MMIW graphic created by Vincent Schilling
A Comprehensive Report on MMIW: The Curiously Different Tales of Violence against Indigenous Women On Both Sides of Turtle Island

A Comprehensive Report on MMIW: The Curiously Different Tales of Violence against Indigenous Women On Both Sides of Turtle Island

Lisa J. Ellwood

Editor’s Note: Though the figures are not definite, currently there are an estimated 1,200 Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in Canada. ICTMN Correspondent Lisa J. Ellwood’s investigation addresses official police and government narratives that Indigenous men are wholly or mostly responsible.  

Lisa J. Ellwood will be donating her fee from this article to the community-lead MMIW initiative - Support for Missing And Murdered Indigenous Women and Their Families. Learn about the project and background

The data fueling continued assertions that Indigenous Canadian men and domestic violence are largely responsible for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) doesn't add up.

Last March, former Canadian Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt caused a furor on both sides of the border with his assertion that Indigenous men are responsible for 70% of MMIW cases in Canada. The only substantiation of Valcourt's claim at the time was unreleased data allegedly provided by the RCMP in a private conversation with Indigenous leaders. For the Grand Chiefs, this latest claim was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Several of the leaders present at the meeting went public with their anger and skepticism about Valcourt’s claims. Bernice Martial, Grand Chief of Treaty Six in central Saskatchewan and Alberta, spoke with APTN advocating for a comprehensive report on full the RCMP “MMAW” Dataset. Chief Martial also pointedly noted that ex-Minister Valcourt was dismissive when confronted about his overly-aggressive consistently negative views of Indigenous leadership, and Indigenous men, specifically, to Canadian Press.

Something is rotten in the state of RCMP data

Less than a month later, RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson supported Valcourt’s claims in a letter to Chief Martial published by the National Post:

“Female homicides across all ethnicities is inextricably linked to familial and spousal violence,” Paulson wrote. “It is for this reason that RCMP analysis and prevention methods have focussed [sic] on the relationship between the victim and offender. The consolidated data from the nearly 300 contributing police agencies has confirmed that 70 per cent [sic] of the offenders were of aboriginal origin, 25 percent were non-aboriginal, and five per cent [sic] were of unknown ethnicity.”

Data on the ethnicity of offenders was withheld, Chief Martial was told, because “public discourse on the ethnicity of the offender has the potential to stigmatize and marginalize vulnerable populations. It is in the spirit of our bias-free policing policy that the RCMP has thus far not disclosed statistics on the perpetrators of solved Aboriginal female homicides.”

Shortly thereafter, the RCMP released an update to its 2014 Report. While not as ‘comprehensive’ as its Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women National Operational Overview predecessor, this recent update with ‘strengthened data’ seemingly exists to further justify assertions that Indigenous communities and their men and boys are especially violent and largely responsible for the victimization of Indigenous women and girls.

It dismissed continued calls for a national, independent MMIW enquiry on the basis of an ‘All Lives Matter’ type rationale:

“While serving as a stark portrait of a complex issue, the 2014 National Operational Overview pro­vided the RCMP with the most comprehensive statistical analysis of police-reported incidents of missing and murdered Aboriginal women to date. It has helped to give the RCMP, and hopefully the public at large, better insight into this reality.

"The update revealed the unmistakable connection homicides have to family violence. Most women, regardless of ethnicity, are being killed in their homes and communities by men known to them, be it a former or present spouse, or a family member. Prevention efforts must focus on stopping violence in family relationships to reduce homicides of women, and we are moving forward with many initia­tives on this front.”

It has to be noted that this ‘strengthened’ RCMP data is presented with the caveats of (1) “a certain amount of error and imprecision. Collection by investigators means data is susceptible to human error and interpretation and multiple data sources (with different purposes, collection methodologies, and definitions) were used in the research. The numbers that follow are the best available data to which the RCMP had access to at the time the information was collected”; and (2) “since the RCMP does not collect and report homicide data for the over 300 non-RCMP police agencies who each gave individual consent to use their data for the 2014 Overview, this update reflects only RCMP data only.”

The data conveniently supports the RCMPs ongoing disingenuous rhetoric that all racial groups are almost equally experiencing violence at particularly high rates and in the same way – yet Indigenous communities, men, and boys are singled out as somehow being exceptionally violent and in need of heavily funded targeted ‘awareness raising’ domestic violence prevention campaigns fronted by the likes of Shania Twain (who claims First Nations ancestry), and Inuk hockey player Jordin Tootoo.

