Violence against Indigenous Women in Canada

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The theory of intersectionality encourages us to look deeper into the varying forms of identity one may hold and the potential discrimination an individual could face as a result of these associations. Gender, race, sexuality, and class are common organizations of identity that frequently intersect and interact to create unique experiences of discrimination, such as that of a woman of colour. Intersectionality is often interconnected with the theory of feminism, which is defined as a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression[2]. These two theories combine to explain the complex formation of social identities and how they shape women’s life experiences. From this perspective it is recognizable that not all women experience their womanhood in the same ways; many women face multiple forms of oppression, but not all women are considered powerless[3].

This perspective can be used to look at the issue of violence against women. Specifically, how racism and sexism intersect to cause a trend of increased violence against Indigenous women within Canada. Various statistics have proven that Indigenous women experience higher levels of violence in terms of both incidence and severity and are inaccurately represented in the number of missing and murdered women across Canada[4]. These women are found missing and murdered at extreme rates, and no actions are being taken to solve this crisis. Statistics Canada has not made a single list of these missing and murdered women, due to the reasoning that going missing is not a crime. The police, the justice system, and the public have all failed these women.

Police-Reported Statistics in Western Canada

Between the years 2000 and 2010, women accounted for 23.9%-35.4% of the total number of homicide victims in Canada[4]. According to the most recent Statistics Canada homicide survey, between the years 1991 and 2010, there were a total of 150 women engaged in the sex trade murdered due to their occupation[4]. In 2009, the Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC) reported 1,559 missing women cases in Canada[4]. The mandates of joint investigative task forces currently operating in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba are investigating 280 cases of individual women who have been murdered or are missing in which foul play is suspected or has not been ruled out[4]. These statistics are presented in table I-1.

Native Women’s Association of Canada – Sisters in Spirit Database

NWAC Sisters in Spirit Database Overview

In 2010, the Native Women’s Association of Canada had completed a five-year study of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls in Canada, producing a database of 582 cases of Aboriginal missing and murdered women and girls identified over the past 20 years[4]. These statistics are presented in table 1-2.

British Columbia

Violence against women in British Columbia has been prevalent for many decades; there have been a large number of serial killers since the 1970s. Many women have disappeared along the Yellowhead Highway, Highway 16 in Northern BC, between 1985 and 1991[4]. More than half of the victims were believed to be women engaged in the sex trade[4]. In 1998, the bodies of two women engaged in the sex trade were found in alleys in the DTES; these became known as the “Alley Murders[4]. The exact number of missing and murdered women along the Highway of Tears have not yet been determined[4].

The number of unsolved cases of missing women from Vancouver has diminished dramatically since 2002[4]. According to statistics compiled by the Vancouver Police Department, of 15,845 total missing women cases between 2002 and 2010, only 3 were outstanding at the time the statistics were compiled in August 2010[4].

These statistics reveal the truth about the severity of violent acts committed against Indigenous women. However, this is just a fraction of the amount of trauma that these women have been through, simply as a result of their gender and race.

Violence Against Indigenous Sex Workers in the Downtown East Side

As a result of colonialism and years of generational trauma in Canada and particularly B.C., countless Indigenous women are marginalized to the edges of society and left to survive in the most abhorrent conditions. Many of these women resort to substance use and participation in sex work as a way to stay alive, but are also met with intense stigma and often violence from outsiders. Demonstrated poignantly in How Poetry Saved My Life, sex workers in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside are disproportionately exposed to beatings, robberies, kidnappings, and other traumatic experiences; and this is only exacerbated if you are Indigenous[5]. Despite being a lively hub of drug use, prostitution, and poverty, the Downtown Eastside is also a thriving community overflowing with love and Indigenous culture. However, this doubles as a hunting ground for those holding long-standing prejudices and notions of white supremacy, making it an increasingly perilous place for Indigenous women. Here we can see the effect of race on the experience of being a sex worker, as being Indigenous exponentially increases risk of being exposed to violence and premature death. In Amber Dawn’s novel, she alludes to the fact that she cannot possibly understand the extent of stigma and violence enacted against racialized sex workers, as she holds a powerful privilege of being white[5]. Though she has undoubtedly experienced violence as a marginalized individual, she cannot conceptualize the experience of an additional identity such as Indigeneity, and the ways this intersects with being a female as well. Intersectionality theory can be used to analyze these intersecting experiences of gender and race inequalities in order to paint a picture of what it means to be Indigenous in a white-supremacist, colonialist nation like Canada.

