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Aboriginal women disappear amid public indifference

By JIM BRONSKILL AND SUE BAILEY

Canadian Press
September 18, 2005

OTTAWA (CP) - Their carefree grins, candid photos and cold mugshots stare out from a gut-wrenching gallery.

Untold scores of society's most vulnerable members - young native women - have gone missing across the country only to be forsaken by a jaded justice system and neglectful media.

The death and disappearance of aboriginal women has emerged as an alarming nationwide pattern, from western serial murders to little-known Atlantic vanishings.

Grim statistics and anecdotal evidence compiled by The Canadian Press suggest public apathy has allowed predators to stalk native victims with near impunity.

The record also points to an ugly truth behind the political and legal lethargy: racism.

Pauline Muskego's daughter, Daleen Kay Bosse, disappeared after a night out with friends in Saskatoon on May 18, 2004. She left behind a daughter, now four, who was her greatest joy. There was no hint that the aspiring teacher and photographer, just 26 years old, would simply abandon her life, says Muskego.

The torment of waiting for answers is only deepened whenever a white woman's disappearance triggers a flurry of national media attention.

"My daughter's face has never been shown nationally."

Almost everyone has heard that the remains of more than 27 women were found on a pig farm in British Columbia. Lost in the grisly headlines, however, is the fact that many of the victims were aboriginal.

The episode highlighted the cases of at least 68 missing women from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside - an enclave of drug-addicted despair that is disproportionately home to native people. They vanished over a two-decade period, often with scant police or media attention.

But aboriginal women are not preyed upon in British Columbia alone. Their deaths and disappearances remain unsolved on reserves, in cities and in small towns across the country.

Victims include not only the most exposed drug addicts but also aspiring professionals, university students and devoted mothers with no history of street life.

Police in British Columbia are probing the disappearance of at least 68 women from Vancouver over two decades. Pig farmer Robert Pickton has been charged with killing 27 of the women, many of whom were prostitutes in the city's crime-ridden Downtown Eastside.

An internal federal briefing note obtained by The Canadian Press suggests as many as half of the missing B.C. women may have been aboriginal. Exact figures are hard to pin down because ancestry is not always obvious from the facts known about each victim.

An RCMP-led task force in Alberta is investigating more than 80 unsolved murders and missing-person cases - disappearances the police say could point to a serial killer.

The bodies of several Edmonton prostitutes have been found discarded in farmers' fields, upping the ante for those who gamble their lives as street workers. In 2003, many in the sex trade began voluntarily providing DNA samples and personal contacts to police.

But reliable information is sorely lacking on the extent to which the most vulnerable victims are targeted.

The Native Women's Association of Canada campaigned last year for $10 million in federal funds to research what it estimates are at least 500 cases in the last 20 years of murdered or missing aboriginal women. That estimate is based on the group's preliminary research, including extensive interviews with families.

Bleak scenes on Saskatoon's 20th Street have roots in discrimination

By Sue Bailey and Jim Bronskill

SASKATOON (CP) - It's mid-afternoon on a Tuesday as a 16-year-old girl paces 20th Street in the heart of The Stroll.

Wearing denim shorts and eating an ice-cream bar, she looks like any teenager on a hot summer day - until she starts waving at passing pickup trucks.

She is among dozens of native girls and women caught up in a highly visible and racially polarized sex trade.

How they got there is a complex question with historic roots reaching back through decades of racist federal policy, says Toronto lawyer Mary Eberts.

"What has happened to aboriginal women in this country, by the conscious act of the Canadian state, is appalling."

A growing list of murdered and missing native women across Canada includes many who wound up in an increasingly dangerous sex trade.

In Saskatoon, the women who sell their bodies and the young girls who are exploited - often under pressure from other girls in their "street families" or from drug-addicted relatives - are overwhelmingly aboriginal.

The men who cruise The Stroll come from all income brackets. They range from transient construction workers to professionals in luxury SUVs. They often have wives and families. They are almost always white.

Many are regular visitors to this run-down sprawl of motels, businesses and homes near Saskatoon's downtown core.

Some are sadistically abusive, and there's little police can do to protect victims as young as 10 who tend to report only the worst beatings. Police are widely distrusted here, and many residents fear arrest for outstanding warrants.

A local street outreach agency keeps a "high risk of homicide" registry that typically tracks up to 100 girls and women considered most vulnerable. The grim record includes such identifying information as tattoos and previously broken bones to help police investigate if needed.

"The reality of it is that kids turn up dead," says Don Meikle, client services co-ordinator for the downtown youth centre.

Saskatoon, like Regina and Winnipeg, has a large aboriginal population saddled with crushing rates of poverty, drug addiction, sexual abuse, domestic violence and prostitution.

Who is responsible for such misery?

Eberts says it's a grossly unfair reading of recent history to blame native communities alone.

She traces a succession of federal policies that disrupted sophisticated aboriginal social systems while forcing whole populations on to small reserves.

Introduced in 1876, the Indian Act limited economic prospects and even freedom of movement. It especially undercut traditional roles of authority held for centuries by aboriginal women, Eberts says.

