an Indigenous woman surrounded by a code of silence. It is about a national culture in Canada that is marred with racism—including regular segregation, harassment, assault, and yes, murder. This racism is rooted in Canadian relations with Indigenous people that began in the early nation-building years.
The history of violence against Indigenous women can be traced to colonization, systemic racism, denial of culture, language and traditions, and laws designed to destroy identity, dislocate, and fragment families. Canadian history books and shared experiences reveal that part of the colonial project was to dehumanize Indigenous women to justify any concurrent violations and abuses—to ultimately gain access to and power over Indigenous land.
Residential school, legislation in the Indian Act, and partnerships created between the federal government and the Indian brotherhood laid the early foundations of denigrating Indigenous women. In order to access land and power in Indigenous country, the forefathers of Canada needed to eliminate those responsible to it. For most that meant the backbones of Indigenous communities—the women. This rationale of removal is documented in Canadian academic and news archives.
This history has shaped our current reality, a legacy of gendered racism reinforcing the long silence surrounding the violence experienced by First Nations, Inuit, and Métis women. It is important for people to recognize the intricate history that lies behind these women’s stories and those of their families, and to understand how this history continues to play out and shape our behaviors in Canada still.
It would be unfair to say that nothing has changed since the 1970s. Awareness has grown of violence against Indigenous women, Indigenous populations are rising and some of our people are now in powerful roles in Canada—university professors, journalists, lawyers, doctors, and government workers—creating dialogue and impact on many fronts. Non-Indigenous people more and more have a thirst to learn not just about the stories of colonial devastation, but to listen to Indigenous narratives that illustrate equality, empowerment, truth, and justice.
"It would be disingenuous to say that violence against Indigenous women has changed to a degree that things are getting better."
But it would be disingenuous to say that violence against Indigenous women has changed to a degree that things are getting better. Tina Fontaine’s aunt recently received hate mail explicating their family members “... are nothing but a bunch of drunken Indians." Online comments on news stories show that some people think the situation of missing and murdered Indigenous women is a result of girls and women thrusting themselves into unsafe situations. The numbers of those missing and murdered have not slowed down, and there has been no uptick in charges against those responsible for violence against Indigenous women.
The rampant violence against Indigenous women in this country has spurred a Missing Women’s Commission of Inquiry; a report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), affiliated with the Organization of American States: a United Nations Special Rapporteur envoy and report; an Amnesty International investigation; an Aboriginal Justice Inquiry; countless international and national economic, social and Indigenous forums; and now a national federal roundtable with public debates surrounding the need for a national inquiry.
But has all this made a difference? This issue has only recently reached national headlines, with the public becoming aware of the problem and beginning to seek answers as to what has gone so wrong. Though surely one would think that, as families, advocates, and journalists have been pushing the relevance of this story for decades, some answers would come to light long ago. So what has changed about the conversation now?
Perhaps it has to do with timing, human growth and development, and an ability to finally see how history unfolds and overflows into the present when it is not recognized as existing at all. As my mother once said, “When history is swept under the carpet, it does not go away, it simply grows and transforms into something bigger and often worse.”
Conceivably Canada as a nation has reached the maturity level to finally tackle the hard and demanding issues, the problems that have no one single simple conclusion or solution.
And maybe, if I push myself to hope beyond, it has to do with our country building awareness based on compassion and love, and an altruistic desire to create a better nation of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people working together towards common goals of safety, mutual understanding and equality.
Regardless, I ask you, the reader, to honor the lives of these women— not just Tina, or Betty, but the 1200-plus daughters, nieces, mothers, grandmothers, sisters, granddaughters and friends, many of whom are named below—by asking yourself why their lives were taken prematurely and why these people's lives and their memories have not been respected in the way they ought to have been. Most important, I ask you to think of how you can be a part of changing this horrific legacy of violence.
"I ask you to think of how you can be a part of changing this horrific legacy of violence."
