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Struggle for Justice - Missing and Murdered Sisters across Canadian Region of Turtle Island

FRIDAY FILE - Not so long ago few people knew of the issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (#MMIW) in Canada. But in a short span, No More Silence, Families of Sisters in Spirit, Native Youth Sexual Health Network (NYSHN) and other initiatives have contributed to building such momentum that the crisis of MMIW has finally entered mainstream media and public consciousness. AWID spoke with Audrey Huntley, a founding member of No More Silence, about some of the strategies driven by Indigenous WHRDs.

By Saira Zuberi

The efforts of Indigenous WHRDs, allies, and affected families not only seek to document, raise awareness and pressure the state to end impunity and violence, but also work to highlight the human stories behind the statistics and headlines; as well as mobilize communities through tradition, ceremony, art and other means; to show solidarity, support healing and engage in collaborative work to demand and defend rights. Thanks to such efforts, the issue of structural violence against Indigenous communities (specifically targeting Indigenous women) has gained attention across Turtle Island[1] and beyond.

The incredibly high and disproportionate rates of violence faced by Indigenous women, that have been documented, are likely just the tip of the iceberg, given the context of state violence and impunity, and the resulting lack of trust in the institutions of the settler state on the part of Indigenous communities. According to the state’s own research, Indigenous women are 4.3% of the female population, but represent 16% of female homicide victims over a 30-year span, and the rate appears to be rising. The report reviews 1,181 cases of MMIW, although an accurate figure cannot be determined, activists are working toward highlighting the extent of the crisis of MMIW through documenting cases through living memory and other means.

Audrey Huntley, documentary filmmaker and WHRD of European and Indigenous ancestry, was aware of the issue of MMIW. She lived in the city of Vancouver’s Downtown East Side in the late 1990s, “when women were being taken from the neighbourhood and were ending up on [serial killer] Robert Pickton’s farm; I was living in the neighbourhood when women were disappearing and the missing posters were going up all around us.”[2] But the media sensationalism, focusing on that extreme case, obscured a more general truth. According to Huntley, the story encapsulated the brutal legacy of colonialism, its impacts on the bodies and lives of generations of Indigenous people and the sexual violence targeted at Indigenous women. Huntley emphasizes that the violence they face is closely connected to the ways in which the settler state views the land, as something to be owned and dominated, to extract as much profit as possible, regardless of human and environmental costs and consequences. Huntley and other activists felt there was an urgent need “to educate people that Pickton was not an aberration; that it was in fact very much what was happening in a more systemic and deliberate way everywhere in Canada.”[3]

Need for community-led initiatives

Huntley has long perceived how accounts of suspicious deaths are not properly investigated, and other forms of inaction and mishandling of investigations also contribute to perpetuating the crisis. Aspects of victims’ lives are often used to undermine their worthiness as subjects of investigation.[4] Thus, her growing understanding of the epidemic proportions of the problem led her, and likeminded activists, to found the No More Silence initiative in the mid-2000s, after she moved to Toronto. The initiative was born out of frustration at the slow progress in changing cycles of violence, going back generations; and sought to strengthen grassroots responses to the epidemic of violence confronting Indigenous women that do not rely on the state.[5]

A recent effort by No More Silence, Families of Sisters in Spirit[6], Native Youth Sexual Health Network (NYSHN) [7] and other partners, has started to develop an independent community-led database, tracking MMIWs in the province of Ontario. The database initiative arose from the deep disappointment with a federally funded Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) project in the mid-2000s. NWAC lobbied with others to obtain state funding for a database on MMIW under the Sisters in Spirit project, leading to the painstaking collection of almost 600 MMIW cases. However, the Conservative government cut funding in 2010, not only undermining the project, but also handing the data over to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (Canada’s national police force). Such experiences have reinforced the critical need for Indigenous communities to develop responses to the crisis of MMIW, impunity and state violence in ways that are led by the families of the MMIW themselves, avoiding tokenizing, decentralizing and sharing data, and maintaining independence from the state.

No More Silence is working to spread the methodology of a community-led database to other provinces, as well as joining other initiatives that have arisen independently in different provinces to track MMIW; not only to quantify for advocacy purposes, but also to collaborate on family-led and community-led processes to commemorate, heal, build solidarity and work on self-organized responses to address the systemic violence. Sensitivity to the human needs of surviving family members has led to the process of building up tributes to the missing and murdered women alongside the database[8], which has so far recorded 70 cases.[9]

Remembering, honouring, healing

Huntley emphasizes that the broader effort of commemorating MMIWs and of taking control of the narrative also involves family members and their allies, writing, covering the stories of lost loved ones in ways that are more respectful than mainstream media coverage[10]. Remembering and honouring the lives of MMIWs, not only their deaths, has had very powerful unanticipated effects. “We started the website to be transparent and accessible to the community, and then we started the tributes so that we wouldn’t just be documenting the deaths, but rather also remembering who the women were, and humanizing them because mainstream media just focus on the grisly details of how they died. And I’ve found in all my work that people really have a need to share and tell their stories and that has turned out to be quite a powerful healing experience for families. It is a lot of work for families to figure out what they want to say and they may need coaching with writing and choosing images. … It’s been interesting to hear from the families how transformative and empowering it was for them to go through the process.”

The painful work of gathering and documenting the stories can also take a heavy toll. Huntley herself became very ill during a period of concentrated data entry in December 2013, highlighting the need for self-care in the face of the vicarious trauma experienced by WHRDs driving this work. Strategies to address the problem are now being developed by sharing the data-entry work with non-Indigenous allies less personally affected by both vicarious trauma and the resurgence of individual traumas that usually go back through generations. The pairing-up to do data entry, both guards against errors and provides support whilst dealing with such painful stories. At the same time, respect for the needs of the families and the importance of Indigenous knowledge, traditions and cultural practices, mean that the direct work of speaking with families, which No More Silence always combines with ceremony, remains with Indigenous activists themselves.

