As spotlight returns to decades-long violence against native women and girls, calls for national inquiry have been rebuffed but groups refuse to give up
Hanging on the walls of Kattie Lee Fontaine’s living room are two striking portraits of her cousin Tina, who was just 15 when she disappeared from the streets of Winnipeg, Manitoba, in August 2014.
Tina and her four cousins, Kattie Lee, Rose, Jolene and Angel grew up together on the Sagkeeng First Nation, an indigenous reserve east of Lake Winnipeg with a population of 3,000 – and six unsolved cases of missing or murdered First Nations women.
In June 2014, Tina travelled to Winnipeg to rekindle her relationship with her estranged biological mother. Her family reported her missing, and five weeks later, on 8 August, Fontaine was picked up by police in a vehicle that had been pulled over for drunk driving.
Despite the missing persons report, the officers let Tina go, and later the same day she was found passed out in a downtown alleyway. Paramedics took her to hospital, where she was handed over to a social worker to be taken into foster care, but she ran away.
Nine days later, Tina’s body, wrapped in a plastic bag, was dragged from the Red river. “We couldn’t even open the casket because of what her murderers did to her,” said her great aunt, Thelma Favel. Nearly a year after her death, Tina’s family are beginning to lose hope that her killers will ever be caught.
Meanwhile her cousins fear that they could suffer the same fate as Tina: the four girls live in the North End, an area of Winnipeg rife with violence and sexual harassment. “We feel even less safe since her death. We miss her so much”, says Kattie Lee.
Tina is just one victim in an decades-long epidemic of violence that has claimed the lives of thousands of indigenous women. Ever since the 1970s – when aboriginals were encouraged to migrate to the cities – women of all ages have been shipped back to their families in coffins, said Derek Nepinak, the Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC). “I lost an aunt in Winnipeg in 1978,” he said. “This is not a new phenomenon by any means.”
But Canadians are finally starting to pay attention.
In its first attempt to gauge the scale of the problem, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) last year retrieved data from 300 police authorities across the country. The study concluded between 1980 and 2012, at least 1,017 First Nations women were murdered, while a further 108 went missing in suspicious circumstances.
Last week, the RCMP released an updated report, which concluded First Nations women are four times more likely to go missing or be murdered than other Canadian women. While aboriginal women represent just 4.3% of Canada’s female population, they represent 16% of female murder victims and 11% of missing persons cases involving women, the report said.
The update also said in the 12 months since the first report, 11 more indigenous women had gone missing.
‘It isn’t really high on our radar’
When the findings were first published, thousands gathered for candlelight vigils in cities across Canada, and chiefs and activists renewed their calls for a national inquiry into the country’s indigenous femicide.
But those calls have repeatedly been rebuffed by the Conservative prime minister, Stephen Harper, who has argued the problem is mainly one of domestic violence and criminality on indigenous reserves.
Asked about the possibility of a national inquiry by the CBC state television in December, Harper replied: “It isn’t really high on our radar, to be honest.”
First Nations leaders acknowledge that violence is a problem on the reserves – which are beset with poverty, drug abuse and unemployment. But only 40% of the country’s indigenous people actually live on reserves, and activists and analysts say the abuse and murder visited on Canada’s indigenous women reflects a broader history of marginalization and abuse.
That view is shared by the United Nations, which has repeatedly called for a national inquiry into violence against First Nations women, similar to the investigation launched into the murder of hundreds of women in Ciudad Juárez in Mexico.
The UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (Cedaw) concluded last year that the Harper government’s refusal to investigate the violence was “a grave violation” of indigenous women’s rights.
“The victimisation of native women is partly the legacy of colonial heritage where gender-based violence is linked to the lack of realization of their economic, social, political and cultural rights,” said the authors of the report, Niklas Bruun and Barbara Bailey in an email.
Nahanni Fontaine, a special adviser to the Manitoban government on aboriginal women’s issues, argues that the violence is a form of collateral damage wrought by centuries of prejudice. “From the first moments of contact with European explorers, indigenous women were scorned and stereotyped as promiscuous because they owned their sexuality and were treated as equals by their male counterparts,” she said.
Such contempt for indigenous women was reinforced by brutal attempts to force First Nations to assimilate into mainstream Canadian society. Earlier this month the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission described such policies as a form of “cultural genocide” in a report on the state-sponsored, church-run Indian Residential School system.
Between 1876 and 1996, 150,000 aboriginal children were taken from their families and interned in boarding schools specially designed in the words of the system’s founder Sir John A MacDonald, to “take the Indian out of the child”.
One of those children was Sue Caribou, who in 1972 was separated from her family at the age of seven, and taken to a Catholic school where for the next five years she was physically and sexually abused by missionaries who forbade her from speaking Cree, her native language.
The violence has never stopped: by the time Caribou left the school in 1979, both her parents had been murdered. Now aged 50 years old, Caribou has lost three female relatives to murder. The last was her beloved niece Tanya Nepinak, who disappeared in 2011 on her way to get pizza in Winnipeg. She was 31 years old.