"Under the Indian Act, Indian women were not recognized as legal persons. They were not allowed to hold land or participate in band governance in any way - either as voters or to stand and hold office. And they were not allowed to inherit property or serve as executors of estates.

"They were complete legal non-entities."

Moreover, native women who married non-native men lost their Indian status. This especially damaging piece of sexist legislation was only partially corrected in 1985.

The political approach to the "Indian Problem" was assimilation, beginning in earnest in the 1870s with residential schools.

By 1900, thousands of native children had been placed in institutions where their culture and language were shunned. Many were punished for speaking their native tongue in a system that would erode family structures for more than three generations.

Ottawa has admitted that physical and sexual abuse in the church-run schools was rampant. But the federal government has so far refused to pay blanket compensation.

Today, the residential school experience reverberates in the form of social dysfunction. Native leaders say it's a key factor in the sexual abuse, alcoholism, drug addiction and domestic violence that have plagued many communities since.

Ottawa has committed $5 million over five years to research cases of murdered and missing native women - far short of the $10 million over two years sought by the Native Women's Association of Canada.

Indian Affairs Minister Andy Scott says "it's a start."

Ottawa is desperately trying to deal with the fallout from years of federal meddling in the lives of First Nation, Inuit and Metis people, he said in an interview.

"We're stuck with an awareness of the history of our unilateral interventions. They haven't been a happy story.

"I immediately look at these conditions and say, 'I want to do something.' But I have to resist that instinct because I think we have to be more collaborative than that."

There is hope that increasing education and sobriety rates will mean a brighter future for many aboriginal kids. But for those pinned down by poverty and addiction, life is a bleak struggle to survive.

"To get some money," the 16-year-old girl says with a stoned grin when asked why she's offering herself up to strangers on 20th Street.

Already a mother of two, she is obviously high but only admits to smoking "a few joints" of pot.

She is living with a girlfriend who also works the streets with two of her sisters. Another older sister, in the sex trade as well, went missing a few years ago and has never been found.

A 20th Street business owner finally hired a private security guard to protect the corner outside her shop for part of each weekday.

His main job is to keep away the young women who appear from early in the morning to late at night. Noon-hours are busy as men on lunch breaks cruise for sex.

"The politicians have to do something," says the business owner, who asked not to be identified.

Police say their hands are tied by lax prostitution laws, while politicians do little but say they're concerned, she says.

On the table before her are stacks of newspaper clippings and letters she has written pleading for action.

"This place is a breeding ground for drugs, sexually transmitted disease and abductions."

She is at a loss to understand why her voice is one of few demanding change.

"There are native people out there who don't want it either. Where are the elders?"

Ojibwa elder Walter Linklater, 66, says those who truly follow traditional culture can help.

But they are rarely asked by the mostly white bureaucrats who run programs in a social-work industry that feeds off native problems, he says.

He beat acute alcoholism in his 30s only when an elder helped him reconnect with his aboriginal ancestry.

Many native people will remain lost until they do the same, Linklater says.

"We must go back to our traditional ways.

"We won't give up. We'll go through many tragedies yet before society realizes and goes to the elders."

Bert Milberg, a Halifax addictions counsellor who tries to help men deal with their anger, says the aboriginal tenet of holding women sacred has been forgotten.

"We've lost that, obviously," he said. "Women going missing, women getting murdered, women committing suicide.

"It's time to start reversing this wheel."

Key dates in the recent history of missing aboriginal women

(CP) - Key dates in the recent history of missing aboriginal women in Canada:

June 21, 2002: Tree-planter Nicole Hoar, 25, of Red Deer, Alta., vanishes while hitchhiking along northern British Columbia's Highway 16, west of Prince George. Her disappearance garners national headlines. At least six young native women went missing between 1988 and 1995 along the same "Highway of Tears" with comparatively little public focus. All cases remain unsolved.

Oct. 4, 2004: Amnesty International Canada issues Stolen Sisters, a major report condemning how racism and sexism taint police and media handling of cases involving missing or murdered aboriginal women.

May 17, 2005: Federal government commits $5 million over five years to research cases of missing aboriginal women - far short of the $10 million over two years sought by the Native Women's Association of Canada for its Sisters in Spirit campaign.

May 25, 2005: Port Coquitlam, B.C., pig farmer Robert Pickton is charged with 12 new counts of first-degree murder, bringing the total to 27. Most alleged victims disappeared from Vancouver's drug-infested Downtown Eastside between 1996 and 2002. Relatives of a growing list of missing women first pressed police to investigate in 1991. Vancouver police agreed to review related files in 1998. Of at least 68 women believed missing to date, at least one-quarter are aboriginal.

June 17, 2005: RCMP in Edmonton announce they're looking for a serial killer. Critics ask why it took so long when at least 12 prostitutes have been killed in and around the city since 1988. Several victims were aboriginal. Today, police province wide are jointly reviewing more than 80 murder and missing-person cases over two decades.

 

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Updated: August 21, 2016