Canada's Original Think Tank

Increasing Over-representation of Indigenous Women in Canadian Prisons

Increasing Over-representation of Indigenous Women in Canadian Prisons

Increasing Over-representation of Indigenous Women in Canadian Prisons

Hon. Lillian Eva Dyck: 

Honourable senators, I rise today to speak to Senator Pate’s inquiry calling the attention of the Senate to the circumstances of some of the most marginalized, victimized, criminalized and institutionalized in Canada, particularly the increasing over-representation of indigenous women in Canadian prisons.

I want to thank and acknowledge the thoughtful speeches that have been made to date on this topic and I would like to add my own thoughts to this important issue.

As many of the interventions to date have focused on the over-representation of Aboriginal women in Canadian prisons and their treatment in the correctional system, I wanted to focus my remarks today on the over-victimization of Aboriginal women in Canada generally, and in particular I will discuss the over-representation of Aboriginal women as victims of violence.

At every turn of an Aboriginal female’s life, she is disproportionately a victim compared to non-Aboriginal females. As stated by Justice Wally Oppal in his inquiry report entitled Forsaken: The Report of the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry:

Aboriginal women as a group have a heightened vulnerability to violence simply because they live in “a society that poses a risk to their safety.” In British Columbia and around the world, vulnerable and marginalized women are exposed to a higher risk of violence including sexual assault, murder and serial predation. The phenomenon of missing and murdered women is one stark example of this exposure, and is seen as part of a broader pattern of marginalization and inequality.

Colleagues, there is no question that Aboriginal women and girls are one of the most victimized populations in Canada. With over 1,200 cases of missing and murdered Aboriginal women since 1980, Aboriginal women and girls are three times more likely to be made missing and four times more likely to be the victims of homicide than non-Aboriginal females.

Aboriginal women are three times more likely to be sexually assaulted than other Canadian women. Aboriginal women are seven times more likely to be targeted by serial killers.

It is shocking to note that a 2016 Statistics Canada report showed that simply being Aboriginal is a risk factor for violence for women, but not for men.

It is also shocking to note that the violence aimed at Aboriginal females is more frequent, more brutal and more severe than it is for non-Aboriginal women.

I want to take some time to talk about the perpetrators of violence against Aboriginal women. Many people have jumped to the conclusion that it is mainly Aboriginal men who are responsible for the violence experienced by Aboriginal women. This unjustified conclusion has been made by many, despite there being little or no supporting evidence.

Unfortunately, this false claim took root and was reported in numerous news articles. In March 2015, for example, the then Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, Bernard Valcourt, claimed that 70 per cent of the murders of Aboriginal women were committed by Aboriginal men. The data to validate this claim have never been released to the public. I suspect the data do not exist, because the RCMP stated they do not systematically collect or track the racial identity of the perpetrators.

In the newspaper reports following Minister Valcourt’s claim, the RCMP first said they don’t collect data regarding the race of the perpetrator. Then they said they would release them in a news report. Then Commissioner Paulson said he would confirm the claim, but he wouldn’t release the data. Clearly, the RCMP’s story shifted over time, and we should note that any data supporting this claim have not been made public by the RCMP, and whatever data they currently have are not reliable.

Colleagues, it is clear that the RCMP knows that their data on the racial identity of the perpetrators are subjective, open to interpretation, not rigorous and incomplete. It couldn’t get much worse. That is to say, at best, their data on race are indicative but certainly not reliable.

Yet, the RCMP backed Minister Valcourt’s claim that Aboriginal men are responsible for 70 per cent of the murders of Aboriginal women and girls.

On June 19, 2015, the RCMP updated their report. The focus of their report became “the offender was known” — the offender was known by the victim in 100 per cent of the solved homicides of Aboriginal women in RCMP jurisdictions. I will quote again:

Violence within family relationships is a key factor in homicides of women, and has prompted the RCMP to focus intervention and prevention efforts on familial and spousal violence.

Many people assumed that acquaintances and spouses of Aboriginal women were Aboriginal too. Then they jumped to the conclusion that Aboriginal women were being killed by Aboriginal men in their communities. In other words, just because I, for example, as an Aboriginal woman, know someone, it is assumed that that person is Aboriginal when clearly that is not necessarily the case.

