The colonialism of Indigenous people in Canada has already affected them drastically, as there were attempts to erase their culture and history. The increasing number of Indigenous women going missing in recent years has garnered attention as another attempt to wipe out the Indigenous population. It is no coincidence that women of the Indigenous community are going missing in a country notorious for its history of hurting this population. Efforts must be taken to review why this particular population is constantly being targeted, even after centuries of destruction.
Colonialism: The Damage Done to Indigenous Women As A Result
The marginalization of Indigenous women can be traced back to the beginning of the occurrence of colonization in Canada. The Indigenous people’s resistance to colonization led to blatant beratting and dehumanization of their people. Indigenous women were viewed as:
“squaws”—dirty, lewd, uncivilized and sexually deviant. Both of these characterizations described Aboriginal women as “sexually available,” which served to remove responsibility from men who forced sex on Aboriginal women.
With colonizers providing the notion that this group of women was easy to have non-consensual sexual relations with, many women ended up experiencing horrific acts of sexual violence. This would only be the beginning of the mistreatment of Indigenous women. The combined acts of racism and sexism that commenced as a result of colonialism would be something that still affects the population of Indigenous women in Canada today.
After the Fur Trade: 1850 – 1950
After the Fur Trade: First Nations Women in Canadian History, 1850 – 1950 by Janice Forsyth, associate professor of Sociology and the director of the Indigenous Studies program at Western University, highlights the inequalities of Indigenous women in Canada. She was inspired to write this paper after noticing that not much can be found in accordance with the history of Indigenous women in Canada. Forsyth calls attention to three dominant themes: female sexuality, the impact of colonization on First Nations women, and residential school experiences.
Indigenous Women and Female Sexuality
When enquiring further into why Indigenous women were hyper-sexualized, one must focus on their opposites, white women. In order for white women to survive in a colonial society, the image of Indigenous women had to be tarnished. This is where:
the image of the dirty and immoral “squaw” was frequently employed to instigate moral panic about the downfall of the white race and to justify strict measures that would keep Indian women on reserve and preferably in the home. (Forsyth, 2005)
It has been uncovered that the hypersexualization of Indigenous women was also used as a means of control. By deeming Indigenous women as highly promiscuous, government officials were able to restrict the areas that this population would be able to traverse. The exploitation of this concept would become:
a central rationale for this system was to prevent Indian women from entering into the towns and villages and disrupting the moral decency of white society by prostituting themselves (Carter 1998, 187).
Despite the knowledge of sexual violence, many of these women suffered, in addition to conditions such as poverty and illness, causing them to become isolated and depicted as monsters in the very land they own. This only proves the lengths the government were willing to go through to prove their authority.
The Church played an enormous role in the sexuality of Indigenous women. In order to ‘tame’ the women, they had to convince them that they were not following the traditional female ideals other populations of women were following. It was to be made clear that Indigenous women only belong in the household and must embrace the matriarchy. Jean Barman stated that in order for this to be successful:
these powerful negative images provided both the Church and State with the opportunity to intrude on the personal affairs of Indian women and reorganize their lives along patriarchal lines. According to Barman, the key to the whole process lay in taming their sexual agency, not their sexuality per se. In order for the restructuring to be successful, missionaries, government officials, and Indian men had to convince Indian women of their evil nature and redirect their energies to the home.
Indigenous women were forced to accept patriarchal ideals in order to avoid further harm among their population. The colonization of their land would lead them to subsequently succumb to the suppression of their traditional values.
The Consequences of Colonization on Indigenous Women
It must be taken into account that the Indigenous idea of female agency varies from that of Eurocentric values. Colonizers viewed Indigenous women “as “victims” of a savage lifestyle who possess little or no power and authority within their own households or communities” (Carter, 1996). The reality differs very much from what European travelers viewed. Concepts such as “division of labour and female control over their own sexuality,” (Weist, 1983) were viewed as deviant and outrageous in the lens of early Europeans. It was unheard of in their cultural norms, which is one of many reasons they were disgusted by the amount of female agency Indigenous women had.
The late 19th century would bring trauma to the indigenous children of Canada, as many were forced to attend residential schools. Posed as schools to help indigenous children, these schools were a front for blatant abuse placed upon indigenous children. Indigenous girls had to endure violence from school officials, ultimately dehumanizing them and continuing the cycle of trauma.
