Women vanish from Vancouver’s grimy Downtown Eastside with numbing regularity. But the fact a disproportionate number are of First Nations origin has plunged Canada into a political crisis.
Ernie Crey, an aboriginal Canadian, is angry. It is twelve years since his sister, Dawn, vanished from Vancouver’s downtown eastside – an utterly dismal skid row of slum hotels, pimps, prostitutes, drug addicts, pushers and charities that try to help them – and nine years since he learned that her DNA had been drawn from a pair of bloody women’s knickers on the pig farm of convicted serial-killer William Pickton.
It is worse when you have nothing to bury. Remains from the some victims were found at the farm, 40 minutes outside the city, and given to the families, including cleaved skulls. But nothing of Dawn was recovered. Mr Crey might have ignored the stories of Pickton mincing human flesh with pork meat and selling it to neighbours, or having the victims’ bones boiled down for pet food, but he didn’t. “I have gone there, yes, thought about it,” he admits quietly.
“Not knowing what really happened to her bothers me the most,” says Mr Crey, 63, a member of the Cheam First Nation and a fisheries advisor to the Stolo Tribal Council. “Barring Pickton coming forward and saying that yes, he was the asshole who killed her and the other women I don’t think I will ever know”.
But Mr Crey is not despairing, in part because the pig-farm murders have not faded from the headlines. Though Pickton was convicted of the second-degree murder of six women in 2007 (the true number of his victims may have been closer to fifty or even higher), and he is now serving life in a federal prison with no chance of parole for 25 years, the case continues to shed light on Canada’s most shameful secret: how its most ignored underclass - indigenous women - is preyed upon by men with impunity, and with terrifying consequences.
Frustration among the country’s First Nations has boiled over in recent weeks with the rise of Idle No More, a protest movement primarily sparked by steps taken by the conservative government of Stephen Harper to water down environmental laws ostensibly to spur economic development. Indigenous leaders have branded the changes an attack on aboriginal rights and lands while one among them, Chief Theresa Spence of Attawapiskat First Nation, is now in the fifth week of a hunger strike on an island across from the national parliament in Ottawa.
Amid the list of grievances that were raised at a summit meeting between First Nations chiefs and Prime Minister Stephen Harper one week ago, and which are voiced daily at protests and blockades of roads, bridges and rail links all across the country, is another issue however. It’s called, very simply: “Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women”.
“I don’t consider them missing, I consider that they are murdered,” Kate Gibson, Executive Director of WISH, a charity that operates a ‘drop-in’ for women sex-workers where they can eat a meal, clean up and socialise without fear of violence from pimps or johns. The night the news of Pickton’s arrest showed up on TV sets at the drop-in she watched in astonishment as one woman suddenly exclaimed “but I was at Willy’s just this Monday”. Another burst into tears and ran out into the street.
Aboriginals account for 3-4 per cent of Canada’s population of 35 million. Yet, of all the women who use the WISH drop-in – upwards of 600 women come through in a year and its kitchen serves 60 to 100 free meals in a single night – an astonishing 57 per cent are from the First Nations. Of the 67 women who were finally listed as missing in Vancouver when Pickton was active, almost two thirds were aboriginal, including Dawn Crey.
The Vancouver affair was shocking by any measure. After Pickton was convicted and his appeals were rejected, the provincial government of British Columbia ordered a formal enquiry into how the police had handled the Pickton case. The resulting report, all 1,448 pages of it, has just been released and while many of the victims’ families and their lawyers consider the investigation flawed, or even a whitewash, it still offers a blunt indictment of the city. Humbled by the confirmation that its officers had spent years ignoring claims that prostitutes were going missing, and disregarding tips-offs about Pickton and the pig-farm, the Vancouver Police Department has publicly apologised. The report also offers 62 recommendations for change - among them, the promise of new funding for groups like WISH.
But the issue goes beyond Vancouver or Pickton. Aboriginal woman are disappearing – or being murdered – with little or no follow-up by the authorities across Canada. A series of cases – officially it is 18, though it could be far higher – have been reported from a stretch of Highway 16 in northern British Columbia alone. The road has been nicknamed the Highway of Tears.
Federal statistics are almost non-existent but the Native Women’s Association of Canada says that as of March 2010 there were 582 documented cases of murdered indigenous women nationally, of which 39 per cent were since 2000. According to government statistics, indigenous women are currently almost seven times more likely to be murdered than non-indigenous women in Canada. Gladys Radeck, an activist who is organising a protest walk from Nova Scotia to British Columbia to raise awareness of the problem told The Independent that she has evidence that close to 3000 aboriginal women are currently unaccounted for.
It is because of these numbers that the First Nations, Idle No More - and Mr Crey - are now loudly asserting that the British Columbia probe must immediately be followed up by a national investigation.
“The epidemic of violence against indigenous women and girls in Canada is national problem and it demands a national enquiry,” said Meghan Rhoad of Human Rights Watch. So far the Harper government has been silent on the issue.
“How shameful is it that our country that is such a beautiful place to live has such a dark corner,” notes Lori-Ann Ellis, whose sister-in law, Cara Ellis, was also amongst Pickton’s victims. Ms Ellis, who says she is suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome after sitting through the weeks of the BC enquiry, supports a national commission even though Cara was not herself aboriginal. “It just makes me sick that our government can look the other way. Ottawa has to answer that question as to how it is that our women are so disposable.”
Jennifer Allan, who once walked the streets of Calgary, Edmonton and also on the downtown eastside of Vancouver, is similarly adamant. Now, she runs another volunteer centre offering food and other support services to Vancouver prostitutes called Jen’s Kitchen. She has been off drugs for nine years.
“A national enquiry would be a way to show the rest of Canada and the rest of the world that we have a crisis of missing and murdered women,” she explained this week in a Vancouver café. “It’s hypocritical how Canada goes after China and other countries for human rights when it pays no attention to its missing First Nation’s women.” According to Ms Allan, Vancouver police took so long to react to the community’s call for help to find the missing women because “in their mind Pickton was cleaning the garbage out for them”.
Ms Gibson of WISH says lots of men enjoy brutalising women during sex and find it easier if they are indigenous. She says these women are in the sex trade in such disproportionate numbers because it is their only choice. “They are victims of discrimination at every turn,” she says, sitting in her office. “This all revolves around colonisation which has broken up the traditions of what was a matrilineal society on the reserves, all of that is busted. We see a society that has had its culture smashed to smithereens, they are screwed.”
No one believes that repairing all that has already been broken will be easy or that a national enquiry will offer an instant panacea. But some, like Ernie Crey, dare to hope that with the Idle No More movement gaining steam, an important moment may have arrived when the issue of missing aboriginal women, among the many other grievances of Canada’s First Nations, might at least be honestly addressed. “I am going to be dogging everyone to get this done, dogging them every inch of the way,” he says.