Trigger Warning- This article deals with the themes of murder and sexual violence.
A few weeks ago, I sat down at my laptop to begin research for one of my final papers and typed in: “Missing Aboriginal Women Canada.” One of my professors had mentioned, in passing, an epidemic of missing women across the border, but I knew little else about the topic. Seconds after pressing the “enter” button, I found myself staring at the photo of a beaming young woman with auburn hair, next to the title: “Vigil Held for Murdered Halifax Student Loretta Saunders.” The article had been published that very same day. This issue, which moments before had seemed distant and relegated to the past, was now unfolding in real time. Perhaps most disquieting was this: Saunders, an Inuk woman from Nova Scotia and student at St. Mary’s University, was writing her thesis on missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada.
Many of you may have seen Saunders’ story in various online news outlets in recent weeks. The basics of her story follow: she went missing on February 13, after going to collect rent from her tenants; her body was found on the side of the highway two weeks later; and the young man and woman who were renting her apartment have since been charged with homicide in her death. Saunders had been living with her long-time boyfriend and was also three months pregnant.
Some have speculated that Saunders has received an unusual high volume of attention because of her “white” looks. Many articles on missing aboriginal women stress the frequent lack of attention given to these crimes. However, her story may also be particularly resonant because of its fatal symmetry; Saunders became one of the missing and murdered women she had studied and written about.
Her death is only the most recent in a series of murders over the past few decades that have disproportionately affected aboriginal women. According to an Amnesty International report, “Stolen Sisters,” indigenous women in Canada are five times more likely to die violently than non-indigenous women. Maryanne Pearce’s recent thesis, “An Awkward Silence: Missing and Murdered Vulnerable Women and the Canadian Justice System,” puts the number of murdered aboriginal women at 824 in the past 30 years. Many have gone missing near the “Highway of Tears,” a stretch of Highway 16 in British Columbia, where between 18-43 aboriginal women are estimated to have been killed or gone missing. In the case of Robert Pickton, one of the most notorious serial killers in Canadian history (who was convicted in 2007 for the murders of six women and charged with the deaths of twenty more), forensics found most of his victims were aboriginal. In a report issued on the women in the case, inquiry commissioner Wally Opal blasted the Vancouver Police Department for their critical failures in handling the cases of these missing women, and specifically included the recommendation that future “measures be taken to protect aboriginal and rural women.” It is notable that of the 500 murders recorded in the NWAC’S Sisters in Spirit database, only 53% had been solved, compared to 84% of all murder cases across the country. While statistics can always mask more complex realities, the numbers represented here clearly point to gaps and weaknesses in the response of law enforcement officials in addressing these crimes.
These are not the only institutional dynamics that fail to protect aboriginal women. A little over a week after Saunders’ body was found, Canada’s federal Conservatives rejected appeals for an inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women. Justice Minister Peter MacKay stated: “I do not want to stop the action and the forward-looking policies of this government to stop and have any inquiry.” Although they have renewed funding to improve the criminal justice system, the politicians have failed to respond to the calls of the indigenous communities of Canada, which have insisted on the need for meaningful research and report on this issue.
Although numerous statistics report that aboriginal women are disproportionately affected by violence, insufficient institutional efforts have been made to understand, address or prevent these crimes. The stories of these missing women are not individualized, disconnected crimes. They point to a structural violence and institutional failures that reinstate colonial dynamics of subjugation, poverty and theft of land, fracturing and damaging many lives.
Various media responses have also frequently failed to do justice to the complex historical, social and institutional factors at play in these crimes, if not outright ignoring them. As Saunders’ thesis advisor, Darryl Leroux, pointed out in a recent article on the Huffington Post, many commentators have pointed to Saunders’ fair features as they energetically denied that her ethnicity had anything to do with her murder. Leroux responds to these assertions by attributing them to a “decontextualized understanding of crime, a narrowly racist understanding of identity.” Aboriginal women in Canada are rendered vulnerable by the colonial history of their nation and a current system that disenfranchises them on the basis of their aboriginal status. The heated reactions from many that seek to dispute this manifest the way in which history rears its head in ways we maybe sometimes don’t see, and maybe sometimes don’t want to see.
Loretta Saunders, like me, was twenty-six. For the past few weeks, she’s occupied my thoughts. I think of the scholar Robert Jay Lifton, whom I recently heard at a lecture, when he said: “We humans are meaning-making creatures” as I continually attempt to create some semblance of understanding about these many deaths. I keep asking myself, what can I offer to Saunders’ memory, and those of the hundreds of other missing women? What can I take forward from her efforts to address the same violence that claimed her? While I cannot speak for Loretta Saunders or the many other missing and murdered aboriginal women, I will try to make more visible the institutional and social failures that played a role in their deaths, that must be improved with and for the aboriginal communities of Canada.
My professor recently explained to me the concept of non-aboriginal people “walking with” aboriginal peoples on their journeys for self-determination, representation and rights. This is how I would like to believe that I could answer my own question; I will carry the knowledge of these women’s experiences, lives, and deaths within me, and keep walking with them.
About the author: Caroline Fidan Tyler Doenmez is a graduate student at Columbia University, earning an MA in Human Rights Studies. Having previously studied English and Spanish at Smith College, as well as teaching literature at the Dublin School, her academic interests include poetry, fiction and non-fiction, women’s rights, indigenous peoples’ rights, and many intersecting issues pertaining to Latin America and the Middle East.