In 1884, an amendment was added to the Indian Act that made it compulsory for all Indigenous children under the age of 16 to be placed in residential schools. Indigenous children were involuntarily separated from their families. Many of those parents that had their children taken away from them were single Indigenous women, who Indian agents deemed unfit to take care of children. The act of residential schools ultimately wounded Indigenous women, who were traditionally caregivers for children, which was a very respected role in Indigenous culture.
The role of residential schools in Canada was to neglect and treat indigenous children as less-than human in hopes of erasing their indigenous identity. Indigenous girls suffered as a result:
An example of this was shown in a report submitted to the government from Crowfoot school by Nurse Ramage stating, “She later returned to the dining room to examine one of the girls who was reported to be marked badly by the strap. Several marks were found on her right lower limb. Five girls were in chains.” This violent punishment was carried out because these girls had committed the “crime” of speaking their language to the younger children who had yet to learn much English. So in hopes of comforting the young, scared children, they had dared to speak their “savage tongue” and they had paid dearly for it.
This is only one of many horrific experiences Indigenous girls had in residential schools. Girls were expected to take on domestic work, such as cooking and cleaning, rather than learning. One must remember that these institutions were highly religious, forcing the idea that women must remain ‘untainted’. As a result, when girls were sexually abused by school officials, the young girls were riddled with a:
huge amount of fear for the action, as they thought they were now sinners for engaging in such an act… There are even accounts of virginity testing that occurred within the schools as these institutions were extremely religious and a woman’s value to man was to be determined on her virginity. The test was conducted by a school official and they would stick a small instrument up young girls’ vaginas to check if the hymen was still intact. If it wasn’t there they were beaten and shamed by the entire school population for their impurity.(Robertson, 2018)
With the generational trauma of indigenous women being continually passed down in efforts to wash away their culture, indigenous women have continued to suffer at the hands of colonialism and patriarchy. Unfortunately, the last residential school in Canada only closed as recently as 1996, highlighting that indigenous women today still have to endure the pain.
A Growing Epidemic
Indigenous women continue to face the interwined oppression of racism and misogyny, as well as the effects of colonialism in the present day, as many indigenous women are going missing. Indigenous women are more susceptible to gender-based violence as a result. This is one of the largest human rights crises occurring in Canada.
There is confusion about the number of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada. This is due to “the under-reporting of violence against Indigenous women and girls and the lack of an effective database, as well as the failure to identify such cases by ethnicity” (Brant, 2017). Unfortunately, Indigenous groups estimate that this number is well over 4000 missing and murdered Indigenous women.
The Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) reports that:
- Most of the cases involve young women and girls. Just over half of the cases (55%) involve women and girls under the age of 31, with 17% of women and girls 18 years of age or younger. Only 8% of cases involve women over 45.
- Nearly half of murder cases in NWAC’s database remain unsolved. NWAC has found that only 53% of murder cases involving Aboriginal women and girls have led to charges of homicide. This is dramatically different from the national clearance rate of homicides in Canada, which was last reported as 84% (Statistics Canada 2005, p.10). While a small number of cases in NWAC’s database have been “cleared” by the suicide of the offender or charges other than homicide, 40% of murder cases remain unsolved.
- Aboriginal women are almost three times more likely to be killed by a stranger than non-Aboriginal women are. Of the murder cases in NWAC’s database where someone has been charged,
- 16.5% of offenders are strangers with no prior connection to the woman or girl (in contrast, Statistics Canada reports that, between 1997 and 2004, only 6% of murdered non-Aboriginal women were killed by strangers);
- 17% of offenders are acquaintances of the woman or girl (a friend, neighbour or someone else known to her); and
- 23% are a current or former partner of the woman or girl.
It is evident that Indigenous women face disproportionate fatalities as a result. Without a proper database to record how many of these women go missing, Indigenous communities continue to suffer in agony, wondering where their women have gone.
Violence Against Indigenous Women: The Cases of Helen Betty Osborne and Felicia Solomon
The murders of Helen Betty Osborne and Felicia Soloman are two cases that have devastated the Indigenous community in Canada. Though their cases are separate, it should be noted that Osborne was Solomon’s older cousin. As seen by these examples, the violence against Indigenous women and girls has clearly harmed families.
Helen Betty Osborne
Helen Betty Osborne, born in Norway, Manitoba, was a 19-year-old woman with the ambition of becoming a teacher. She attended Margaret Barbour Collegiate in The Pas, Manitoba in order to achieve her goal. Sadly, Obsorne was abducted on the morning of November 13, 1971, and was brutally murdered by four men. She was stabbed approximately more than 50 times with a screwdriver, and her body was left at Clear Water Lake, north of The Pas.
