Inquiry will examine the difficulties women face being heard
by Nahka Bertrand & Safia Ahmad
Maisy Odjick and Shannon Alexander were reported missing from Maniwaki, a town near the Kitigan Zibi reserve located in southwestern Québec, in the autumn of 2008. As of now, the Indigenous teenagers have not been found.
Fifteen-year-old Tina Fontaine’s body was found wrapped in a duvet cover and stuffed in a bag weighted by rocks on a sunny day in the summer of 2014. Media coverage of the teenager’s disappearance and death—she grew up Sagkeeng First Nation near Winnipeg, Manitoba—was extensive and prompted the Canadian Human Rights Commission to push for an inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in Canada (MMIW).
A year later, Bianka Moushoun, Priscillia Papatie, and Angela King, Indigenous women from Val d’Or, told Radio Canada’s Enquête that they had been sexually assaulted by police officers, acts that took place more than 20 years ago, in Angela King’s case. While most of the 37 cases brought forward by twelve Indigenous women after the show aired have been overturned, two officers have been charged.
From near zero media coverage in 2008, when Maisy and Shannon disappeared, to intensive coverage of Tina’s death, to the three Indigenous women’s allegations of rape and forced sex work, media coverage in Quebec’s major news outlets shows a trend that brings more sensitivity to the public eye on Indigenous stories.
Emmanuelle Walter has always been fascinated by Indigenous issues and colonization so when the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women supported organizations in their demand for an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada, the French author decided to look into this issue and the broader context of violence against Indigenous women.
Her book, Sœurs volées: Enquête sur un féminicide au Canada, was published in 2014, the English version, Stolen Sisters in 2015. Focusing on the disappeared teens Maisy and Shannon, she describes “a national feminicide” in which Canadians turn a blind eye to violence against Indigenous women. “It didn’t correspond to the image I had of Canada,” she said in an interview. “I knew the situation here wasn’t good, but I didn’t know just how bad it was… I wanted to understand [so] I wrote a book.”
The statistics are chilling. The RCMP released a study in 2014 showing reported incidents of nearly 2000 Indigenous women and girls either missing or murdered in Canada between 1980 and 2012. Statistics Canada reported in 2009 that Indigenous women are three times more likely to have experienced violence than non-Indigenous women. According to Amnesty International, Indigenous women in Canada are six times more likely to die a violent death than non-Indigenous women.
This points to the broader issue of the trivialization of sexual abuse and assault among Indigenous people, and systemic and institutionalized violence, Walter says, pointing to the connection between rape culture and violence against Indigenous women. “What is rape culture?” asked Walter. “It’s the trivialization of sexual violence, which makes it look like a normal aspect of everyday life.
“And Indigenous women are living this but on a higher scale than non-Indigenous women. What I mean to say is that Indigenous women were quickly considered to be sexual objects since colonization. They’re like the first ones to have ever experienced rape culture. And today, it’s something they still experience.”
Widia Larivière, an Indigenous woman and activist who wrote the preface to Soeurs Volées, describes violence against indigenous women at “the intersection of my activism as a citizen, as an Indigenous woman, and in terms of my professional work.”
Responsible for the youth file at the Quebec Native Women, representing the women of the First Nations of Quebec and the Aboriginal women living in urban areas, she is also co-founder of the Quebec branch of Idle No More, a grassroots movement that aims to give Indigenous people sovereignty and rebuild their nationhood.
Larivière’s work was referenced in Stolen Sisters by Melina Labouncan-Massimo, a member of the Lubicon Cree First Nation and a campaigner with Greenpeace Canada, who wrote the preface: “If you look at this in terms of proportion of the population, this number of Indigenous women would represent around 30,000 Canadian women. There’s no denying that if 30,000 white women were missing or had been murdered, there would be an uproar, and the government’s response would be instantaneous and dramatic. A far cry from the current response.”
Indigenous women also face a disconnect in press coverage, since the media’s portrayal of the perpetrator is based on white rather than Indigenous statistics. For example, an article in the Saskatoon StarPheonix in 2015 stated that 90 per cent of Indigenous women knew their killers, a claim they retracted after the RCMP provided an updated report. As Senator Lillian Eva Quan Dyck — of Cree and Chinese descent — told the Canadian Association of Statutory Human Rights Agencies, more violence against Indigenous women stems from individuals who did not share a personal relationship with them than in the case of non-Indigenous women. In those cases, she said, 30 per cent of murders are committed by an acquaintance, 17 per cent by a casual acquaintance and seven per cent by “someone with whom they had a criminal relationship.” This means that 54 per cent of these violent acts are committed by individuals who were not personally close to the victim.
Senator Dyck believes that generalizations like these perpetuate a negative stereotype of Indigenous people and can lead to a downward spiral in which survivors of sexual assault become more reluctant to share their stories in the press.
“I think it sends a very clear message,” said Christopher Curtis, Montreal Gazette journalist and Indigenous beat writer. “If you step up, this is what we’re going to do to you. This is what will happen to you. Every decision you ever make will be questioned.”
Michele Audette, an Innu from Northern Quebec and one of the five Commissioners of the MMIW, believes the press will follow stories about missing or murdered non-Indigenous women while for Indigenous communities coverage is almost non-existent. “We want to understand why the media is treating us differently,” Audette said in phone interview. “Why don’t we receive the same treatment?”
The national inquiry, launched in September, will be taking a very close look at the effects of the media on the issue of violence against Indigenous women. Kristen Gilchrist’s 2004 study on the press’ coverage of missing or murdered non-Indigenous women compared to Indigenous women shows the media tends to use language that humanizes a non-Indigenous woman, both good and bad, whereas mainly factual language was used to report on the Indigenous women’s cases.
The media’s lack of sensitivity reflects how Canadian society views Indigenous people, wrote Walter in Stolen Sisters. “The Indigenous world is foreign to Canadians, likely even more so than that of immigrants from Asia or Africa. There is little comprehension that their communities are sometimes no better than Third-World villages located a few short kilometres from highly prosperous oil reserves; their fates are often marked by misfortune.”
When it comes to hearing the voices of survivors in the media, Larivière said that it’s important to know that the subject aired on the Enquête show in 2015 was not the original point of the investigation. Indigenous women were invited to a sharing circle at the Friendship Centre to talk about the case of Cindy Ruperthouse, who went missing in the Val d’Or area, and that became a safe space where they could express themselves on bad relationships with the police.
“I think it takes a concept of cultural safety, in which Indigenous women will want to express themselves and speak out,” she said. “It equally takes a lot of courage, first of all, to express oneself on this subject, but furthermore, to speak about it in the media, that’s a step up. It can become intimidating.”