- elder Dan Smoke, closing a healing ceremony for
his sister-in-law, Deborah Anne Sloss who died in Toronto on August 24, 1997
under suspicious circumstances.
Helen Betty Osborne was a 19-year-old Cree student from northern Manitoba who
dreamed of becoming a teacher. On November 12, 1971, she was abducted by four
white men in the town of The Pas and then sexually assaulted and brutally
murdered. A provincial inquiry subsequently concluded that Canadian authorities
had failed Helen Betty Osborne. The inquiry criticized the sloppy and racially
biased police investigation that took more than 15 years to bring one of the
four men to justice. Most disturbingly, the inquiry concluded that police had
long been aware of white men sexually preying on Indigenous women and girls in
The Pas but "did not feel that the practice necessitated any particular
The murder of Helen Betty Osborne is one of nine case studies presented in this
report. These stories of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls take
place in three of the Western provinces of Canada over a period of three
decades. In some cases, the crimes remain unsolved. In others, the perpetrators
have been identified as intimate acquaintances, strangers or men encountered in
the course of desperate efforts to earn a living. In every instance, it is
Amnesty International’s view that Canadian authorities should have done more to
ensure the safety of these women and girls.
This report examines the following factors which, too long neglected, have
contributed to a heightened -- and unacceptable -- risk of violence against
Indigenous women in Canadian cities:
• The social and economic marginalisation of Indigenous women, along with a
history of government policies that have torn apart Indigenous families and
communities, have pushed a disproportionate number of Indigenous women into
dangerous situations that include extreme poverty, homelessness and
• Despite assurances to the contrary, police in Canada have often failed to
provide Indigenous women with an adequate standard of protection.
• The resulting vulnerability of Indigenous women has been exploited by
Indigenous and non-Indigenous men to carry out acts of extreme brutality against
• These acts of violence may be motivated by racism, or may be carried out in
the expectation that societal indifference to the welfare and safety of
Indigenous women will allow the perpetrators to escape justice.
These are not new concerns. Indigenous women’s organizations, government
commissions such as the inquiry into the murder of Helen Betty Osborne and the
Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, and United Nations human rights bodies
have all called on Canadian officials to address the marginalisation of
Indigenous women in Canadian society and to ensure that the rights and safety of
Indigenous people are respected and upheld by police and courts. Sadly,
fundamental measures that could help reduce the risk of violence to Indigenous
women remain unimplemented. This is only one example of the way Canadian
authorities have failed in their responsibility to protect the rights of
Indigenous women in Canada.
Scope, Methods and Limitations of This Study
This report examines the role of discrimination in acts of violence carried out
against Indigenous women in Canadian towns and cities. This discrimination takes
the form both of overt cultural prejudice and of implicit or systemic biases in
the policies and actions of government officials and agencies, or of society as
a whole. This discrimination has played out in policies and practices that have
helped put Indigenous women in harm’s way and in the failure to provide
Indigenous women the protection from violence that is every woman’s human right.
Amnesty International acknowledges that there are many similarities between
Indigenous women and non-Indigenous women’s experiences of violence in Canada.
More needs to be done to address violence against all women. This report is part
of a larger, international campaign to stop violence against women. This report
focuses specifically on violence against Indigenous women because of indications
of the scale of such violence in Canada, because the link between racial
discrimination and violence against Indigenous women has not yet been adequately
acknowledged or addressed, and because the victims of this violence are all too
often forgotten. Amnesty International reviewed published reports and the
findings of inquests and government inquiries, interviewed survivors of violence
and the family members of Indigenous women who have been murdered or who have
gone missing, and met with key organizations and individuals who have worked on
their behalf. Where possible, the researchers also spoke with police
investigators or spokespersons. The individual stories that form the major part
of this report are retold with the permission of the families and friends. Many
of the families of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada were unable
to take this step. Some find it too emotionally difficult talk about their loss.
Others have had negative experiences with the way their stories have been told
by reporters and academics. There are countless stories that remain untold.
This report focuses primarily on cities in the Western provinces of Canada where
there is a large and growing Indigenous population and where there have been a
number of highly publicized incidents of violence against Indigenous women.
There were regions of Canada that Amnesty International did not have the
opportunity to visit in the course of this research and as a result many
specific experiences, such as those of Inuit and other northern Indigenous
women, the experiences of rural Indigenous women, and Indigenous women living on
reserves, unfortunately are not adequately reflected. As was stated by many
interviewees, this report is still only ‘scratching the surface.’ However,
Amnesty International hopes that it will contribute to a fuller understanding of
the issue from a human rights perspective.