There has been a long and deep-rooted history marginalizing against both women and Indigenous people separately and through Amber Dawn’s presentation of her experiences, she brings to light the difficulties of being both a woman and an Indigenous person in Canada. Intersectionality is the basis of Dawn’s experiences as she illustrates how difficult it has been being an Indigenous woman[5]. Because women face their own, separate problems from Indigenous people and vice versa, the combination of the two is what Amber Dawn must face. Intersectionality also discusses how Dawn cannot understand the issues of marginalized individuals who fall under different racial categories. Although Amber Dawn faces her own hardships and traumas, intersectionality addresses the fact that one cannot understand the issues that other marginalized people face if they do not identify with the category. Among people who fall victim due to intersectionality in communities, there is an underlying outrage and empathy for the mistreated from the mistreated. Other marginalized communities stand in support of others because they have experiences the discrimination towards their people, just in different ways. For example, a black woman may feel empathy for an Indigenous woman experiencing extreme violence because although the black woman has not had the same experience, she faces her own due to her race and gender, paralleling the Indigenous woman.

That being said, there is also a lack of public concern and outrage when Indigenous women go missing, specifically sex workers. This would look different if it were a white woman who went missing. Because of this aspect and lens of intersectionality, it protects white women but allows other racial groups of women, especially Indigenous women to fall victim to extreme violence without any concern from the public[5]. There is no push from the public for police to bring justice and support to the families of these Indigenous women, mainly due to the fact that they are Indigenous women. When it comes to Indigenous women in Canada, the long history of colonization, colonialism and mistreatment towards these people translate into how the sex workers in Vancouver are treated. They must endure the hardest of trials and tribulations due to the lens of intersectionality that society has in place.

Robert Pickton Murders

Between the years of 1995 and 2001, a particularly disturbed individual named Robert Pickton frequently roamed the streets of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside in search of women to take back to his farm to brutally murder[6]. What was irregular about this case of kidnappings and murders was that the majority of Pickton’s victims were Indigenous sex workers, a hint to police enforcement that larger structural factors were contributing to this trend. Above the already severely damaging and false stereotypes of Indigenous people being greedy drunks and prostitutes that have been popularized over the last century, Indigenous women were now going missing and most notably, the Vancouver Police Department didn’t seem to care. Due to their occupations as sex workers and their location in the very margins of Vancouver, police assumed that their disappearances had occurred as a result of overdose or relocation - a rationalization for the laziness and indifference toward the very prevalent and long-standing violence against Indigenous women in Canada[4]. As mentioned previously, greater structural components of our society are at play here, such as notions of colonialism and white supremacy, since the frequent disappearance of Indigenous women is met with public indifference; on the other hand, a large number of white women being kidnapped and murdered would be undoubtedly met with immense public outrage and social justice. Robert Pickton was able to continue harming Indigenous individuals for years because society disregards those who don’t fit into the mold of a ‘normal’ citizen - namely someone who is white and participates in the more accepted economy.

As touched upon by Amber Dawn in How Poetry Saved My Life, Indigenous women seem to be the main targets of extreme violence, especially in the downtown eastside, as seen through Robert Pickton’s case. There is already a disconnect between Indigenous women and society due to the fact that they are more like “aliens” to society. Because of colonialism and colonization, Indigenous people, especially women, are seen as foreign species taking space on white people’s land. This inherent belief allows society to turn a blind eye to these women because that is what society has always been doing. White women, although they face their own hardships due to the fact that they are women, are held at higher standards and hold more respect from others than Indigenous women and women of colour do. This is not because of deliberate choices to alienate Indigenous women, but because of a long history of marginalization and colonialism. A large reason for this deep-rooted colonialism is because of government policies purposely targeting Indigenous women because of the assimilation policy[4]. Out of the 33 women whose DNA was found on Pickton’s farm, it was found that 12 of these women were Indigenous[4]. This goes to show how disproportionately Indigenous women get treated, even on a small scale as seen in the case of Robert Pickton. These women are not only treated more extremely and severely but they are also targeted more than other racial groups of women, especially white women. Because of how ingrained the treatment towards Indigenous women is, it will take a lot to change this standard of mistreatment. Robert Pickton’s case did not happen very long ago, demonstrating how real and pressing and prevalent this issue is in our society. This event ended only 20 years ago and discrimination towards Indigenous people can still be seen in massive ways today. In addition, these women are more vulnerable to the sex trade due to inadequate housing, poverty, food insecurity, drug dependencies, and health inequities[4]. Because of government laws and the history of colonialism, Indigenous women are extremely susceptible to falling into the sex trade and sex work system. As well, due to this same system, these women are unable to leave it and work towards a better life, making them vulnerable to extreme levels of abuse in high increments.