Twain pitched the idea to dress up as a Mountie for a concert and ride a horse onstage with real Mountie escorts. The RCMP was only too happy to comply when she volunteered to record an RCMP Public Service Announcement against domestic violence as a thank-you.

The RCMP reports that over 75% of RCMP Family Violence Initiative (FVI) funds for 2014-2015 were distributed to Indigenous communities where the RCMP is focusing its violence prevention and intervention initiatives. Fiscal years 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 will continue with this focus.

The Strange Tale of Two Turtle Islands - Canadian vs. U.S. Statistics

As with Canada and its Indigenous peoples, American Indians and Alaskan Natives (AI/AN) are less than five percent of the total US population. And also like Indigenous Canadian women and girls, their Native American sisters across the border are also far more likely to be victims of violence compared to other Americans. The RCMP’s conflicting claims and reports are a stark contrast to available data on violence against Native American women in the US and the inferences to be derived thereof.

The reason for this lies in available datasets – the types of data used and how the data is collected specifically.

Federal US Government entities including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Department of Justice (DoJ), and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) readily acknowledge that precise data for violence against women and girls in Indian Country has been very hard to come by. There is no central repository for detailed statistics on violence against women in Indian Country, and what is known has been largely provided by the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS).

In the US, Domestic and Sexual Violence are considered to be public, preventable health problems along with stalking. As such, the NISVS is carried out by the Federal Government’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (NCIPC) of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP) with the support of the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) and the Department of Defense (DoD), rather than police departments where violent crimes against American Indians and Alaska Natives not only continue to be under-reported by Indigenous populations but are also largely ignored by law enforcement.

The NISVS is an ongoing, nationally representative landline and cell phone telephone survey of non-institutionalized adult women and men in all 50 States and the District of Columbia conducted in English and Spanish which aims to detail: (1) the prevalence and characteristics of sexual violence, stalking, and intimate partner violence; (2) who is most likely to experience these forms of violence, (3) the patterns and impact of the violence experienced by specific perpetrators; and (4) The health consequences of these forms of violence.

The Survey states: “Everyone deserves to live a life free of violence. Unfortunately, sexual violence, stalking, and intimate partner violence are some of the country’s most serious public health problems. Victims of violence not only suffer the immediate injury but also long-term physical, psychological and social consequences. The sensitivity of these issues has minimized some of the most serious public health problems in our country. Population-based surveys, like NISVS, are important because they help uncover violence that is often not reported to police or others.”

American Indian and Alaskan Native Americans are surveyed as a specific data collection target market with the aid of NIJ financial support.

The closest Canadian equivalents to the NISVS are cross-sectional sample surveys that by their very design and methodology have largely excluded Indigenous women. They include the General Social Survey on Victimization (GSS) and the Violence Against Women in Canada Survey (VAWS).

The GSS sample survey on social trends is conducted every five years with a target population 15 and over, living in the provinces and territories. Institutional Residents are excluded. This survey began in 1998 with two primary objectives: (1) to monitor changes in the living conditions and well-being of Canadians over time and (2) provide information on specific social policy issues of current or emerging interest. The GSS survey states:

“A specific topic is usually repeated every five years. The main objective of the GSS on Victimization is to better understand how Canadians perceive crime and the justice system and their experiences of victimization.”

The GSS on Victimization is modeled on the 1993 Violence Against Women in Canada Survey (VAWS), however it is not as extensive as its predecessor. VAWS was a 1993 one-time telephone sample survey of 19,000 eligible households conducted in English and French only across the provinces excluding Residents of Yukon & Northwest Territories and full-time residents of institutions.

The target population was all women 18 years of age and over in Canada and the response rate was 54%, with 12,300 representative households answering a range of questions concerning “the safety of women both inside and outside the home - perceptions of fear, sexual harassment, sexual violence, physical violence and threats by strangers, dates/boyfriends, other known men, husbands and common-law partners.”

The GSS Victimization Survey is “the only national survey of self-reported victimization and is collected in all provinces and territories. The survey allows for estimates of the numbers and characteristics of victims and criminal incidents. As not all crimes are reported to the police, the survey provides an important complement to officially recorded crime rates. It measures both crime incidents that come to the attention of the police and those that are unreported. It also helps to understand the reasons behind whether or not people report a crime to the police.