Violence against women, and certainly violence against Indigenous women, is
rarely understood as a human rights issue. To the extent that governments, media
and the general public do consider concerns about violence against women, it is
more frequent for it to be described as a criminal concern or a social issue. It
is both of those things of course. But it is also very much a human rights
issue. Women have the right to be safe and free from violence. Indigenous women
have the right to be safe and free from violence. When a woman is targeted for
violence because of her gender or because of her Indigenous identity, her
fundamental rights have been abused. And when she is not offered an adequate
level of protection by state authorities because or her gender or because of her
Indigenous identity, those rights have been violated.
I. The international human rights framework
This report addresses violence against Indigenous women as a human rights issue.
The concept of human rights is based on the recognition of the inherent dignity
and worth of every human being. Through ratification of binding international
human rights treaties, and the adoption of declarations by multilateral bodies
such as the United Nations, governments have committed themselves to ensuring
that all people can enjoy certain universal rights and freedoms.
Amnesty International’s research demonstrates that violence experienced by
Indigenous women gives rise to human rights concerns in two central ways.
First, is the violence itself and the official response to that violence. When
indigenous women are targeted for racist, sexists attacks by private individuals
and are not assured the necessary levels of protection in the face of that
violence, a range of their fundamental human rights are at stake. This includes
the right to life, the right to be protected against torture and ill treatment,
the right to security of the person, and the right to both sexual and racial
equality. Canada has ratified all of the key human rights treaties that
guarantee these fundamental rights.
Notably Canada has not yet ratified the only international human rights treaty
dealing specifically with the issue of violence against women, the
Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of
Violence against Women (Convention of Belém do Pará). Canadian ratification of
this treaty would strengthen the legal and institutional framework for
protecting Indigenous women in Canada. The treaty not only requires states to
condemn, prevent, and punish violence against women, but also obliges them to
undertake progressively specific measures to deal with the root causes of
gender-based violence, including, inter alia, the provision of specialized
shelters and social services for the victims of violence; education and training
programs for all those involved in the administration of justice; the gathering
of statistics and other relevant information relating to the causes,
consequences and frequency of violence against women; and specialized programs
aimed at countering social and cultural patterns of conduct "which legitimize or
exacerbate violence against women".
The cases in this report and other cases of violence against Indigenous women
that are already on the public record do not involve allegations of violence by
police or other public officials. But that does not mean that the human rights
obligations of governments are not engaged.
International law is clear; governments are of course obliged to ensure that
their own officials comply with human rights standards. Governments are also
obliged, though, to adopt effective measures to guard against private
individuals committing acts which result in human rights abuses. International
human rights bodies have made it clear that when governments fail to take such
steps, often termed the duty of "due diligence", they will be held accountable
under international human rights treaties. The Inter-American Court of Human
Rights has described the duty of due diligence as follows:
An illegal act which violates human rights and which is initially not directly
imputable to a State (for example, because it is the act of a private person or
because the person responsible has not been identified) can lead to
international responsibility of the State, not because of the act itself, but
because of the lack of due diligence to prevent the violation or to respond to
it as required by the Convention.
The Court stressed that this duty of "due diligence" means that a state must
take reasonable steps to prevent human rights violations, use the means at its
disposal to carry out serious investigations, identify those responsible, impose
the appropriate punishment and ensure that the victim receives adequate
reparation. The UN Human Rights Committee, has stressed that the duty in article
2 of the Covenant on Civil and Political Right to "ensure" the rights included
in the Covenant requires appropriate measures be taken to prevent and
investigate abuses perpetrated by private persons or entities, punish those
responsible and provide reparations to the victims. This concept of due
diligence does not in any way lessen the criminal responsibility of those who
carry out acts of violence, including murder, against women. However, the
concept does underline the inescapable responsibility of state officials to take
In her 2003 report to the UN Commission on Human Rights, Radhika Coomaraswamy,
the first Special Rapporteur on violence against women clearly described the
content of the duty of due diligence when it comes to preventing violence
States must promote and protect the human rights of women and exercise due
(a) To prevent, investigate and punish acts of all forms of violence against
women, whether in the home, the workplace, the community or society, in custody
or in situations of armed conflict;
(b) To take all measures to empower women and strengthen their economic
independence and to protect and promote the full enjoyment of all rights and
(c) To condemn violence against women and not invoke custom, tradition or
practices in the name of religion or culture to avoid their obligations to
eliminate such violence;
(d) To intensify efforts to develop and/or utilize legislative, educational,
social and other measures aimed at the prevention of violence, including the
dissemination of information, legal literacy campaigns and the training of
legal, judicial and health personnel;
(e) To enact and, where necessary, reinforce or amend domestic legislation in
accordance with international standards, including measures to enhance the
protection of victims, and develop and strengthen support services;
(f) To support initiatives undertaken by women’s organizations and
non-governmental organizations on violence against women and establish and/or
strengthen, at the national level, collaborative relationships with relevant
NGOs and with public and private sector institutions.
