While Robert Pickton faces trial in Vancouver, hundreds of murdered aboriginal women across Canada are quietly forgotten. Beverley Jacobs and her Sisters in Spirit are working to change that.
Kelly Morrisseau was found naked and barely alive at the entrance to a Gatineau park the morning of December 10, 2006. She would die soon after in a nearby hospital from loss of blood caused by 12 stab wounds and numerous defensive lacerations. An aboriginal from Winnipeg, Morrisseau was 27 at the time of her death. She was also seven months pregnant.
Her killer is still on the loose.
More than nine months after the incident, last September 19, a press conference was held to release a composite sketch of a possible suspect in her murder. But it’s difficult to hold out hope that her murder will be solved. Morrisseau has joined the ranks of Canada’s 500-plus unsolved cases of Aboriginal women who are missing and/or murdered.
Morrisseau was remembered along with many other women October 4 at a public vigil on Parliament Hill. The event honoured the lives of the hundreds of missing and murdered First Nations, Métis and Inuit women in Canada and thousands more across the world.
It was back in 2002 when we learned the name of Robert Pickton, a man who, if convicted, will hold the title for Canada’s most prolific serial killer. He is currently on trial for murdering 26 women from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, with more charges to follow.
A disproportionate number of the women he is accused of murdering were of Aboriginal descent. Sadly, statistically speaking, Aboriginal women have a tendency to slip off the map, never to be seen again, more so than the rest of the population. The question is why?
The number “500” is more enough to make anyone’s skin crawl. But Beverley Jacobs, president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC), suspects that number is actually far higher. Many aboriginal families, she notes, have lost faith with the legal system and have stopped reporting the disappearances.
“The number actually came out of a Statistics Canada report,” Jacobs told the Nation. “Even though we are using that number, it may actually not be accurate because just in the last two years of the Sisters in Spirit initiative we have been able to gather over 400 names.”
Since 2005, Sisters in Spirit, an initiative sponsored by NWAC through Status of Women Canada, has been working to improve the human rights of aboriginal women and address the violence facing aboriginal women. More specifically, the project focuses on Canada’s missing and murdered aboriginal women.
“We know it to be fact that a lot of families are not making missing person reports, based on the history and the lack of trust with the police,” Jacobs observes. “That has been one of the biggest struggles that we have had for a long time and it has been documented in the Royal Commission and various task forces across the country and many inquiries that has said that the justice system has failed the aboriginal people.”
Since 2005 Sisters in Spirit has worked to develop a database for Canada’s missing aboriginal women. The project compiles information on their lives and families – not only to help find the missing but also to put a human face on this crisis. Unfortunately, the initiative is largely self-supported, because while they have a relationship with law enforcement, they do not have the participation of Public Safety Canada.
“That is a big piece that was taken out of our initiative because Public Safety would not provide the resources for us to have that focus,” Jacobs says.
NWAC’s funding doesn’t permit them to hire a co-ordinator to serve as a go-between with the RCMP and other law enforcement agencies. They have even asked if there are police officers who are assigned to work on the many cases of missing aboriginal women.
“We believe this is at a crisis level, but are they going to take it seriously?” Jacobs asks. “They are telling us that they don’t have the resources either and it has to come from Public Safety. But Public Safety says, ‘We don’t think this is a serious issue.’ I have a really difficult time with that.”
At the time of this interview, Jacobs had just returned from a national policing conference in Ottawa. She enjoyed the experience but says she was shocked at the lack of funding for various aboriginal policing groups.
“They did a comparison between the funding that is provided the OPP for all kinds of new police departments, and funding for First Nations’ policing. It’s just disgusting. Is Public Safety serious about aboriginal issues and the safety of aboriginal people? If they can’t even fund the police organization, what does that mean for aboriginal women?”
When asked if racism is fuelling the lack of funding devoted to the missing aboriginal women crisis, Jacobs responded, “Yes. That is exactly what I have been saying. We are still dealing with a very racist society. We are still dealing with systemic discrimination; we are still dealing with all of those issues within govern-ment. Whether it is this government or the Liberal government, there has always been indifference towards this issue affecting aboriginal women.”
Sisters in Spirit have not only been working on their database to create public awareness and create a tool that may aid in finding some of the missing but also to look at some of the similarities between the cases. This evidence may one day be presented to Ottawa.
The database will include media reports about these missing women and in-depth interviews with their friends and families. A timeline of their lives, from birth to the time that they went missing, is being generated.
“We are looking at their family history, whether they were involved with child welfare and foster homes and the justice system, and whether they were impacted by residential schools. The whole purpose in all of this research is to be able to say, This is what we told you in the beginning, and now here is our proof.’”
Other questions go beyond individual details to address the basic causes of why aboriginal women are so vulnerable in Canada, and why the public is so complacent about the phenomenon.
“One of the biggest struggles we have had so far is the media reports and how some of these women are portrayed. Rather than portraying them as a women who has been murdered and that that there is a murderer out there, you get that she was a sex trade worker who was murdered. The perception or the stereotype is that she is an Indian. So it’s like, ‘Oh well, she is an Indian… Oh well, that is okay.’ That is not right. Someone is being murdered. Someone is being killed by another person.
“Then they say, ‘Hmm, is there a serial killer?
’ There are 17 aboriginal women in Winnipeg who have been murdered. So, whether or not there is a serial killer you still have 17 murders, there could be 17 killers. So isn’t that scary?”
This nightmare is closely related to the lack of resources available to aboriginal women in Canada, including access to shelters.
According to the Quebec Native Women’s Association, the province has five shelters that are specifically geared towards the province’s aboriginal women. Those five shelters each receive a base funding of $150,000. However, the shelters that are geared towards the rest of the province’s population each receive a base funding of $250,000. Sadly, Quebec is far from the worst offender in this regard.
In Alberta, where the population is growing faster than the province can develop sufficient social programs and services, the picture is sombre. Muriel Stanley Venne of the Institute for Advancement of Aboriginal Women, an Edmonton-based group says it is difficult to reach women at risk.
“The decisions are made now out of poverty, isolation and discrimination,” says Venne. “Those are the three elements of what we found across Canada. There is no safe place in this country for Aboriginal women.”
On September 27, Venne attended a picnic to help raise awareness and money for the family of Nina Courtepatte, a 13-year-old girl who was raped and murdered outside the Alberta capital. The teen, who had once aspired to be a fashion model, was bludgeoned to death on a golf course and still does not have a headstone as her family can not afford one.
Venne spoke of the alarming rates of aboriginal women who go missing in Edmonton, so much so that it prompted local law enforcement to create the macabre “Project Kare.” The initiative takes DNA from local sex workers and other “high-risk” individuals so that, if their corpses are discovered, they can be immediately identified.
“It was formed after the Vancouver murders,” Venne notes. The city of Edmonton “did not want to be embarrassed because there have been so many murders here in Edmonton.”
Venne goes on to tell a chilling tale. “You know, this is so hard to take because one of the officers I spoke to was talking to one of the women on the street. He said, ‘Hi, how are you?
’ And he got her ID done. She said, ‘Good, now you will be able to find my body, you will now be able to identify me when you find me dead.’ This is Canada right? This is what is so hurtful. It’s hard to believe that this I am talking about, almost flippantly. But this is burned in my mind. I just find it so horrible.”