Survey results will be used by police departments, all levels of government, victim and social service agencies, community groups and researchers not only to better understand the nature and extent of victimization, but also to study Canadians' perceptions of their safety, the levels of crime in their neighborhoods, and their attitudes toward the criminal justice system.”

A new internet-based GSS pilot survey of non-institutionalized persons 15 years of age or older on victimization was launched in 2014. A raw sample of 5,000 households in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Quebec were contacted by telephone and redirected to the online questionnaire.

The GSS “uses Statistics Canada's new telephone sampling frame. The frame contains landline and cellular telephone numbers from the census and various administrative sources provided to Statistics Canada. A sub-sample of unlisted telephone numbers as well as addresses and names from Statistics Canada's new dwelling frame are also included. This sampling frame is used to obtain a better coverage of households with a telephone number.”

The Sexual Report Centre of Ottawa notes that the primary sources of information on victims of crime in Canada comes from the GSS and the Uniform Crime Reporting Survey (UCR). The Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, a division of Statistics Canada, developed the UCR. This survey is done in partnership with and with the support of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police “based on reported crimes that have been substantiated through police investigation”.

SRCO’s “Statistics on Violence Against Women” document includes detailed analysis on the limitations of both the GSS and UCR surveys. The organization notes that the VAWS was important because it was the first Statistics Canada survey with a wide range of in-depth questions purposefully focused on male violence against women.

So What’s the Problem?

The problem, they say, is that Canadian approaches to data collection and examining violence ultimately under-represents certain groups including young single adults, women in shelters, the homeless, and immigrants along with “presenting a significant barrier for the full inclusion of Aboriginal women (particularly those living in the territories.)”

The UCR police surveys are just as problematic with data collection and analysis. The current Incident-Based Uniform Crime Reporting Survey (UCR2) database is comprised of information from 68 police services that have consistently reported from 1998 to 2004, accounting for only 37% of national crime in 2004. The sample of police forces is not nationally representative; the largest percentage of cases come from Ontario and Quebec.

Canada Needs To Consider Violence Against AI/AN Women

While there is no doubt that violence against women is a national crisis in the US impacting every community regardless of race, NISVS data tells a story making it clear that the violence faced by American Indian / Alaskan Native women and girls is exceptional in ways that don’t occur in other racial groups.

In its 2000 report of the Prevalence, Incidence, and Consequences of Violence Against Women,  based on the National Violence Against Women Survey at that time, the DoJ established that American Indian and Alaskan Native women are 2.5 times more likely than the general U.S. female population to experience sexual assault and at least 2 times more likely to experience rape or sexual assault crimes compared to all other races. These statistics have remained constant since they were published and the NISVS, along with the DoJ’s 2004 Statistical Profile American Indians and Crime and results from the 2010 US Census, adds considerable weight and context to them.

Though the BIA is tasked to conduct criminal investigations into criminal violations committed on reservations involving Federal, State, County, Local and Tribal codes; its own website declared for several years that usage of the drug Crystal Meth is the big priority having moved on from its decades-old focus on alcohol consumption. Media reports have tended to reinforce the preoccupation with drugs, alcohol included, in Indian Country.

The “Policy Insights Brief: Statistics on Violence Against Native Women” and “Violence Against Women Act Toolkit” by the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) Policy Research Center adds well-researched context to its position. The NCAI report states:

“Despite the federal trust obligation to protect Indian communities, violence against Native women in the United States has reached epidemic proportions and greatly exceeds that of any other population of women in the United States. The Violence Against Women Act of 2005 clarified that the unique legal relationship of the United States to Indian tribes creates a federal trust responsibility to assist tribal governments in safeguarding the lives of Native women.

Yet the ongoing violence against Native women shows that this responsibility has not been fulfilled. Indian nations have broad legislative authority to make decisions impacting the health and safety of their respective communities, but the legal restrictions the United States has placed upon the inherent jurisdictional authority that tribal nations maintain over their respective territories have created systemic barriers that deny Native women access to justice and prevent them from living free of violence or the threat of violence. On a daily basis, this violence threatens the lives of Native women and the future of Native people.”

What has long been realized statistically about violence against AI/NA women and girls not only paints quite a different picture of the trauma that we live with compared to RCMP reports on our Indigenous sisters across the border to the North – and who the offenders are in particular – but also why existing legal loopholes adversely impacting Indian Country need to be closed so that Native women and girls have equal access to justice.