Second, the range of concerns, some historical and some continuing, which
Amnesty International’s research has shown to be factors that put Indigenous
women at heightened risk of experiencing violence also directly engage a number
of fundamental human rights provisions. For instance, past policies revoking the
legal Indigenous status of Indigenous women who married non-Indigenous men have
already been found by the UN Human Rights Committee to have violated minority
cultural rights under article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and
Political Rights. Certainly the decades long residential schools program raises
a range of human rights concerns related to the physical, sexual and
psychological abuse and ill-treatment of the children sent to the schools, but
also such economic, social and cultural rights as the right to education.
The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has highlighted that
the economic marginalization of Indigenous peoples in Canada is of concern with
respect to Canada’s obligations under the Covenant on Economic, Social and
The Committee is greatly concerned at the gross disparity between Aboriginal
people and the majority of Canadians with respect to the enjoyment of Covenant
rights. There has been little or no progress in the alleviation of social and
economic deprivation among Aboriginal people. In particular, the Committee is
deeply concerned at the shortage of adequate housing, the endemic mass
unemployment and the high rate of suicide, especially among youth, in the
Aboriginal communities. Another concern is the failure to provide safe and
adequate drinking water to Aboriginal communities on reserves. The delegation of
the State Party conceded that almost a quarter of Aboriginal household dwellings
required major repairs and lacked basic amenities.
These concerns engage a number of internationally protected human rights,
including the rights to housing, work, health and an adequate standard of
This report highlights some past and present concerns with respect to Indigenous
children, such as residential schools and child protection policies as well as
some cases involving violence against Indigenous girls. International human
rights laws and standards recognize that children need and deserve special
protection to ensure the full realization of their potential. The almost
universally ratified United Nations Convention on the Rights on the Children
establishes as an overarching principle that "in all actions concerning
children… the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration." The
Convention recognizes that there are instances where, in the best interests of
the child, children must be removed from an abusive family situation. However,
the Convention asserts that, in general, parents or legal guardians have the
primary responsibility for ensuring the welfare of their children and should be
supported by the state in meeting this responsibility. Notably, the Convention
also recognizes that every child has a right to preserve his or her cultural
identity and family relations and that Indigenous children, in particular,
"shall not be denied the right… to enjoy his or her own culture, to profess and
practice his or her own religion, to use his or her own language."
At the heart of the various human rights concerns documented in this report is
discrimination. Amnesty International’s research has found that Indigenous women
in Canada face discrimination because of their gender and because of their
Indigenous identity. The research highlights that this is compounded by further
discriminatory treatment that women face due to poverty, ill-health or
involvement in the sex trade. Human rights experts have drawn attention to the
interconnections between various forms of discrimination and patterns of
violence against women. Amnesty International’s research has been conducted
within a framework that recognizes the intersections between various forms of
discrimination, and supports these findings.
In addition to these existing legal obligations, new and emerging international
instruments, such as the UN’s draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous
Peoples, seek to clarify the specific measures needed to ensure the protection
and fulfillment of the rights of Indigenous peoples.
II. Understanding violence against Indigenous women
Stolen generations: Colonization and violence against Indigenous women
The UN Declaration on Violence Against Women calls violence against women "a
manifestation of historically unequal power relations between women and men" and
a means by which this inequality is maintained." Around the world, inequality
between men and women in terms of wealth, social status, and access to power has
created barriers to women seeking protection of their rights. These barriers
include economic dependence on abusive spouses, fear of having their children
taken away if they report the abuse, or knowing that they will not be taken
seriously by the police and courts.
Moreover, both the perpetrators of violence against women and those who
administer the criminal justice system - judges, prosecutors, police - often
hold the pervasive view that women are responsible for violence committed
against them or that they deserve to be punished for non-conforming behaviour.
So even when a woman does overcome these barriers and report that she has been
the victim of a violent attack, she may well meet with an unsympathetic or
skeptical response. In the few cases in which a suspect is identified and
brought to trial, cases of violence against women often founder unless there is
clear and unavoidable evidence of force, illustrating to all that the victim
"fought back". The perpetrators of violence against women can thus commit their
crimes safe in the knowledge that they will not face arrest, prosecution or
punishment. Impunity for violence against women contributes to a climate where
such acts are seen as normal and acceptable rather then criminal, and where
women do not seek justice because they know they will not get it.
For Indigenous women in Canada, violence often takes place in a context shaped,
in the words of Canada’s Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP), by the
power that the dominant society has wielded "over every aspect of their lives,
from the way they are educated and the way they can earn a living to the way
they are governed." Historically, in most of the Indigenous cultures that are
now part of Canada, there were distinct gender roles for women and men but
relative equality between them. Through policies imposed without their consent,
Indigenous peoples in Canada "have had to deal with dispossession of their
traditional territories, disassociation with their traditional roles and
responsibilities, disassociation with participation in political and social
decisions in their communities, disassociation of their culture and tradition."
