Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Canada: The Colonialist Roots of Systemic Inequality

Current Events Mar 08, 2020

By Kaitlin Ng


Over the course of the past few decades, approximately 4,000 Indigenous women have been murdered or have disappeared in Canada. However, because we can only approximate, it is possible that this number underrepresents the true magnitude of the violence. (Barrera, 2019).

Not only is this violence against Indigenous women and girls more frequent than their non-Indigenous counterparts, but it is also more severe (Brant, 2019). For example, Indigenous women face a homicide rate roughly 4.5 times higher than that of all other women in Canada (“Missing...” 2019). The disproportionate violence faced by Indigenous women and girls corroborates claims of a genocide, as stated in the final report by the national inquiry investigating the epidemic (Forani, 2019).

Since its ‘discovery’ in 1867, Canada has established its absolute dominance as a colonial power in economic, political, cultural, and social forms (Takamura, “Colonial Legacies,” INTD200 Fall 2019). The systemic oppression of Indigenous peoples, specifically women and girls, is and has been facilitated by state actions and inactions rooted in colonial ideals that highlight the presumption of white superiority. Through these ideals, the state exercises its coercive power to control Indigenous bodies and land. These colonial attitudes have morphed into neocolonial practices used to justify many legally sanctioned policies that perpetuate violations of basic human and Indigenous rights, such as the Indian Act, residential schools, the Sixties Scoop, forced sterilization, and the over-policing of Indigenous communities. (Abedi, 2019).

Through its establishment of such institutions, Canada has implemented systemic inequality that continuously keeps this group from attaining resources needed to improve their lives (Amadeo, 2019). The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIWG) national inquiry report, published in June 2019, posits that these violations are deliberate; it contends that institutions of both the past and present were constructed in order to annihilate Indigenous peoples.

This paper will address how colonialist ideas are embedded within the systemic inequality that bolsters the disproportionate violence against Indigenous women and girls, resulting in their disappearances and deaths. Through discussion of Canada’s actions, policies, and omissions that perpetuate Indigenous oppression, this essay will demonstrate how the state reinforces its colonial hegemony and fails to protect communities who need it the most.

This paper will discuss Canada’s roots in colonialism, how these colonial ideals continue to maintain violence against Indigenous women and girls, and the policy recommendations made by the MMIWG report to remedy the ongoing marginalization of Indigenous women and girls.

Statistics and Demographics of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women

Indigenous groups have long called for government initiative into the high rates of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, but their calls-to-action were ignored until December 2015.

It was not until the death of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine, whose body was found wrapped in plastic and weighed down with rocks in the Red River in Manitoba, did the government decide to launch a national inquiry into the ceaseless and unjust violence (Razack, 2016, 2, Austen and Bilefsky, 2019).

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) launched a review that confirmed 1,181 cases of Aboriginal female homicides and unresolved missing Aboriginal females between 1980 and 2012 (“Reclaiming...” 2019, 54). The RCMP also reports that Indigenous women made up roughly 16% of all female homicides between 1980 and 2012, despite making up only 4% of the female population.

Yet, these statistics are misleading. Today, Indigenous women and girls make up almost 25% of homicide victims (“Reclaiming...” 2019, 55). The deliberate targeting of Indigenous women is evident and undeniable. They are 12 times more likely to be murdered or missing than any other woman in Canada, and 16 times more likely than Caucasian Canadian women (“Reclaiming...” 2019, 55). Furthermore, Indigenous women experience sexual assault three times more often than non-Indigenous women, and the majority of women and children trafficked in Canada are Indigenous (“Reclaiming...” 2019, 55).

The common trend weaving these statistics together is the fact that violence against Indigenous women and girls is not an individual problem, nor is it an issue solely in specific communities. This violence is rooted in systemic factors of economic, social, and political marginalization, as well as racism and misogyny that were weaved into the very fabric of Canadian society through the process of colonization (“Reclaiming...” 2019, 56).

Systemic Inequality in the Context of Early Colonization

Colonization refers to “the processes by which Indigenous peoples were dispossessed of their lands and resources, subjected to external control, and targeted for assimilation and, in some cases, extermination” (“Reclaiming...” 2019, 230)

Colonialism in all forms created and exploited centre-periphery relations, and imposed the hegemony of white rule upon colonized peoples, in order to establish normative dominance of the colonizer over the colonized. However, this is not to say that the impact of colonialism was the same everywhere- it was by no means a homogenous process. Rather, colonialism adversely impacted communities and populations in a multitude of ways

Thus, analyzing the impact of colonialism is vital to understanding the variation in the experiences and history of Indigenous peoples; their economic, social, and political spheres have been altered by the hegemonic power of the west in distinct ways (Takamura, “Colonial Legacies,” INTD200 Fall 2019).

Regarding state sanctioned violence within the context of colonization, it is important to note that this violence goes beyond administrative policies meant to exert physical control over the population. The perpetrated violence also includes strategic attempts to eliminate Indigenous peoples and systematically destroy their culture by ‘civilizing’ them  (“Reclaiming...” 2019, 111).

