Canada – home of tolerance, acceptance and equality? Not so much. The racism, sexism and violence against aboriginal women in Canada is a national embarrassment to our popular reputation. The rate of homicide for native women is seven times that of all other women in Canada, with 582 missing or murdered aboriginal women and girls since 1960. Amnesty International has concluded that the police have “often failed to provide indigenous women with an adequate standard of protection”. How do we explain the appalling treatment of this group of people? Reading the recently released report by the Human Rights Watch titled ‘those who take us away’ would be a good start.
In northern British Colombia, the translation of Sekani people’s word for police is “those who take us away”.
This eye-opening, 89-page report shows with brutal clarity the dysfunctional relationship between the aboriginal community and the RCMP in British Colombia’s northern communities. Composed of eighty-seven gut-wrenching interviews, this report reveals the complex and disturbing relationship between aboriginal women, and those who are responsible to protect them.
The report first describes several instances of police abuse, both physical, sexual, and psychological against native women, ranging from brutal arrests to stalking and rape. Some women refused to be interviewed for fear of retribution from RCMP officers. Aboriginal women and girls are much more likely to be arrested than other women; 35% of women that are arrested in Canada are native, even though they only make up 4% of the population. Many point to links between such physical and emotional abuse and higher levels of alcoholism, drug dependency, depression, and cycles of abuse within the community.
This understandably leads to native women developing a sense of distrust and even hatred towards police officers, even when they may be in real danger.
The failure of the RCMP to protect aboriginal women from violence is a major shortcoming in the Canadian justice system. Many of the women who shared their experiences feel that acts of violence against them, particularly from abusive partners, are not taken seriously. Victims are criticized for defending themselves, or made to feel responsible for such violence. Fear of police abuse creates an environment where violence against women is belittled and where women feel that they have nowhere to turn.
Perhaps the most insulting and deeply disturbing shortcoming of the RCMP is their lack of response to missing and murdered aboriginal women. Police have failed to respond professionally or responsibly to a report of a missing aboriginal woman: instances of not informing the family that the missing person has been found or taking weeks to commence an investigation. This problem is highlighted in the region of the infamous “Highway of Tears”, a stretch of Highway 16 in British Colombia where between 18 (the police estimate) and 43 (local estimate) women have gone missing. It is nothing short of appalling that, even in death, these women continue to be subject to sexism and racism.
The report concludes that the RCMP, along with provincial and national governments are directly responsible for creating an environment where violence against women is acceptable and trivialized. Blatant racism and the playing down of violence against women has lead to a mindset where abuse is acceptable. While these institutions do not bear absolute responsibility for our appalling situation, they do have the power to change it. Change must occur at this level if things are to change at all. They have the power to protect, but also the responsibility and duty to do so.
– Emile Bouffard
Featured Photo: Flickr, by Thien V