While their mission over the last five years has been research driven, the Native Women’s Association of Canada’s Sisters In Spirit (SIS) initiative is in the process of reinventing itself: using knowledge to pave the way for change.

On April 21, SIS released its latest report, What Their Stories Tell Us Research: Findings From The Sisters In Spirit Initiative. What their most up-to-date research shows is that 62 names have since been added to SIS’s data archive of missing and/or murdered Aboriginal women in Canada that have yet to have been fully accounted for. The total now stands at 582.

According to SIS director Kate Rexe, this is not to say that another 62 women have gone missing since 2009 as some of these cases were murders, others went missing and yet others are historical cases that have been added to the list.

“We know that there is a disproportionate rate of violence against Aboriginal women in Canada so it is not a stretch to say that the number is increasing and it is increasing at a significant rate when you look at homicide,” said Rexe.

According to the report, while the vast majority of 582 women and girls on the list were classified as having been murdered, 115 of them are still missing. Those that were murdered account for 10% of the total number of female homicides in Canada despite the fact that Aboriginal women make up only 3% of the total female population in Canada.

The report also showed that the majority of these disappearances and deaths happened in western Canada; that more than half of these women were young at the time with over half of them being under 31 and many of these women were mothers. Of the cases where information was available, 88% of these women left behind children and grandchildren.

In terms of those who have perpetrated crimes against these women, the report also states that almost 17% of those charged were strangers to them, and they are more likely to be killed by a stranger than non-Native women are.

Sadly, nearly half of the murder cases have yet to be solved. While 53% of the murder cases have been cleared by charges of homicide, no charges have been laid in 40% of cases.

While the numbers may have risen, Rexe said change is happening for as much as it might be slowly progressing. In the last year, SIS has had the opportunity to engage with the RCMP on many occasions to discuss the issue and have developed a strong working relationship with them. They have also had the opportunity to work with other police jurisdictions, such as the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police and the Ontario Chief’s Association.

SIS was even invited to the Canadian Police College to do training sessions with police officers on sensitivity training and awareness of violence against Aboriginals.

While their current mandate of a five-year research program to assess the situation lapsed on March 31, Rexe said that SIS is actually busier than usual. Though they don’t know what kind of cash input they will be receiving from the federal government, it is not the heart of their focus. Rather than relying solely on federal money, they have resorted to raising funds elsewhere.

Rexe said Indian and Northern Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl recently confirmed in Parliament that he would support SIS moving from research into action much like the Throne Speech suggested, but no public statement has been made. Nor have there been any announcements about whether SIS would be receiving any of the $10 million earmarked in the federal budget to address the missing/murdered Aboriginal women situation.

In terms of moving on, Rexe explained that their latest report was more about giving new statistics about the women instead of going into their stories as that was addressed in their last report, Voices of Our Sisters. Keeping the data separate was also done to honour these women so that the data can stand alone as can the stories. This report was also about concluding the questions that SIS set out to answer five years ago. Much of the data collected is to go towards policy change.

“I still believe that the research is a critical part of what we are doing because I don’t believe that any effective policy can come without having the evidence to support the decisions. That is why while we are making recommendations for how to move forward and what policy should look like and how to best engage with and educate different groups, it is all based on the evidence we have been able to collect. That is not ever going to be lost. We want to make sure that the information is still getting out there and that we are still paying attention to what the trends are and what the data says and how it is informing,” said Rexe.