3 in 5 AI/NA Women have been Physically Assaulted in their lifetime

Dataviz info created by Lisa J. EllwoodDataviz info created by Lisa J. Ellwood

1 in 3 AI/NA Women will be Raped in their Lifetime

  Dataviz info created by Lisa J. EllwoodDataviz info created by Lisa J. Ellwood

Native American victims of intimate and family violence are more likely than victims of all other races to be injured and need hospital care.

3 in 5 AI/NA Women will be Victims of Domestic Violence in their lifetime

Dataviz info created by Lisa J. EllwoodDataviz info created by Lisa J. Ellwood

The rate of violent victimization of Native people in suburban areas is 2.8 times higher than that of the average for all races in suburban areas; 2.6 times higher for Natives than for all races in rural areas; and 2.5 times higher for Natives than for all races in urban areas.

A Native woman is more likely to die by homicide than by illnesses including diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Intentional homicide has been the third leading cause of death for Native females aged 10–24. On some reservations, Native women and girls are murdered at more than 10 times the national average.

Among Native women victims of assault, an average of 63% describes the offender as non-Native. Among Native women victims of rape or sexual assault, an average of 67% percent describes the offender as non-Native.

More than 80% of sex crimes on reservations are committed by non-Native men immune from prosecution by Tribal courts.

While sex crimes against non-Native women are largely intra-racial, those against AI / AN women are more likely to be interracial with the majority of offenders described as being White.

Dataviz info created by Lisa J. EllwoodDataviz info created by Lisa J. Ellwood

Dataviz info created by Lisa J. EllwoodDataviz info created by Lisa J. Ellwood

Dataviz info created by Lisa J. EllwoodDataviz info created by Lisa J. Ellwood

The biggest barriers to prosecuting Violence Against Native Women are US Attorneys declining to prosecute violent crimes in Indian Country.

Dataviz info created by Lisa J. Ellwood

Under the current Violence Against Women Act, a Native victimized by a non-Native offender has no recourse for justice in tribal courts, even if both live together on reservation land.

This has resulted in a consistent stream of non-Native criminals and sexual predators in federally recognized tribal areas. Knowing that they can literally get away with just about anything keeps them coming.

Writing for the New York Times Louise Erdrich says: “Alexandra Pierce, author of a 2009 report on sexual violence against Indian women in Minnesota, has found that rapes on upstate reservations increase during hunting season. A non-Indian can drive up from the cities and be home in five hours. The tribal police can’t arrest him. To protect Native women, tribal authorities must be able to apprehend charge and try rapists – regardless of race. Tribal courts had such jurisdiction until 1978, when the Supreme Court ruled that they did not have inherent jurisdiction to try non-Indians without specific authorization from Congress.

The Senate bill would restore limited jurisdiction over non-Indians suspected of perpetrating sex crimes, but even this unnerves some officials. “You’ve got to have a jury that is a reflection of society as a whole, and on an Indian reservation, it’s going to be made up of Indians, right?” said Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee. “So the non-Indian doesn’t get a fair trial.”

Leaving aside the fact that most Native defendants tried in the United States face Indian-free juries, and disregarding the fulsome notion that Native people can’t be impartial jurists, Mr. Grassley got his facts wrong. Most reservations have substantial non-Indian populations, and Native families are often mixed. The Senate version guarantees non-Indians the right to effective counsel and trial by an impartial jury.”

In its 2011 Report “Violence Against Women in the United States and the State’s Obligation to Protect”, the Human Rights Program of the University of Virginia School of Law in Charlottesville noted that there are a range of limitations reported as part of the 2010 NISVS methodology. Estimates of the prevalence of sexual violence, stalking, and intimate partner violence are likely to be underestimated.

Regardless of any discrepancies, the rate of victimization for Native women is higher than that for all other single-race groups in the 2011 and 2008 CDC reports. Another notable statistic is that Native women experience intimate partner violence at a rate of 46% over their lifetimes. This is higher than the 39% noted in the NISVS; the 2011 CDC Report includes rape, physical assault, and stalking violence by intimate partners where the 2008 Report excluded stalking violence.

As the NCAI pointedly observes: “These appalling statistics demonstrate the urgent need to address the legal and resource barriers that prevent tribal nations from protecting their female citizens.”