Robert Pickton’s case brought to light the disregard towards Indigenous women in sex work. It also brought attention to the fact that the system holds these women at a disadvantage as it pushes them into the sex trade system and once they find themselves in it, it is extremely difficult, almost impossible for them to leave it.

Robert Pickton's Trial: Institutionalized Racism Within the Justice System & Media Coverage

Though women had been missing since 1998, it was only in 2002 that the media chose to address the growing number of missing women and lack of media coverage. A story ran on September 22, 2001, linked to the investigation that begins with," The original Vancouver city police investigation of missing women on the Downtown Eastside was assigned to inexperienced and overworked officers without the time or resources to do a thorough job, the Vancouver Sun has learned"[7]. It is saddening yet not surprising that the case involving missing female aboriginal sex workers gets handed off to the less experienced officers. Those involved in the investigation did not treat the case with urgency considering their residence and occupations. Violence against women commonly gets passed off as women "asking for it," nonetheless violence against sex-workers, who are generally viewed as society's "others," opens a new door, making them even more blameworthy, "they were in the wrong place in the wrong time, doing the wrong work"[7]. Coverage of racialized women also conforms to such societal constructions - reinstating popularized stereotypes that these women are hypersexual, diminishing the reality of the dire violence done to their bodies. These women were sadly a part of a group that society and the justice system chose to ignore. Even when being addressed, their situation was being reasoned for and not handled as a serious and pressing issue.

When the missing women were reported in the media, there was a coverage warning white women to stay out of bad neighbourhoods. The media took a stance accepting the crimes, reasoning that they were dangerous neighbourhoods, and instead of helping targeted group women, they warned the privileged. The coverages for the missing Aboriginals succumbed to a dominant hegemonic frame, making these women more acceptable by referring to them as mothers, daughters, and sisters; these positions made them more "respectable" regarding societal roles [7]. However, referring to these missing women as mothers, daughters, and sisters serves a double purpose. First, it makes the women more like "us," it gives us a way to connect with them through familiarity'. However, on the other hand, it conforms to the dominant hegemonic values, that women are only worth rescuing and saving if they are mothers, daughters, or sisters - essentially women like "us," women that the upper/middle class can relate with. The process of making them like "us" is a move to make them more relatable and privileged, therefore more deserving in terms of policy intervention and societal recognition [7].

Police enforcement’s complete negligence and disregard for Indigenous life was apparent after Robert Pickton was finally convicted for his horrendous crimes in 2007. Though Pickton admitted to murdering up to 49 women, he was only charged with 26 counts, and eventually only convicted under six counts of second-degree murder - a vast underestimation of the true events and an explicit result of the “blatant failures” on part of the Vancouver police force[6]. When we take a moment to reflect on Pickton’s crimes and the resulting charges, we can begin to see instances of white privilege being exercised within the justice system. Pickton wasn’t considered a serial killer by police, but just a quiet man who worked at a pig farm and minded his own business. When women and girls from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside began to go missing at a rapid rate, Vancouver Police refused to acknowledge the possibility of a serial killer, saying that “if there’s no body, there’s no evidence”[4]. More so, even when Pickton was reported numerously to police for suspicious behaviour, the police ignored these reports for years, highlighting the great disdain toward Indigenous sex workers in Vancouver.