Unfortunately, the media latched onto the observation that nearly all women, regardless of their race, knew their murderers, and this became the focus of the various news reports. For example, a misleading newspaper headline in the StarPhoenix, the major newspaper in my hometown, on June 20, 2015, with big bold letters said, “Aboriginal women knew their killers.” The article went on to say:

The RCMP said Friday that female victims, regardless of their ethnicity, continue to be targeted most often by men within their own homes and communities.

“There is an unmistakable connection between homicide and family violence,” RCMP deputy commissioner Janice Armstrong said.

This statement by the RCMP ignored and minimized other data in the report that clearly contradict this statement. I will try to explain this to you, though it would be much easier if I could just show you my PowerPoint. When will we modernize the Senate so that you can see the graphs and figures? Bear with me, I will try and take you through it.

The 2014 RCMP report clearly shows that Aboriginal women are just as likely to be murdered by acquaintances as by their spouse. Thirty per cent of Aboriginal women were murdered by an acquaintance; 29 per cent were murdered by a spouse.

This clearly shows that it’s not just domestic violence that underlies large numbers of murdered Aboriginal women. Acquaintances were also murdering Aboriginal women, and those acquaintances are not necessarily Aboriginal. Although in more than 90 per cent of cases the acquaintances are male, the race is unknown.

Colleagues, there were also other important distinctions between the two groups, the Aboriginal women and the non-Aboriginal women, that were never really reported on in the news in a meaningful manner. I guess that’s because you look for things you think are important and sensational. For example, comparing Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal females, Aboriginal female victims were more likely to be murdered by an acquaintance than non-Aboriginal females: Thirty per cent of Aboriginal females were murdered by an acquaintance; only 19 per cent of non-Aboriginal females were murdered by an acquaintance. Non-Aboriginal females were more likely to be murdered by their spouse than Aboriginal women: Forty-one per cent of the non-Aboriginal women who were murdered were murdered by their spouse. That’s a clear difference between the two, and it has not been paid much attention.

However, the Toronto Star, I’m happy to report, conducted a study that showed that 44 per cent of the perpetrators of violence against Aboriginal women were acquaintances, serial killers or strangers. This underlies the observation I’m trying to get across to you that it’s not just family violence; it’s the acquaintances of Aboriginal women who are responsible for most of the murders of Aboriginal women.

There were lots of news articles reporting that more than 97 per cent of women knew their killers. Over and over, that number was interpreted to mean that Aboriginal men living on reserves and family violence in Aboriginal communities were the cause. This was all done despite there being no data on the race of the murderer to justify this conclusion and little data to justify where the murderers were actually living. This is a false narrative that has informed the general public that still exists today.

On June 19, 2015, in The Globe and Mail, a headline read: “Native violence starts at home, RCMP say.” They completely ignored the huge factor of acquaintances, because people want to believe in the stereotype that Aboriginal homes are full of domestic violence.

It’s important to challenge the claim that family violence committed by Aboriginal men on reserves is the main factor in the murder of Aboriginal women. If we focus only on domestic violence, we are not doing enough to combat violence against Aboriginal women. If we focus the prevention efforts only on Aboriginal men, we are not doing enough to protect Aboriginal women from non-Aboriginal men or from their acquaintances. Focusing only on domestic violence is only part of the picture.

Again and again, the claim that family violence is the main factor has to be challenged, because it’s simply not true.

It’s important, because the evidence is questionable or non-existent, there are no reliable data on the race of the perpetrator, and sadly the action plan on violence against Aboriginal women does not target acquaintances who are more likely to kill Aboriginal women than their spouses.

Pretty much all of the plans to combat violence against Aboriginal women are focused on domestic violence. This claim, as I noted previously, reinforces negative stereotypes about Aboriginal people, that we have a higher rate of family violence when the data clearly showed, no, it’s non-Aboriginal women who are more likely to be killed by their spouses. How incredibly ironic that this is so embedded in the thinking of major newspapers that they totally missed it. There has never been a headline that says, “Non-Aboriginal Women Murdered More Often by Spouse than Aboriginal Women.” There should have been a big headline like that, but there never was and there never will be because the time has passed.

