The response to the large numbers of indigenous women who have gone missing or been murdered has shown that it is one of the most contentious issues in Canada in recent years. Dawn Lavell-Harvard, president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) spoke to a small crowd at TRU’s Cplul’kw’ten (The Gathering Place) in order to dispel some of the myths about missing and murdered indigenous women.
“We all know the situation with violence against indigenous women and girls. It’s been a shameful reality for far too long,” Lavell-Harvard said. Female homicide rates have dropped in Canada for the last 30 years, but continue to rise for indigenous women, she said.
Lavell-Harvard’s presentation was first and foremost about challenging some of the established narratives about the indigenous women that are going missing or being murdered. Income from crime, work in the sex trade and use of drugs and alcohol were all explanations that Lavell-Harvard claims the RCMP provided for high rates of disappearance and murder amongst indigenous women. Lavell-Harvard dismissed all of these as statistically insignificant or considered dangerous only for indigenous people.
“They say our women are in these vulnerable situations because they have high-risk lifestyles. I agree our women are at risk, but no one dreams of being homeless,” Lavell-Harvard said.
Some who attended Lavell-Harvard’s presentation had a personal connection to the issue.
“I come from a small reserve up north, and my sister was best friends with Ramona Wilson. She went missing back in ’95, right around the time my sister was graduating so it really hits home. The lack of response from the government is something that needs to be addressed,” said TRU law student Dustin Gagnon.
Lavell-Harvard was involved with Sisters in Spirit, a research, education and policy initiative within the NWAC whose primary goal was investigating violence against indigenous women. The number of missing and murdered indigenous women arrived at by Sisters in Spirit was over 800. The RCMP eventually released a figure which claimed that there were 1181 missing or murdered indigenous women.
Lavell-Harvard used the recent claims of abuse against police officers in Val d’Or, Que. by local indigenous women to illustrate how common violence against them is. In Val d’Or, eight provincial police officers have been accused of violence and sexual abuse against indigenous women, 12 alleged victims have come forward.
“They should be supporting an independent investigation and letting justice take its due process,” Lavell-Harvard said.
Canada’s record on the protection of indigenous women has been criticized by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the United Nations.
“They like to be appalled about violence against women around the world and they send millions of dollars to other countries…and yet they’re ignoring what is happening in their own backyard,” Lavell-Harvard said, in criticism of the Canadian government’s response to missing and murdered indigenous women.
When asked by an audience member how effective the B.C. government has been at addressing the issue, Lavell-Harvard said that progress had been made under Christy Clark.
“Now that you have a woman in power, I think that there has been a lot more attention,” Lavell-Harvard said.
Recent federal NDP candidate Bill Sundhu used the question period as an opportunity to criticize the Liberals’ and Conservatives’ stances on mandatory minimum sentences. Sundhu, who does some legal work on Haida Gwaii, also criticized the current prisoner transfer system from Haida Gwaii to Prince George. Sundhu said women returning from their sentences in Prince George, usually by bus, are vulnerable at bus stations and at the Prince Rupert ferry terminal.