Women played an essential role in traditional Canadian Indigenous society, particularly in terms of trade. They produced food, clothing, and staples such as wild rice and maple syrup, and worked as traders themselves. However, early colonization devalued the role of Indigenous women.

Colonists imposed patriarchal European values, rooted and justified in Christianity, that devalued both the work and the worth of Indigenous women; the women’s freedom and self-determination were seen as contrary to European Christian values and thus deemed necessary to eradicate. Jesuit priests held public gatherings to teach Indigenous men how to abuse Indigenous women and children, subordinating their once-powerful position into one of dependence (“Reclaiming...” 2019, 238).

Moreover, explorers would often kidnap Indigenous people, bringing them to Europe as evidence of newly “discovered” lands. This categorized Indigenous peoples as “exotic” and “primitive” beings, dehumanizing them to objects subject to inspection. For example, in 1577, Martin Frobisher kidnapped an Inuit man, woman, and child and brought them to England, where they later succumbed to disease (“Reclaiming...” 2019, 234).

The colonial hegemony Canada forced upon Indigenous groups is evident through their imposition of “modern” values and norms, such as Christianity and women’s subjugation. The cultural logic of colonialism emphasized social Darwinism, which suggests that settlers were “progressive” and natives were “primitive” peoples in need of modernization (Takamura, “Colonial Legacies,” INTD200 Fall 2019). In fact, colonialism was presumed to mark the beginning of history for these societies, as Europeans were presumed to have animated them culturally, economically, and politically (Mamdani, 2001, 651).

How Systemic Inequality is Maintained Within the Context of Colonization

The Canadian government has roots in perpetuating systemic inequality through the logic of ‘discovery’ and the assertion of Canadian sovereignty. Residential schools, the Sixties Scoop, and child welfare systems indicate the state’s attempt to assimilate Indigenous people and erase their culture (“Reclaiming...” 2019, 230).

Thousands of Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their homes and sent to government-sponsored residential schools, where they were taught Christian practices to denigrate Indigenous spirituality and culture. Abuse was widespread at these schools, and an estimated 6,000 children died as a result (Miller, 2019).

The Sixties Scoop refers to the large-scale removal of Indigenous children from their homes during the 1960s, and their subsequent adoption into predominantly non-Indigenous, middle-class families in the United States and Canada (Sinclair and Dainard, 2019).

Today, the overrepresentation of Indigenous children in child welfare systems remains an issue of concern. For example, in Alberta, 69% of Indigenous children are in protective care, although they make up just 9% of the child population (Sinclair and Dainard, 2019).

In the area of health, Indigenous women were subject to forced sterilization, on the basis eugenics, which aimed to limit the procreation of people with ‘undesirable’ characteristics or genes (Marshall and Robertson, 2019). Forced sterilization occurred throughout the 1960s and 1970s, and exemplifies Canada’s colonial agenda to inflict violence upon Indigenous women in an effort to limit their capacity to inhabit their rightfully-owned land (Parker, 2018).

The institutions listed above clearly labeled non-natives as powerful, while systematically  depriving the indigenous population of entitlements (Mamdani, 2001, 644). Through these policies, the colonial state enabled a minority rule over a majority (Mahmood, 2001, 663).

Intergenerational trauma around the loss of land, forced relocations, residential schools, and the Sixties Scoop ultimately set the stage for prolonged violence and poverty. Canada’s land grabs exemplify their colonial hegemony; as they desired to further themselves economically at the expense of Indigenous welfare (Takamura, “Colonial Legacies,” INTD200 Fall 2019).

The concept of “historical trauma” suggests that challenges such as substance abuse, addiction, and suicidal thoughts, which are often posited as personal failings of Indigenous communities, are responses to the trauma of colonial violence (“Reclaiming...” 2019, 112). Through this lens, colonial violence is viewed as traumatic experiences being passed on through generations within a community, and its cumulative effects are difficult to break.

Indigenous women and girls experience poverty, homelessness, food insecurity, and barriers to education and employment at much higher rates than non-Indigenous people as a result of colonial systems that sustain their economic and political marginalization (“Reclaiming...” 2019, 114). The precarious situations they are often forced into means that they are at a greater risk of  violence. Moreover, they lack access to resources necessary to address the systemic violence, such as housing, counselling, and mental health services (“Reclaiming...” 2019, 114).

Indigenous people describe an institutional culture that perpetuates inhumane treatment and individualizes the challenges they face, rather than recognize that these challenges are a result of stereotypes embedded within the systems (“Reclaiming...” 2019, 115).

Police and the criminal justice system have historically failed Indigenous women by disregarding their concerns and viewing them “through a lens of pervasive racist and sexist stereotypes” (Austen and Bilefsky, 2019). Police are notorious for victim-blaming missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, describing them as “drunks,” “runaways out partying” or “prostitutes unworthy of follow-up” (Austen and Bilefsky, 2019).