“When is this going to end? It’s getting worse,” Caribou said.
Tanya’s body was never found, but police believe she was killed by a man called Shawn Lamb, who in 2012 admitted murdering two other indigenous women, Carolyn Sinclair, 25, and Lorna Blacksmith, 18.
Indigenous groups argue that institutional racism contributes to a culture of impunity for perpetrators of crimes against aboriginal women.
Justice for the missing or murdered
Canada’s worst serial killer also targeted First Nations women: pig farmer Robert Pickton tortured and killed at least 33 aboriginals before he was arrested in British Columbia in 2002.
Soon after his arrest, Amnesty International concluded that perpetrators of violent crimes tend to target them because the “police in Canada have often failed to provide Indigenous women with an adequate standard of protection”.
Police’s failings proved fatal for Jennifer McPherson, 41, an Ojibway woman who went missing in British Columbia in May 2013. Her remains were found one week later scattered around the island where she was an off-season caretaker of a fishing resort. McPherson’s husband Traigo Andretti, later admitted to choking the 41-year-old and burning her body.
Andretti confessed to murder, but investigators soon discovered evidence linking him to the disappearance of another indigenous woman seven years earlier.
Myrna Letandre had been dating Andretti when she went missing from her home in Winnipeg in October 2006. Her sister, Lorna Letandre, begged Winnipeg detectives to search Andretti’s house, but he was released after being interrogated just once and was never charged. He married McPherson a couple of months later. Last year, Letandre’s remains were found buried in the house – seven years after her sister first raised the alarm.
“If the Winnipeg police had properly investigated Myrna Letandre’s case, my sister would still be alive today,” said Kim McPherson, Jennifer’s sister, her voice still cracking with grief.
Last year, Winnipeg police announced that it was making investigations of missing and murdered aboriginal women a “strategic priority”; it has also established a special task force of 18 officers to solve 28 outstanding cases of murdered or missing women in the province. The force has also worked on improving relations with the community in the city’s poorest neighbourhoods – all of which are predominantly indigenous.
But better policing alone is not the answer, warned Winnipeg’s police chief, Devon Clunis. The Jamaica-born commissioner said that Canada still needed to embark on a difficult national conversation on discrimination against First Nations.
“It’s not just simply a police issue. It’s not an indigenous community issue. It is an issue for every single person who calls himself a Winnipegger, a Manitoban, a Canadian,” he said.
Such a reckoning seems all the more urgent in Winnipeg, the capital of Manitoba, which was named as “Canada’s most racist city” by the national news magazine MacLean’s.
The city is home to the country’s largest urban indigenous population, but that population is relegated to relatively impoverished neighbourhoods, which are plagued by underemployment, drug abuse, substandard housing and violent crime.
A dysfunctional foster care system
Activists say that the city’s social services – which should be protecting vulnerable indigenous children – are instead exposing them to further risk by plunging them into a dysfunctional foster care system.
Indigenous children make up 87% of the children in foster care in Manitoba, even though they only account for 34% of the province’s population under 18. This means that at any given time, nearly 10,000 native children are under the care of the provincial Child and Family Services department (CFS).
“We see a direct correlation between girls who are taken into foster care at a young age and women who go missing,” says Grand Chief Nepinak of the AMC. “We have to stop traumatising our children.”
Carolyn Sinclair was separated from their alcoholic mother when she was only two. She and her sister Amanda were placed in a foster home where Carolyn was sexually abused, and by the time they were teenagers, both girls were using hard drugs.
Amanda, now 35, managed to turn her life around and now has a steady job as a construction worker. Carolyn Sinclair never found a way out of her chaotic lifestyle: she was murdered and dumped near a garbage bin in Winnipeg at the age of 25.
In turn, Carolyn’s two small children have now been taken into foster care, and Amanda has been refused rights to see them. “We don’t even know if they are still alive,” she said.
For more than a decade, a chronic shortage of foster placements meant that children taken into care were often simply left in hotels in downtown Winnipeg. Tina Fontaine disappeared after running away from a Best Western hotel where she had been given a temporary placement.
In April, a 15-year-old girl in emergency care was violently assaulted and left for dead in the same hotel. Four weeks later, the minister responsible for the CFS, Kerri Irvin-Ross, was promoted to become deputy prime minister of Manitoba.
Indigenous activists such as Sue Caribou see a grim parallel between the casual neglect of the current foster care and the systematic abuse of the residential schools.
“Kids are shuffled around in abusive homes. It’s starting all over again,” she said.
Tina Fontaine’s great aunt Thelma Favel said she hoped that coverage of her niece’s murder would help focus attention on the violence – and perhaps even save a few lives.
Speaking through her tears, she said: “My priest has told me that like Jesus died for our sins, Tina died so that other girls could be saved.”