What Canadian Authorities Aren’t Revealing

Even with input provided by police departments it readily admits are outside its jurisdiction that it has had no control over and is narrowly focused on domestic violence, RCMP data is nowhere near being as comprehensive as the NISVS’.

The RCMP attempts to make a case for “MMAW” being the preserve of familial relationships with offenders being known to victims with no consideration for or data provided on: (1) actual racial and ethnic diversity in Indigenous families; (2) Ingenious and non-Indigenous interracial relationships and (3) the diversity of residents typically found on and around Reserves – as evidenced by NSIVS and US Census data about Reservations.

As APTN noted: “The publicly released parts of the RCMP’s [2014] report said Indigenous women were killed by an acquaintance in 30 per cent of the reviewed cases. Nowhere in the publicly available part of the report, which was released last spring, does it break down numbers by communities, whether urban center or reserve, or by ethnicity. In an interview with APTN National News in December 2013, RCMP Supt. Tyler Bates said only some of the findings would be released publicly from a review of cases from 200 police departments dating back to 1980.”

It is quite telling while reporting a significant increase in interracial relationships in Canada, the Mixed Unions in Canada profile compiled from the National Household Survey, Statistics Canada has only provided information on interracial relationships between “Visible Minorities”, i.e. People of Color while excluding Indigenous populations from its definition.

Peculiarly; no data has actually been made available on interracial relationships of any kind for Indigenous peoples or White Canadians between other racial and ethnic groups – this despite a footnote on the involvement of Statistics Canada’s Aboriginal Statistics Division in compiling the data.

The focus on mixed unions between people of color only is a curious choice.

Brock University Sociologist Tamari Kitossa said in an interview with The Brock News:

“Interracial couples have long existed in Canada, stretching back to the fur traders. Statistically, there were probably more interracial couples 300 years ago than there are now relative to the size of the population. It was a policy of the French traders and the English traders in the Hudson’s Bay Company to actually partner with Aboriginal women to gain access to the trade routes and engagement with those communities. We know that the Metis are one result of interracial coupling in Canada.

We need to reframe our lens to show that interracial couples have long been the reality in Canada and pre- Confederation.

Aboriginal women are the first mothers of the continent. When we factor in slavery and immigration, we see that there’s a very long history of interracial mixing in Canada and throughout the Americas. Interracial unions make up about three to four per cent of all unions in Canada with people between the ages of 15 to 64 years. This is higher than in the United States, which has a rate of about two per cent. The rates vary within communities... Aboriginal and African-Canadians also have high interracial mating, although not as high as the Japanese. Also, interracial unions among people of colour are a smaller number than interracial couples involving people of European background with people of color.”

"A nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground"   ~ Cheyenne Proverb

As with the RCMP Reports, the CDC recognizes the value in anti-violence promotional communications strategies focusing on prevention. Where they differ is in rationale, methodology, and espoused narratives relating to Indigenous Populations.

Of particular importance for the CDC, as indicated by its NSIVS Communications Toolkit, are varied specialized target marketing and communications strategies directed towards specific groups rather than creating a singular campaign casting aspersions which further marginalizes the most marginalized group in the country:

“Since the NISVS report contains such a large amount of data, it will be important to identify data highlights that will be most interesting and relevant to the audience you are targeting. The CDC designed the survey to maximize safety and to facilitate the reporting of sexual violence, stalking, and intimate partner violence using the best available knowledge and expert advice. NISVS provides the most current and comprehensive data about the prevalence of these forms of violence. It is also the first survey to provide simultaneous national and state level data.

These data will help us identify who is most likely to experience these forms of violence and use this information to inform practices, policies, and programs that promote nonviolence and change the behaviors and environments that make violence more likely to occur”.

The RCMP as the arbiter of MMIW, on the other hand, has a very peculiar agenda with its 2015 “MMAW” Update with the emphasis on “raising public awareness” by pushing data and narratives laying the blame for violence against Canada’s Indigenous Women squarely on the shoulders of Indigenous women themselves and their communities while using Indigenous organizations and celebrities to do their dirty work:

“The RCMP continues to maintain a dedicated liaison with the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC). This relationship allows for the sharing of information between the two organizations, to draw attention to issues of concern to Aboriginal women and communities as well as to work collaboratively to develop initiatives.

As a tool to raise awareness of the issues facing Aboriginal women, the RCMP, in partnership with NWAC and the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), created a poster campaign targeting the reduction of family violence, the timely reporting of missing persons cases and the importance of reporting all details/tips in missing persons investigations. These posters were distributed nationally to increase public engagement.

