Screaming Without Voices: An Overview of the Cause, Effect, and Extent of Sexual Violence Against Indigenous Women in Canada

Whether the media chooses to acknowledge the truth or not, the fact remains that sexual violence towards Indigenous women and girls in both the United States and Canada is prevalent. Although hostility and sexual assault towards Indigenous women date back to early settlement days when they were used as forms of subjugation or annexation, many factors are still present today and contribute to overwhelming statistics. In fact, the Amnesty International Report found in 2007 that American government statistics show “Native American and Alaska Native women are more than 2.5 times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than other women in the USA.” (Maze of Injustice 1). Taking place over several decades, Amnesty International Report published a detailed research paper in 2004 documenting the violent crimes committed against nine Indigenous women and girls (Stolen Sisters 2). This study concluded that the Canadian government could have done more investigative work to bring justice to the perpetrators, and it also identified several factors that make Indigenous women particularly vulnerable to violence.

One factor that contributes to violence towards Indigenous women in Canada is “social and economic marginalization…along with a history of government policies that have torn apart Indigenous families and communities…” (Stolen Sisters 2). This issue has resulted in many Indigenous women being placed into treacherous situations such as poverty and homelessness which can lead to undesirable vocations like prostitution. For the women who have, willingly or not, chosen prostitution to make ends meet, sexual assault and violence are common. Even though “under Canadian law, the act of prostitution is not illegal,” many acts surrounding the publicity and circumstances of prostitution are criminal (Stolen Sisters 16). The threat of being arrested is enough to prevent many women from reporting the violent crimes against them, resulting in missed opportunities for investigating and prosecution. This means the offenders learn that they can get away with violent acts towards prostitutes and women of similar occupations, resulting in an increased number of assaults. In the rare event that a case makes it to court-level assessment, the criminals often remain inadequately punished. The trial for Pamela George in 1995 is a perfect example of the inequality. Two 20-year-old white males forced George, a 28-year-old Indigenous mother of two daughters, to perform oral sex and then beat her to death on the side of a road, but they were only convicted of manslaughter (the sexual assault charges were dropped because she was a prostitute) and sentenced to a meager six years in prison (Stolen Sisters 25).

Another common factor is tied directly to the Canadian police force. The authorities have not made it a priority to implement changes that would protect Indigenous women going forward, and therefore violence towards them continues to ensue on a widespread level. Some discriminatory views are products of the colonization-centered mindset which recognizes Indigenous men and women alike as being less than first-class citizens. That mentality plagues many of those who administer the criminal justice system, including judges, prosecutors, and police. They often embrace the ubiquitous opinion that “women are responsible for violence committed against them or that they deserve to be punished for non-conforming behavior.” (Stolen Sisters 7). Many of the cases that make it to court are overlooked due to alleged insufficient evidence which causes the severity of the punishment to be greatly lessened—assuming charges are pressed in the first place. When crimes are initially committed against an Indigenous woman, families have often described how “police failed to act promptly when their sisters or daughters went missing, treated the family disrespectfully, or kept the family in the dark about how the investigation – if any – was proceeding.” (Stolen Sisters 17). Since crimes are best assessed in the early stages to increase the odds of capturing and punishing a culprit, the authorities are doing a disservice to Indigenous women and their families by refusing to act with urgency when a crime is reported.

The fact that the previous two factors exist leaves Indigenous women further vulnerable to future crimes. Both Indigenous and non-Indigenous men see an opportunity when the law is not being enforced sufficiently, and therefore the number of attacks against Indigenous women only continues to rise. Janet Henry was a victim of multiple factors, starting with the government removing her from her home and placing her in foster care when her mother struggled to financially support the children after her father’s death (Stolen Sisters 27). Henry remained strong through that ordeal, but following a divorce where she lost custody of her child, she was forced to take up residence in an impoverished and dangerous area on the Eastside of downtown Vancouver. Henry, like many women living there during that time, ended up finding work in various sex trades. In 1997, her family reported her as missing, a circumstance that was increasingly common with Indigenous women in that vicinity. The local police rarely took the claims seriously, even refusing to offer rewards for information on the missing women when they would do exactly that to locate robbers and other minor criminals in affluent communities (Stolen Sisters 27). Henry’s sister, Sandra Gagnon, reported the following: “I can guarantee you that if it wasn’t the Downtown Eastside and they weren’t hookers, something would have been done in an instant.” (Stolen Sisters 27). The lack of police intervention only minimizes the validity of the violent acts committed against Indigenous women, creating an influx in crimes.

Finally, racism can trigger acts of violence towards Indigenous women. This can manifest in attacks motivated purely by the attacker’s racial discrimination, but it can also occur because of the lack of legal justification for Indigenous women in Canada’s criminal justice system. If an attacker knows the consequences are not as detrimental for assaulting an Indigenous woman versus a non-Indigenous woman, it would simply be wiser for him to target the former. Many statistics suggest that racism amongst those in the legal system has created an illusion that Indigenous people do not deserve protection and instead are a group of people the rest of society must be protected from. The Manitoba Justice Inquiry emphasized the impact of racism when they suggested that “the over representation of Indigenous people in the justice system may partly stem from the predisposition of police to charge and detain Indigenous people in circumstances ‘when a white person in the same circumstances might not be arrested at all, or might not be held.’” (Stolen Sisters 18). Finally, many Indigenous communities distrust the local police force not only because of discrimination to their culture but also because the police force has been used to force Indigenous children into foster care systems for supposed optimal forms of education and upbringing, ensuing in homes torn apart by government interference. This results in Indigenous peoples feeling “over-policed” but “underprotected.” (Stolen Sisters 18).

If these factors remain unaddressed, it will be nearly impossible to overcome the violence directed at Indigenous women. There are several solutions proposed in the study that, when applied at both local and national levels, will greatly alleviate the crimes these women experience while simultaneously bringing better justice for those who have been violated. One obvious, but nonetheless difficult, resolution is for the Canadian government to simply acknowledge the problem and admit fault on a national level. Without admitting a problem exists, it is impossible to further address it. Another suggestion is to set aside resources dedicated to the research of crimes against Indigenous women. “In consultation with Indigenous peoples’ organizations and organizations representing ethnic minorities,” research should be focused on the cause and extent of the violence towards Indigenous women (Stolen Sisters 35). Specifically relating to the local Canadian police force branches, authorities should be trained to take immediate and action and treat these situations with urgency, and this cannot be achieved unless additional training and resources are provided to the police “to make prevention of violence against Indigenous women a genuine priority.” (Stolen Sisters 36). Finally, on a wide scale approach, the Canadian government must work directly with Indigenous administrations to “address the social and economic factors that lead to Indigenous women’s extreme vulnerability to violence” and “end the marginalization on Indigenous women in Canadian society.” (Stolen Sisters 35). Unless these steps are taken to abate violence against Indigenous women on both local and national levels, crimes will prevail and continue to grow.


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