The following lists the names of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada as of March 1, 2015. It was compiled by Maryanne Pearce, a federal public servant who created a database on missing and murdered women as part of her LL.D. thesis for the University of Ottawa's law school, and appears here with her permission. Pearce's list was developed by cross-referencing newspaper articles, police websites and reports, court documents and other public sources. Her 2013 dissertation is called "An Awkward Silence: Missing and Murdered Vulnerable Women and the Canadian Justice System." Pearce's work was recognized in the 2014 RCMP’s report on missing and murdered Indigenous women.
The remaining names (roughly 200) that make up the RCMP’s number 1187 missing and murdered Indigenous women are difficult to locate without police Canadian Police Information Center (CPIC) information.
Pearce’s list includes only cases of missing or murdered Indigenous women that police are investigating as suspicious. Cases deemed non-foul play have been removed.
About: In an impressive and powerful first book, Janice Acoose deconstructs stereotypical images of Indigenous women in popular literature. Exposing "literature" as an institution of a Euro-Canadian nation shaped by white, Christian patriarchy, Acoose calls attention to its projections of Indigenous women as Indian princesses, easy squaws, suffering helpless victims and tawny temptresses. With clarity and depth, Acoose traces the bars of literature imprisoning Indigenous women in images born of racism and sexism. From Margaret Laurence to William Patrick Kinsella, she interrogates the words that hurt, challenging liberalism, upending complacency and leaving the prison doors gaping. Iskwewak: Neither Indian Princesses nor Easy Squaws is a strong addition to literary and cultural criticism and an important resource for teachers and students alike.
About: In the present report, the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples examines the human rights situation of indigenous peoples in Canada on the basis of research and information gathered from various sources, including during a visit to Canada from 7 to 15 October 2013. The visit was a follow-up to the 2004 visit to and report on Canada by the previous Special Rapporteur. During his visit, the Special Rapporteur met with government officials at the federal level, and at the provincial level in six provinces.
About: Responding to the profound tragedy inherent in these statistics, more than 300 women and men gathered in August 2008 at a conference entitled Missing Women: Decolonization, Third Wave Feminisms, and Indigenous People of Canada and Mexico. Here, personal stories and theoretical tools were brought together, as academics, activists, family members of missing and murdered women, police, media, policy-makers, justice workers, and members of faith communities offered their perspectives on the issue of racialized, sexualized violence.
Torn from Our Midst includes images and voices from the conference, together with additional reflections, both academic and personal, on the effects of violence and the possibilities for healing. The purpose of this volume is to raise awareness about missing and murdered women and to challenge communities to be courageous enough to look at the heart of this issue, to recognize the systems that allow such atrocities, and to seek justice and healing for all.
About: Consisting of a series of stories, events, and episodes, the book highlights shifting patterns, attitudes, and perspectives toward women in the Prairies. One of Carter's overarching themes is that women are seldom in a position to invent or project their own images, identities, or ideas of themselves, nor are they free to fully author their own texts. Focusing on captivity narratives, a popular genre in the United States that has received little attention in Canada, Carter looks at depictions of white women as victims of Aboriginal aggressors and explores the veracity of a number of accounts, including those of Fanny Kelly and Big Bear captives Theresa Delaney and Theresa Gowanlock, Canada's most famous captives. Carter also examines depictions of Aboriginal women as sinister and dangerous that appeared in the press as well as in government and some missionary publications. These representations of women, and the race and gender hierarchies created by them, endured in the Canadian West long after the last decades of the nineteenth century. Capturing Women fits into a growing body of literature on the question of women, race, and imperialism. Carter adopts a colonial framework, arguing that while the Prairies do not readily conjure up the powerful images of Empire, fundamental features of colonialism are clearly present in the extension of the power of the Canadian state and the maintenance of sharp social, economic, and spatial distinctions between the dominant and subordinate populations. She highlights similarities between images of women on the Prairies and symbols of women in other colonial cultures, such as the memsahib in Britain and the Indian captive in the United States.