More recently, the RCMP produced a Public Service Announcement (PSA) video featuring Canadian singer Shania Twain on the issue of family violence. In the fall of 2015, the RCMP will release a second PSA featuring Canadian Inuk National Hockey League player Jordin Tootoo. The video message is designed to raise awareness, particularly among Aboriginal men and boys, about the issue of violence against women. Ultimately, efforts like these aim to stop the generational cycle of violence.”

Canada’s landscape continues to be riddled with numerous unsolved cases of missing and murdered indigenous women, Winnipeg’s Red River Women among them – with what little evidence there might be sign-posting the way to offenders who are most definitely non-Indigenous.

Lubicon Lake Band Chief Billy Joe Laboucan is another Grand Chief who spoke with APTN about the contentious meeting with Valcourt. Chief Laboucan reportedly spoke with ex-Minister Valcourt immediately following the meeting about his own tragic experience. Laboucan’s daughter, Bella Laboucan-McLean, fell 31 floors to her death from a Toronto condo during a small party with three men and two women. None of the men in the condo were First Nations, Métis or Inuit.

For whatever reasons, the Laboucan-McLean case remains unsolved.

Writing for APTN in September 2014 almost in the form of a Victim Impact Statement, Chief Laboucan’s eldest daughter Melina Laboucan-Massimo also made points about non-Indigenous offenders in Canada getting away with just about everything similar to those of the aforementioned Alexandra Pierce about unchecked violence against Minnesota Native Women, the same points being made throughout Indian Country.

“The Harper government’s ‘action plan’ released on Sept. 15 once again places the blame on Indigenous communities. It insinuates that violence against our women happens solely within our communities. This is far from the truth,” she said.

“This violence is also inflicted upon our women from non-Indigenous men. This is a Canadian problem, not solely a First Nations problem. A better approach would be to support spaces for healing from the legacy of trauma instead of continuing the victim-blaming narrative that we see from the Conservative government and the RCMP report from earlier this year. We continue to see the principles of patriarchy embedded in old colonial values, which play out in Canadian society today.

For example, the industrial system of resource extraction in Canada is predicated on systems of power and domination. This system is based on the raping and pillaging of Mother Earth as well as violence against women. The two are inextricably linked. With the expansion of extractive industries, not only do we see desecration of the land, we see an increase in violence against women.

Rampant sexual violence against women and a variety of social ills result from the influx of transient workers in and around workers’ camps. In Harper’s pro-tar sands, mining, drilling in the arctic, and fracking agenda, we see his disregard for the sacredness of this earth, just as we see his lack of care or concern for the hundreds of murdered and missing Indigenous women across this land. Not only does the Conservative’s ‘action plan’ not address this violence we see in the unsafe industrialized zones, it places the blame on Indigenous women and communities.”

For the RCMP and Canadian Federal Government under former Prime Minister Stephen Harper and former Aboriginal Affairs Minister Valcourt, every opportunity for open and frank MMIW discourse with Indigenous people on both sides of the border was an ‘Indigenous people are savage and responsible for their ongoing genocide’ type- argument supported by dubious facts and data.

Police organizations’ incessant hubris doesn’t extend to their own apathetic complicity: Starlight Tours; Indigenous women victimized by police; Racial Profiling; its use of posters of Indigenous Women for target practice at police gun ranges rather than silhouettes; and ignoring the fact that “systematic bias” (aka institutional racism) by RCMP and Vancouver police left serial killer Robert Pickton free to kill dozens of Indigenous Women.

Even social media has been just another tool to be used as a PR exercise to support faulty data and push the RCMP’s NWAC and AFN Family Violence “awareness initiatives” with links to their  “Sometimes… Home is where the Hurt is. Physical • Sexual • Threats” (with child abuse imagery) and missing person’s “Report what you know to local police…your tips could bring a loved one home,” posters.

RCMP’s “MMAW” data, reports, and communications strategy collectively appear to suffer from what psychologists call “Motivated Reasoning” – an extreme form of Confirmation Bias. It is an emotion-based insistence on only looking for and adjusting data to corroborate a particular point-of-view lacking in objectivity and credibility.

This is more compelling in the wake of a 2012 study published by the Canadian Journal of Law and Society which found that police organizations routinely suppress racial data in reports to the Canadian Federal Government.