The higher incidence of domestic violence suffered by non-Aboriginal women apparently was not considered newsworthy because, I guess, the reporters are focused on the Aboriginal community and maybe they don’t want to say how bad the picture is in the non-Aboriginal community. Because every one of us has that filter, and we pick out the things that seem important to us.

There were a couple of news reports that took issue with the unsubstantiated claim that it is primarily Aboriginal men who are responsible for violence against Aboriginal women, but unfortunately reports which run contrary to prevailing opinion, to prevailing biases, to prevailing prejudices, receive less media attention, less public attention and are literally forgotten. That has literally been forgotten.

Me being a scientist, of course, I went through all the data. I prepared numerous graphs and charts, et cetera. I released a press release and there was very little pick-up. Basically I was saying that the minister must show us the data.

I wrote an opinion piece, and basically that wasn’t picked up either. LEAF also sent out a press release. One of their headlines was “The issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women is not just an issue of familial violence.” Really, no one picked up on that either.

The Hon. the Speaker: Senator Dyck, your time has expired. Are you asking for five more minutes?

Senator Dyck: Yes, please.

The Hon. the Speaker: Is leave granted, honourable senators?

Hon. Senators: Agreed.

Senator Dyck: Another report came out from CBC with a nice bold headline: “Focus on ’family violence’ in cases of missing, murdered aboriginal women misguided.” But, again, the previous numerous reports have overshadowed this, which really reflects the true evidence.

Despite these few reports, there remains public misconception that blames Aboriginal men for the violence suffered by Aboriginal women and girls.

There is only one report so far which analyzed the racial identity of the murderers of Aboriginal women, and that was a 2010 report by the Native Women’s Association of Canada entitled What Their Stories Tell Us — Research findings from the Sisters In Spirit Initiative. This is the only report that documented that both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal men murdered Aboriginal women. Their data showed that at least 23 per cent of the murderers were non-Aboriginal, 36 per cent were Aboriginal and 40 per cent were of an unknown race. There is such a high percentage of unknowns because the race of the perpetrator is not routinely determined or recorded during investigations.

I’m basically a teacher and a professor, so I am going to repeat myself so the message gets across. Despite the flawed analysis of the RCMP report and the existence of the Native Women’s Association of Canada report showing that at least 23 per cent of the murderers of Aboriginal women were not Aboriginal, there remains public misconception and misguided policies. However, I have hope because we have the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women and Girls, and I’m hoping they can set the story straight.

I sent my PowerPoint presentation to them. Unfortunately, the lead lawyer is no longer there. I gave a copy of my in-depth analysis to them, and when they were in Saskatoon for the hearings, I gave it to them again in French and English to say, “Here it is again. Please look at this.” I’m hoping that the commissioners and their analysts will actually look at the data through their own lens, and they will likely see it very much the same way I did.

Now, this is really important because it gets back to the issue of protecting Aboriginal women. That’s why I spent so much time going through this. I hope it’s clear to you that it’s not just Aboriginal men who are killing Aboriginal women. Non-Aboriginal men are also killing them, and the Aboriginal women in this room know their names. We know the names of the high-profile cases. We know they’re out there. We just need to start documenting it. It needs to be documented.

I trust that this in-depth analysis of the RCMP data shows how societal biases and prejudice against Aboriginal people clouds people’s judgments and contributes to the further victimization of Aboriginal women by unfairly focusing only on Aboriginal men as the perpetrators. If our prevention efforts do not include non-Aboriginal men, we will fail to protect Aboriginal women as fully as necessary.

According to the Native Women’s Association of Canada report:

The experiences of violence and victimization of Aboriginal women do not occur in a vacuum. Violence is perpetuated through apathy and indifference towards Aboriginal women, and stems from the ongoing impacts of colonialism in Canada. . . . Systemic racism and patriarchy has marginalized Aboriginal women and led to intersecting issues at the root of the multiple forms of violence. The result of the system of colonization is a climate where Aboriginal women are particularly vulnerable to violence, victimization, and indifference by the state and society to their experiences of violence.

Presently, though, I think this indifference has lessened substantially in some sectors of our society simply because we now have the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. That is evidence of that. I know myself and others in this chamber pushed for many years for that inquiry to be initiated and is now ongoing.

My time is up. Thank you for your attention.