*Trigger Warning: This article contains information regarding the treatment of Indigenous peoples in residential schools and discusses femicide and sexual assault*
Last year, we talked about the whether or not to celebrate Canada Day, and why for many, it’s not a day for celebration. Additionally, we discussed the disproportionate rates at which Indigenous women experience intimate partner violence (IPV) and sexual violence. It’s important to discuss IPV through an intersectional lens, as the barriers in which some groups face when it comes to leaving abuse, or accessing support, can vary greatly.
Before we continue, it is important to take some time to acknowledge the land on which we live on. This article is written on land which is the traditional, unceded, unsurrendered Territory of the Algonquin Anishinabek people, whose presence here reaches back to time immemorial. We are grateful to have the opportunity to be present on this territory. For those of us who are settlers on this land it is incredibly important to not only acknowledge this, but to commit to continued learning and to be allies to the Algonquin Anishinabek people. It is also important to understand that colonialism and patriarchy are inexplicably linked. As a result, we cannot combat violence against women without acknowledging these connections.
If you are curious about your local Indigenous history, you can visit native-land.ca.
In this article, we are going to touch on the Highway of Tears, the lasting impact that colonialism has had on the frequency with which Indigenous women experience violence, and the initiatives created by the Canadian Government in an attempt to examine and prevent this violence.
Indigenous Women are Disproportionately Affected by Violence
At Shelter Movers Ottawa, our mission is to support, help, and believe survivors of abuse. It is essential to talk about and recognize the reality that Indigenous women are disproportionately impacted by IPV and sexual violence. A Statistics Canada report published in 2021 found that 44% of Indigenous women have experienced sexual or physical abuse by an intimate partner in their lifetime, compared to 25% of non-Indigenous women. Additionally, 86% of 2SLGBTQ+ Indigenous women experienced IPV within their lifetime than non-2SLGBTQ+ Indigenous women (59%). 74% of Indigenous women with a disability experienced IPV in their lifetime compared to 46% of Indigenous women without a disability. However, it is important to keep in mind that IPV and sexual violence only make up part of the picture when discussing the violence Indigenous women face.
The Highway of Tears
A poignant example of the disproportionate rates by which Indigenous women and girls experience violence is the “Highway of Tears”. For some context, the Highway of Tears is a stretch of 725 km along Highway 16 between Prince George and Prince Rupert, B.C. Between 1989 and 2006, nine women went missing or were found murdered along this stretch of highway. All of the women, except for one, were Indigenous.
In 2005, Project E-PANA was launched by the RCMP. It was created after the “E” Divisions Criminal Operations called for the review of a series of unsolved murders that were linked to the Highway of Tears. The purpose of this initiative was to determine if a serial killer or killers are responsible for murdering young women along major highways in B.C. Originally, Project E-PANA focused on nine cases; however, this was expanded to eighteen cases in 2007. The cases are broken down into thirteen homicide investigations and five missing persons investigations. Project E-PANA has not taken on any new cases since 2006, despite the ongoing violence that Indigenous women face along the Highway of Tears.
The Highway of Tears is merely a glimpse into the disproportionate violence Indigenous women face. In 2013, the RCMP launched a study of reported incidents of missing or murdered Indigenous women across Canada. This review examined 1,017 cases of homicides and 164 cases of missing Indigenous women. As of 2016, Indigenous people made up 4.9% of the population, yet Indigenous women—as of 2013—made up 11.3% of the total number of missing women in Canada. Clearly indicating that Indigenous women are overrepresented as femicide victims in Canada.
The Legacy of Colonialism: Intergenerational Trauma
It is important to highlight the connection between intergenerational trauma and the rates at which Indigenous women experience violence. For those of you who might not be too familiar with the concept of intergenerational trauma, let’s break it down. According to a Canadian Encyclopedia article entitled “Intergenerational Trauma and Residential Schools”, intergenerational trauma, also understood as historical trauma, occurs when trauma caused by historical oppression is passed down from generation to generation.
Residential “schools” are an essential element to understanding the significance of intergenerational trauma. As indicated by the Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, residential “schools” were created “for the purpose of separating Aboriginal children from their families, in order to minimize and weaken family ties and cultural linkages, and to indoctrinate children into a new culture—the culture of the legally dominant Euro-Christian Canadian society”. Residential “schools”, the Sixties Scoop, and the “Indian Act” are all institutions that were used in the pursuit of this goal. Moreover, these institutions are directly involved in the creation of intergenerational trauma. Many children at residential “schools” experienced psychological, physical, and sexual abuse. This abuse in many cases, resulted in long-term psychological challenges such as anxiety, anger, depression, PTSD, and high rates of suicide.
According to a Statistics Canada article released in 2021, the historical context surrounding the treatment of Indigenous peoples in Canada has directly contributed to the creation of socioeconomic and health inequalities. Additionally, research has shown that women who experience abuse in childhood frequently go on to experience intimate partner violence. In essence, exposure to violence (sexual or physical) as a child may increase the risk of IPV later in life through the creation of an environment that depicts violence as a normal means of resolving conflict. The trauma and abuse that Indigenous children experienced at residential “schools” is well documented. As a result, it is suggested that the enduring negative effects of residential “schools”, historical trauma, discrimination, and violence may increase the likelihood that Indigenous women and children experience IPV.
Barriers to Accessing Support
It is important to recognize that there are also barriers to accessing services that may impact the likelihood of Indigenous women becoming survivors of IPV. These factors can include but are not limited to: limited access to housing due to remote geographic locations, which makes it exceedingly difficult to leave one’s abuser; higher availability of weapons; limited access to legal services; limitations on maintaining confidentiality in reports of abuse, and; social, cultural, and psychological isolation. These factors combine to create a particularly dangerous situation for Indigenous women that differs from the experiences of non-Indigenous women.
Within this backdrop, we can begin to understand the rates at which Indigenous women and girls experience violence.
If you like listening to podcasts and are interested in learning more about this particular issue, CBC has an excellent podcast that delves into the case of Alberta Williams and Cleo, two young women who went missing and were murdered. This podcast does an excellent job of explaining the context surrounding these cases. Trigger warning, the podcast does go into incredible detail surrounding the circumstances of each woman’s death.
CBC also has been conducting research surrounding missing and murdered women in Canada. You can learn about almost every case that has occurred in Canada, regardless of the outcome, on their website. It also includes a comprehensive list of the victims’ names, the circumstances surrounding each case, and the status of the case when known.