Remembering Vancouver’s Disappeared Women: Settler Colonialism and the Difficulty of Inheritance, by Amber Dean (forthcoming from University of Toronto Press)
About: This is the first book-length scholarly examination of the representational practices and cultural productions that bring the story of the disappearances or murders of women from the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood in Vancouver to a wider public. The book examines a diverse array of cultural productions, including police posters, documentary film and photography on the Downtown Eastside, media representations and artists’ renderings of some of the missing women, memorials (both permanent and performance-based), selected media coverage of the Pickton trial, social justice activism, and self-representations by some of the women who have been disappeared (including poetry, journal entries and participation in activist work). The book explores the potential that these various cultural productions hold for provoking a much wider sense of implication in the disappearances or murders of the women in question, and in doing so it provides provocations for reconsidering how and why these events were possible in the first place. (More information here.)
About: As of March 31, 2010, the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) has gathered information about the disappearance or death of more than 580 Aboriginal women and girls across Canada. This finding is the result of quantitative and qualitative research carried out over a period of five years. In 2005, NWAC secured funding for the Sisters In Spirit initiative—a five-year research, education and policy initiative supported by Status of Women Canada—to address the root causes, circumstances and trends of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls. NWAC has collected the evidence to document, in systematic way, issues of violence that women, families, and communities had been pointing to for the last generation.
Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide, by Andrea Smith
About: A recognized Native American scholar and co-founder of INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, the largest grassroots, multiracial feminist organization in the country, Andrea Smith (Cherokee) is an emerging leader in progressive political circles. In Conquest, Smith places Native American women at the center of her analysis of sexual violence, challenging both conventional definitions of the term and conventional responses to the problem.
Beginning with the impact of the abuses inflicted on Native American children at state-sanctioned boarding schools from the 1880s to the 1980s, Smith adroitly expands our conception of violence to include environmental racism, population control and the widespread appropriation of Indian cultural practices by whites and other non-natives. Smith deftly connects these and other examples of historical and contemporary colonialism to the high rates of violence against Native American women—the most likely women in the United States to die of poverty-related illnesses, be victims of rape and suffer partner abuse.
About: Acclaimed Métis filmmaker Christine Welsh presents a compelling documentary that puts a human face on a national tragedy: the murders and disappearances of an estimated 500 Aboriginal women in Canada over the past 30 years. This is a journey into the dark heart of Native women's experience in Canada. From Vancouver's Skid Row to the Highway of Tears in northern British Columbia, to Saskatoon, this film honours those who have passed and uncovers reasons for hope. Finding Dawn illustrates the deep historical, social and economic factors that contribute to the epidemic of violence against Native women in this country.
Biography:Angela Sterritt is an award-winning Gitxsan journalist, artist, writer and filmmaker from British Columbia who is a currently a CBC TV reporter. Sterritt has worked as a journalist for close to 15 years and has been with CBC since 2003.
Sterritt was recently awarded a prestigious William Southam Journalism Fellowship at Massey College in Toronto and is the first Aboriginal person to ever received the award since its inception in 1962. She recently completed two video documentaries for Journalists for Human Rights and acts as a consultant for various media clients.
Sterritt and her production team at CBC’s 8th Fire earned a nomination for a Canadian Screen Award for their digital platform with the groundbreaking TV series on Indigenous history and current realities.
She's also won Best Radio of the year at the ImagineNative Film Festival and two CBC Presidents awards for her work as a producer on CBC’s 8th Fire and a reporter at CBC’s Aboriginal Digital Unit.
Sterritt is also a visual artist and took on the dream of her life when she animated and exhibited five of her original paintings on over 300 LCD screens on the Toronto Transit system, 33 English malls, and the Calgary Airport. The theme was the 1200+ missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada.
She is now working on a non-fiction book and just closed an art show in Saskatchewan. She is also illustrating a number of books.