Indigenous people are often stereotyped as alcoholics and drug abusers, and the Canadian government uses this narrative to impart blame on the victims for their own deaths. This is exemplified in the case of Siasi Tullaugak, an Indigenous woman, who was found dead on the balcony of her apartment  in Montreal on August 28th, 2017. Her death was ruled a suicide, despite ample evidence suggesting foul play (“Questions...” 2019). Here, the state depends on the trope of “the Indian so traumatized or so colonized that they just cannot function in the modern world” in order to deflect their responsibility for the disproportionate amount of violence they face onto the victims themselves (Lucchesi, 2019, as cited in Razack, 2015).

In another case where a young Indigenous woman named Nadine disappeared, there was a 60-hour delay in the police response to the crime scene and destruction of evidence (“Reclaiming...” 2019, 672). When Nadine’s family communicated with the police about her disappearance, officers suggested that Nadine was at fault; their body language, word choice, and deamanor were demeaning. Their insensitive response to Nadine’s worried family exemplifies the deeply ingrained prejudices government institutions hold about the inherent worth of Indigenous people (“Reclaiming...” 2019, 115).

When institutions fail to recognize that the challenges faced by Indigenous peoples are exacerbated by systemic inequality, they fail to protect the very people they were meant to serve. This in turn leads to the mistrust of authorities all together (“Reclaiming...” 2019, 115).

The Final Report into the National Inquiry of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls: Policy Recommendations

The MMWIG report comes after a three-year inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, during which 1,500 families of victims and survivors testified at hearings across the country (Austen and Bilefsky, 2019). The final report found that the thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls constitutes a genocide.

A genocide, as defined by the United Nations 1948 convention, is “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part 1;  imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group” (Abedi, 2019).

Canada’s Crime Against Humanity and War Crimes Act, passed in 2000, broadens the definition of genocide to encompass failures to act. The MMIWG report posits that Canada must own up to the colonial genocide, which often goes unrecognized because it has been carried out “over centuries of policies, actions and omissions that cumulatively reflect an intention to destroy Indigenous Peoples” (Abedi, 2019).

It is vital to define this epidemic of violence against Indigenous populations as a genocide because today’s government laws, policies, and actions prove to be just as deadly as the explicitly racist policies of the past. For example, “the theft of children into residential schools is now the theft of children into provincial foster care” (“Reclaiming...” 2019, 53). Scalping bounties of the past now comes in the form of deaths in police custody. Racism against Indigenous people runs much deeper than stereotypes and name-calling; rather, it is killing innocent people. The denial of Status and membership for First Nations, forced relocation and its adverse impacts, purposeful, chronic underfunding of essential human services, coerced sterilizations, and failure to protect Indigenous women and children from exploitation and trafficking are just a few examples that demonstrate the continual impacts of systemic inequality (“Reclaiming...” 2019, 53).

The final report calls to recognize Indigenous women and girls as experts in their own experiences of justice. When the police and the criminal justice system fail to acknowledge the critical insight families have to offer when a loved one goes missing, this immortalizes the same systemic inequality that led them to go missing in the first place (“Reclaiming...” 2019, 703). The report offers 231 recommendations to the federal government to enact change. In order to improve law enforcement and prevent violence against women, the report calls for increasing the number of Indigenous people on police forces, empowering more Indigenous women to serve on civilian boards that oversee police activity, and a change in the criminal code to classify some killings of Indigenous women by spouses with a history of abuse as first-degree murder (Austen and Bilefsky, 2019).

Other “calls for justice” include the need to address Indigenous women’s lack of access to housing, food, and remote and rural transit options, as well as funding for women’s shelters. Moreover, the report calls for the creation of an ombudsperson and tribunal for Indigenous and human rights and funding for educational programs regarding the prevention of violence (Forani, 2019).

The Government of Canada has pledged to allocate $50 million in funding to provide health and support services to survivors and families of missing and murdered women and girls, to support a national oversight body at the Royal Canadian  Mounted Police, to support a review of police policies and practices, and to commemorate the lives and legacies of Indigenous women and girls (“Backgrounder...” 2019).


The disproportionate amount of violence that Indigenous women and girls face epitomizes the systemic inequality ingrained within Canadian society. This inequality stems from colonialist ideas about the inherent superiority of whites and the subordination of native people.

Beginning with the “discovery” of Canada, Christian and European values attempted to strip Indigenous people of their land, their rights, and their culture. As a result, these attitudes have sanctioned policies that have targeted Indigenous women and their families, such as land grabs, the Indian Act, residential schools, forced sterilization, and the Sixties Scoop, amongst other examples.

Violence against Indigenous women and girls in Canada today must be understood within the historical context of colonization, which attempted to exterminate Indigenous peoples as a whole. The final report on the national inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls denotes the epidemic as a genocide. It makes recommendations to the Canadian government to improve law enforcement and prevent violence against these women. This systemic inequality is so deeply entrenched within Canadian policies that a paradigm shift is required to reclaim both power and justice. The implementation of the final report’s recommendations is necessary in order to bring Indigenous peoples one step closer to the equity they deserve.

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