vigil missing womenWhen people hear the phrase “missing and murdered Native women,” too often they think of British Columbia’s Highway of Tears and the horrors of Robert Pickton. But a new initiative by the Quebec Native Women’s Association (QNWA) hopes to change that by surveying Aboriginal communities about women who have disappeared or been murdered in Quebec.

Though lacking funds for a broad-based search through each of the province’s First Nations communities, the organization began this summer with an overarching survey that will lead to a report to be published soon. The most startling discovery, said QNWA Justice Coordinator Alana Boileau, was the lack of awareness.

“What [we] found is that a lot of people feel as though they don’t really know what’s going on in Quebec versus all the information about what’s happening out west,” she explained. “The issue of missing and murdered Native women, because of the way it’s been portrayed in the media, has become sensationalized and become a catchphrase where people think of kidnapping, brutal murders, mysterious and unresolved deaths.”

But the problem is more complicated than that, Boileau said. It extends to violence within communities, and to the institutional racism against Aboriginal people that prevents proper investigations from taking place. She railed against Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s assertion that most cases of missing and murdered women have been solved, and his government’s commitment to spend money on a DNA database to help identify bodies of women.

“First of all,” she said, “the database is a reaction to people that have disappeared and does nothing for preventing disappearances. It’s not enough. It’s wonderful that it might allow closure for people who have lost someone, but it does nothing to prevent [future losses], which is what we’re aiming for.”

However, a more disturbing question is why Native women, who make up 4% of the population, are victims of 16% of female murder victims in Canada.

“Whether these murders are resolved or not,” she said, “there’s a disproportionate amount. And one murder is too many, but this is ridiculous. For [Harper] to claim this is not a sociological issue is just unfathomable.”

While this is far from the first research on missing and murdered women, Boileau points out that it fills a gap for information about the issue in Quebec – particularly in the French-language media, where the subject is rarely discussed. She also notes that the context of Quebec offers specific challenges, such as the existence here of Aboriginal police corps operating in Native communities. While often violence against Indigenous women takes place at the hands of white men, it also takes place among Native people in their own communities. In those instances, local police can complicate the situation if they have not been properly trained.

“One of the things that has come up is the challenge of addressing violence in communities where a lot of times people are related to the police officers, or they know them,” she explained. “The solution is definitely not to bring in police who don’t know the communities, but we need to have very serious conversations about how to ethically intervene with people that we know. How do we create relationships where women feel comfortable calling the police if the perpetrator of violence against them is, say, a police officer’s brother?”

In Eeyou Istchee, the QNWA surveys were conducted among the membership of the Cree Women of Eeyou Istchee Association (CWEIA) during the AGA in Whapmagoostui September 6-7, said association President Virginia Wabano. “Christine Petawabano did the presentation,” she said. “We had representation from all of the communities at the AGA.”

Donald Nicholls, Director of Justice for the Cree Nation Government, said the CNG supports the initiative and hopes to see it widened in Eeyou Istchee under the guidance of the CWEIA.

“What we [told the QNWA] was that we would help out in whatever way we could, but that ideally it should be the local chapters of the CWEIA that should give the surveys – they can do it in our Justice facilities, or wherever they want, but we could be around to help with that, because it’s such an important initiative. We think that it should come from the communities and be local – there should be someone there who can provide support in case there’s healing that’s needed, or in case it brings up other issues.”

Nicholls, however, stressed that he felt the definition of “missing” should extend as far back as the residential schools era, in which many children died or disappeared and their families were often not given basic information surrounding those losses.

“We also recommended to them that they should propose training to SQ units that are around Native reserves to heighten their awareness of the issue itself,” Nicholls explained. “So they can be more vigilant, and be sure that the numbers of murdered or missing Aboriginal women and children don’t increase.”

Boileau agrees that recognizing that children who disappeared from residential schools is a part of acknowledging a history of disregard for Aboriginal life among Canadian government and institutions. However, she says that at the moment her organization is concerned about widening the focus of their research too broadly.

“By making it too large and conflating issues,” she said, “we run the risk of losing ourselves in terms of how we address it. I don’t believe that the same kinds of measures can be taken if we’re addressing someone whose mother disappeared during residential school versus someone whose sister was murdered by a white man. These aren’t the same issues, even though they have similar impacts in terms of what it means to lose someone violently or mysteriously.”