Obsorne was not quick to receive justice, and still has not received proper justice for the loss of her life. Though the four men involved, Dwayne Archie Johnston, James Robert Paul Houghton, Lee Scott Colgan and Norman Bernard Manger, were charged in December 1987 (approximately 16 years after the murder), only Johnston was convicted of murder. While looking into the motivation behind the murder:
The Aboriginal Justice Implementation Commission found that the main factors in the case were racism, sexism and indifference.
“In the findings of the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry, Helen Betty Osborne wouldn’t have been killed had it not been for the colour of her skin,” [Eric] Robinson said.(Malone, 2016)
Osborne’s murder highlights how difficult it is for Indigenous women to obtain justice in Canada. Without the Indigenous community pushing for an inquiry, the suspects would not have been held responsible for their horrific actions against her. There was a lack of concern among law officials about solving this case.
Felicia Velvet Soloman (16) was a Grade 10 student attending R.B Russell Collegiate in Winnipeg, Manitoba. She went missing on March 25, 2003. Two months after her disappearance, in June 2003, some of her body parts were found in the Red River. Justice failed Soloman as well. Felicia’s mother noted that:
Police did not put out a press release about Felicia’s disappearance until 6 weeks following the accepted missing person’s report. The first press release had an incorrect date for when she went missing and identified her as a child at risk.
[Her family reports] that Felicia had expressed concerns about a vehicle following her when she walked to school, the same school Tina attended.(Mak, 2019)
Soloman’s killer has not been found to this day. This would also not be the last time tragedy struck her family, with her cousin Claudette Priscilla June Osborne, going missing in Winnipeg on July 25, 2008. What happened to Claudette has yet to be known.
In order to prevent further violence against Indigenous women and girls in Canada, a federal response must be developed with the help of the Indigenous community. According to Amnesty International Canada, in order to put an end to brutality against Indigenous women and girls:
A national public inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women focused on exposing the nature of this violence and on ensuring government and police accountability for an effective and coordinated response.
A national action plan to end violence against women which addresses the root causes of violence and identifies holistic, culturally-appropriate ways in which to prevent violence and to support those impacted by violence.
Regular, comprehensive collection of data on violence against Indigenous women in official crime statistics.(Amnesty International Canada)
Indigenous women do not deserve to suffer at the hands of violence as a result of centuries of colonialism, misogyny, and racism. Their suffering needs to be taken more seriously by the criminal justice system and the federal government in order to have no more stolen sisters. May the calls of action from the Indigenous community be heard and implemented.
Brant, J. (2017, March 22). Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Canada. The Canadian Encyclopedia. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/missing-and-murdered-indigenous-women-and-girls-in-canada
CBC. (n.d.). Felicia Velvet Solomon. CBC News: Missing & Murdered: The Unsolved Cases of Indigenous Women and Girls. Retrieved June 21, 2021, from https://www.cbc.ca/missingandmurdered/mmiw/profiles/felicia-velvet-solomon
Claudette Priscilla June Osborne. (n.d.). CBC News: Missing & Murdered: The Unsolved Cases of Indigenous Women and Girls. Retrieved June 21, 2021, from https://www.cbc.ca/missingandmurdered/mmiw/profiles/claudette-priscilla-june-osborne
Felicia Solomon, Unsolved Murder from Manitoba in 2003. (2019, October 10). Justice for Native People. http://www.justicefornativewomen.com/2019/10/felicia-solomon-unsolved-murder-from.html
Forsyth, J. (2005). After the Fur Trade: First Nations Women in Canadian History, 1850 – 1950. Atlantis, 29(2), 69–78. https://journals.msvu.ca/index.php/atlantis/article/view/1051
Malone, K. (2016, November 13). 45-year anniversary of Helen Betty Osborne’s murder shows “work is never done.” CBC. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/45-year-anniversary-of-helen-betty-osborne-s-murder-shows-work-is-never-done-1.3849427
Native Women’s Association of Canada. (2019, July 24). Fact Sheet – Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women and Girls • Native Women’s Association of Canada. https://www.nwac.ca/resource/fact-sheet-missing-and-murdered-aboriginal-women-and-girls/
Robertson, K. (2018). Indigenous women’s experiences of the Canadian residential school system. Journal of Multidisciplinary Research at Trent, 1(1), 45–54. https://ojs.trentu.ca/ojs/index.php/jmrt/article/view/276
Solutions. (2018, May 11). Amnesty International Canada. https://www.amnesty.ca/our-work/campaigns/no-more-stolen-sisters/solutions