Multi-pronged and innovative approaches

It is the multi-pronged approach that engages custom and tradition, led by community elders, as well as the experiences and knowledge of the families of MMIWs, to build up community and solidarity responses from the grassroots, that makes the actions led by No More Silence stand out. These groups have engaged in a variety of approaches; for instance, since 2006, No More Silence collaborate to hold an annual Strawberry Ceremony, every February 14th, a Toronto-based rally against police inaction. The event honours MMIW and expresses solidarity with another commemoration started by activists and families in Vancouver 20 years ago when news of the Pickton case broke. In the Vancouver commemoration, traditional smudging ceremonies are held at the places where the bodies of murdered Indigenous women were discovered.

Efforts to take control of the narrative and engage in awareness-raising and healing by Indigenous artists and families of MMIW have also included a plethora of arts-based responses, which Indigenous WHRDs across the country have participated in. One highly successful example is the Walking with Our Sisters commemorative art installation and memorial, touring 25 locations and booked into 2018. It ends in Batoche Saskatchewan in 2019, NYSHN is a community partner on WWOS and is supporting youth resurgence and Two Spirit involvement.[11]

The experiences of and strategies driven by Indigenous WHRDs and the families of the MMIW have shown that these grassroots efforts are critical for healing, and for Indigenous communities to center their actions around their own need for grieving, support and closure, including the need for self-defence; and how communities can work together to support themselves. The awareness-raising work and advocacy through international and regional mechanisms is, of course, also critical; and the efforts of allies and other groups to pressure the Canadian state to live up to its obligations all combine to try to build an environment where impunity will become less and less possible. The number of terrible deaths of Indigenous women this summer, with the Harper government insisting that these are 'criminal issues' and not social ones, highlights the relevance and importance of the work being done by activists to fight that notion, and insist on broader examinations to address and redress what is and has been going on for centuries. In the meantime, as critical momentum grows due to collective efforts by Indigenous WHRDs and communities and their allies, the epidemic of violence shows no sign of abating.

Thank you to Jamaias DaCosta (journalist with CIUT Radio and Muskrat Magazine), Shelagh Day (FAFIA), Lara Koerner Yeo (researcher) and Krysta Williams (NYSHN), for their time and inputs into this Friday File.

Additional reading and resources:

[1] Turtle Island refers to the landmass of North America among the Iroquois/Haudenosaunee and others in the northeastern part of North America.

[2] In 2002, Pickton’s arrest made headlines across Canada; the chillingly prolific and violent Pickton was a farmer based outside Vancouver; he was finally tried and found guilty of 27 murders after years of kidnapping and brutally killing women, often indigenous, low-income and living in very vulnerable conditions due to conditions of structural violence. The actual number of women he victimized is likely to have been much higher.

[3] The critical work of Cherokee scholar Andrea Smith draws the links between the colonial project, land and resource grabbing, and the issue of sexual violence against the Indigenous population, specifically against Indigenous women, as a tool of conquest. (See: Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide, South End Press: MA, USA, 2005.)

[4] See: Jarrah Hodge, “Victim-blaming in coverage of RCMP report on MMIW,” Rabble, Jarrah Hodge, 22 May 2014.

[5 The advocacy and calls for investigation by regional and international human rights mechanisms to push the Canadian state to live up to its obligations were made by the Feminist Alliance for International Action Canada (FAFIA) and NWAC, and the UN CEDAW Committee and IACHR (Inter-American Commission on Human Rights) reports on 2013 investigations are due to be released by December 2014. Those interested in receiving the reports, once available, can visit the Feminist Alliance for International Action Canada (FAFIA) website’s ‘Campaign of Solidarity with Aboriginal Women’ page, or join the solidarity network to receive notice (contact Cherry Smiley at

[6] The grassroots initiative, Families of Sisters in Spirit, was formed in 2011 by Bridget Tolley, a non-Indigenous ally and families of MMIWs after the NWAC Sisters in Spirit database program was de-funded by the state.

[7] NYSHN employs a variety of strategies to illuminate the connections between Canada as a colonial project, and the impacts of that project on Indigenous women and their communities involve making the links between environmental violence and the issue of sexual and reproductive health, inextricably tied with the various types of violence that have been faced by MMIWs themselves. NYSHN also works toward strengthening community through critical education, harm reduction, and other strategies (a good summary of various strategies is provided in NYSHN’s response to calls for a national enquiry on MMIW, “Supporting the Resurgence of Community-Based Responses to Violence,”).

[8] The first two tributes to Bella Laboucan-McLean and Sonya Nadine Mae at the It Starts with Us blog, run by the No More Silence initiative and allies.

[9] To share information about particular loved ones’ stories with the No More Silence community-led database organizers, people can contact

[10] A recent example is the piece by Bella’s sister, published in September 2014, “It felt like there was no end to the screaming sadness: one sisters take on #MMIW”.

[11] The installation is comprised of over 1,700 pairs of “vamps” (handmade beaded tops of moccasins) in a pathway formation. The vamps represent the unfinished lives of MMIWs, and everywhere the exhibit travels, it engages ceremony, carefully following the guidance of Indigenous elders and mobilizing Indigenous knowledge, with the participation of Indigenous communities wherever the exhibit travels. The hope is for the installation to find a permanent home in East Vancouver, inspired by the high concentration of MMIWs who went missing from that area.

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