RCMP and Federal Government narratives under the Harper administration were centered on erroneous beliefs that Indigenous people, families, and communities are insular, homogenous, and dangerous in ways that ‘multicultural Canada’ is not.

Thus the stage was set to victim-blame Indigenous Canadian communities as non-integrationist making them solely responsible for what does and does not happen to their own people in and around their own jurisdictions and elsewhere, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women included.

The Winds of Change

Newly-elected Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his appointed successor to Valcourt, Indigenous & Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett, have earned praise for distancing themselves from Harper and Valcourt’s appalling record of inaction and hateful rhetoric.

The Liberal Party promised an Inquiry into MMIW as part of their campaigning and wasted no time moving forward on that promise after taking office last October. As a precursor to releasing the details of their two-year, $40-million public inquiry into the epidemic of Indigenous women and girls disappearing and/or being killed, Bennett in particular was critical of the previous government and the victim-blaming of her predecessor.

“I think it was appalling in terms of blame,” she said last November, speaking with the media after a Cabinet meeting in Ottawa. “I think it doesn’t deal with the effects of colonization. It doesn’t deal with the effects of child abuse.”

Perhaps conscious of motivated reasoning, Minister Bennett indicated the RCMP had actually found that Indigenous women were “slightly less likely to be killed by an intimate partner than the non-indigenous community”…and pointedly said that “fooling around with those kinds of facts is really unhelpful.”

For Bennett, the inquiry must have a “good communication plan” so that “Canadians know what was heard and so it’s impossible to leave a report on the shelf.”

In its “Fact Sheet: Violence Against Women in Canada”, The Sexual Report Centre of Ottawa reports that despite the fact that more than 150 witnesses testified  about social and economic inequality and discrimination to the Canadian House of Commons Standing Committee on the Status of Women conducted a study on violence against Aboriginal women in 2010-11, “the final report failed to recommend meaningful action to address the marginalization of Aboriginal women that contributes to their vulnerability and to widespread tolerance of this violence from state officials, the media and the general public.”

The Government of British Columbia’s 2010 Missing Women Commission of Inquiry investigating police response to the MMIW cases in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver between 1997 and 2002 was also criticized. Damning evidence of racist and discriminatory conduct on the part of law enforcement agencies and faulty police practices, and political and public indifference aside, “the Commission was strongly criticized by women’s and Aboriginal women’s organizations for failing to consult with Aboriginal groups on the mandate and scope of the inquiry and for failing to provide the funding needed to ensure meaningful participation by Aboriginal women.”

The federal government has stated its commitment to reconciliation between Canada and its Indigenous peoples, and the MMIW Inquiry is seen as a vital part of the process. Trudeau and Bennett seem keen to not repeat the mistakes of the past in mandating pre-Inquiry consultations to determine how it should function and ensuring that MMIW families and Indigenous communities and organizations are active participants.

In closing remarks to a group of chiefs and First Nations delegates after three days of meetings organized by the Assembly of First Nations in Gatineau, Quebec on December 10th, Bennett reiterated her government’s commitment:

"We all, together, have both an exhilarating and daunting job ahead. I’ve learned that Indigenous leadership is inclusive leadership: it means asking, not telling. It means that we know the solutions are with you and that our job is to actively listen and to harvest those solutions from the people who have been worrying about these things; thinking about these things; writing about these things for a very long time,” she said.

“For me and my Parliamentary colleagues, active listening is the only way we can help rebuild the trust in our political institutions. But, as the Prime Minister has said so often and throughout the campaign, good public policy only comes when you listen to the people with expertise and lived experience. To me, this is what Reconciliation is all about. It is about listening and learning and acting – and admitting our mistakes. I want to ensure that we get this right – together.”

"The Inquiry will seek recommendations on concrete actions that governments, police services and civil society can take to address and prevent this violence," Bennett added. "My federal colleagues and I will need your help to make sure we get it right; to make sure that we are listening to the people that you think should be listened to.”

In his own closing remarks, AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde called the three-day meeting “historic” and said that he was encouraged by Trudeau’s government and its decisive action on the MMIW Inquiry.

“This issue is high on the radar and we're going to keep it high on the radar," he said.


Download Lisa J. Ellwood’s “Violence Against  Women In Indian Country” data visualization (PDF) here.

Follow ICTMN Correspondent Lisa J. Ellwood on Twitter at


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