Future Steps & Significance of Intersectionality

Canadian Government's Response

The Pickton murders constitute as racialized gendered violence rooted in the ongoing material and coherent effects of colonial power relations. The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls was launched by the Canadian government in 2016 in order to acknowledge potential systemic factors that may contribute to violence against Indigenous women[4]. The Canadian government has made plans to reduce the rate of violence against Aboriginal women, however, it is unknown how effective their efforts will be. In fact, it is known that minority women’s movements have much less influence on government policy as democratic governments appear to be more responsive to women of privileged groups than they are to women of marginalized subgroups[8].

Importance of Intersectionality as a Theory

The theory of intersectionality has been used as an important tool to further understand the inequalities that women of colour face. Intersectionality and feminism allow scholars to be more inclusive of a broader group of women when looking at feminist definitions and theories[3]. Intersectionality has provided a new perspective of feminism; now referred to within second and third-wave feminisms, intersectionality proposes that gender cannot be used as an individual analysis without also exploring how issues of race, migration status, history, and social class, all influence one’s experience as a woman[3]. It is no longer acceptable to produce analyses that are based solely on the idea of the "universal collective experience as “woman”"[3]. It has been recognized that individual women all experience their womanhood and various other oppressions differently in different social contexts. Specifically, what is oppression in one context may be a privilege in another[3].

Importance of Intersectionality in Data and Research

It is crucial to find authentic data and research when working a case that takes into account all sub-categories, to view the whole picture. The researchers argue that providing separate subcategories of the population (such as socioeconomic status, disability, indigenous origin, ethnicity, gender, etc.) within a segregated data breakdown is not enough[1]. Instead, data collection and analysis should lead to ways in which identity factors are related and interrelated. Participants should draw both on the survey questions and data analysis: to provide more accurate information about people's experiences, identities, and ways to reduce social inequalities and be based on policies, practices, and laws. For example, understanding the crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls is impossible without people's negligence. Analysis without these data is not an adequate reflection of real-life or the root causes of inequality[1].

Ontario's Data Standards for Identifying and Monitoring Systemic Racism underscore the need to hold users accountable for addressing systemic racism[1]. There is a misconception that research is too complicated to perform. However, equality researcher Ashlee Christopherson notes: "In practice, you don't need to research by staff; you can ask lots of research questions, choose your methods carefully, and interpret your results from a staff perspective."[1]. In addition to quantitative research, some researchers apply qualitative methods, combining specific case studies and narrative research with large statistical samples to discover unique intersections of identity[1]. An interdisciplinary approach should work with the affected community to determine the intersection categories most relevant to collection and analysis. In other words, it is essential to make the social construction of classes visible; the game's social structures become more evident when the effects of many classes are considered.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 Plecas, Darryl (September 2020). "Disaggregated demographic data collection in British Columbia: The grandmother perspective" (PDF). British Columbia's Office of the Human Rights Commissioner. Retrieved April 6, 2021. line feed character in |title= at position 45 (help)
  2. Cor & Chan, D.N. & C.D. (2017). "Intersectional feminism and LGBTIQQA+ psychology: Understanding our present by exploring our past". LGBT psychology and mental health: Emerging research and advances: 109–132 – via Google Scholar.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 Samuels & Ross-Sheriff, G. M. & F (2008). "Identity, Oppression, and Power". Affilia. 23(1): 5–9 – via Sage Journals.
  4. 4.00 4.01 4.02 4.03 4.04 4.05 4.06 4.07 4.08 4.09 4.10 4.11 4.12 4.13 4.14 4.15 4.16 4.17 Oppal, W.T. (2012). "Forsaken: the Report of the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry" (PDF). Missing Women Commission of Inquiry. – via Legislative Library of British Columbia.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 Dawn, A (2013). How Poetry Saved My Life A Hustler's Memoir. Arsenal Pulp Press. pp. 17–21, 108–116, 117–121, .CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)
  6. 6.0 6.1 Butts, Edward (July 26, 2016). "Robert Pickton Case". The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved April 5, 2021.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 Jiwani, Yasmin; Young, Mary Lynn (2006). "Missing and Murdered Women: Reproducing Marginality in News Discourse". Canadian Journal of Communication. Retrieved April 6, 2021.
  8. Fotheringham, Wells, & Goulet, S, L, & S (2021). "Strengthening the Circle: An International Review of Government Domestic Violence Prevention Plans and Inclusion of Indigenous Peoples". Violence Against Women. 27(3-4): 425–446 – via Sage Journals.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)


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