Colonialism, which has had a profoundly negative impact on Indigenous
communities as a whole, has also affected the relations between Indigenous women
and Indigenous men, and pushed many Indigenous women to the margins of their own
cultures and Canadian society as a whole.
While it is beyond the scope of this report to look at all the ways government
policies have impacted on Indigenous women, two historic policies - the
dispossession of Indigenous women who married outside their communities and the
removal of children to be educated in residential schools - need to be examined
because of their profound and lasting impact on social strife within Indigenous
communities and on the marginalization of Indigenous women within Canadian
RCAP described the legislation governing Indigenous peoples in Canada as being
"conceived and implemented in part as an overt attack on Indian nationhood and
individual identity, a conscious and sustained attempt by non-Aboriginal
missionaries, politicians and bureaucrats - albeit at times well intentioned -
to impose rules to determine who is and is not ‘Indian.’" The first of these
laws, passed in 1857, allowed Indigenous men to renounce their Indigenous status
and the right to live on reserve lands in order to assimilate into
non-Indigenous society. Women were not given the same choice: women’s status
would be determined by the choices made by her husband or father. A second law
passed in 1869, stripped women of their Indigenous status and their place in
their community if they married a man from another community, even if he was
also Indigenous. In addition, children born to an Indigenous woman who married a
non-Indigenous man would also be denied status. These laws remained in place for
more than a century. Finally, in 1985, after a long struggle by Indigenous
women, which included bringing a successful complaint to the UN Human Rights
Committee, the policies were repealed for being incompatible with protections
against discrimination in the new Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Over the next decade, more than 130,000 people - mostly women - applied to have
their rights and status restored. For the tens of thousands of women who had
been affected over the previous century, losing their status meant the loss of
independent standing in their community and increased dependence on their
spouses. In many cases, the laws led to women losing all ties to their home
communities. During the same period that so many Indigenous women were being
uprooted, the federal government was removing large numbers of Indigenous
children from their families and communities to attend schools in predominantly
non-Indigenous communities. The explicit purpose of providing education outside
of the community was to foster assimilation of Indigenous children into European
Canadian culture. The first residential schools were opened in the mid-1870s. In
the words of the architect of the system, Canadian Member of Parliament Nicholas
Flood Davin, the goal was to remove Indigenous children from "the influence of
the wigwam" and keep them instead "constantly within the circle of civilized
conditions." The children attending residential schools were not allowed to
speak their Indigenous languages or to practice their own customs, eroding their
sense of identity and driving a wedge between the children and their parents.
Initially, the schools offered low quality education, geared to industrial
trades for boys and domestic service for women. Beginning in the mid-twentieth
century, they gradually became residences for Indigenous children attending
schools in predominantly non-Indigenous communities. The school system was run
in collaboration with Christian churches until 1969. Then, in a phase-out period
that lasted through the mid-1980s, the system was run solely by the federal
Many children in the schools faced inhuman living conditions caused by chronic
under-funding and neglect. Harsh punishments sanctioned by the school
authorities included beatings, chaining children to their beds, or denying them
food. Cloaked by society’s indifference to the fate of these children,
individual staff carried out horrendous acts of physical and sexual abuse.
Summarizing the history of the residential school system, the RCAP points out
"head office, regional, school and church files are replete, from early in the
system's history, with incidents that violated the norms of the day." Yet even
the most alarming reports of abuse and neglect were largely ignored by the
church and government officials responsible for the care of these children:
The avalanche of reports on the condition of children "hungry, malnourished,
ill-clothed, dying of tuberculosis, overworked" failed to move either the
churches or successive governments "to concerted and effective remedial action."
When senior officials in the department and the churches became aware of cases
of abuse, they failed routinely to come to the rescue of children they had
removed from their real parents.
In a climate of total impunity, staff carried out their crimes without fear of
repercussion. However the consequences for many of the children exposed to
repeated abuse stayed with them their whole lives and have impacted subsequent
generations. Like other survivors of abuse, many of the residential school
alumni have carried a sense of shame and self-loathing. Perhaps most harmfully,
they were denied the opportunity to be exposed to good examples of parenting,
and instead learned violence and abuse. With the end of the residential school
system, survivors began to come forward to tell stories of abuse and demand
justice. In the early 1990s, there were a number of prosecutions of staff who
had abused children. Following the 1996 RCAP report the federal government
established a $350 million dollar fund to provide healing programs for the
victims and their families. Applications for support, however, have greatly
outstripped the available resources. Indigenous peoples’ organizations also
argue that there has been inadequate redress for the loss of culture and
identity and the intergenerational impacts of all the forms of abuse suffered in
the schools. Although the federal government has apologized for the harm done by
the residential school system, it has failed to act on RCAP’s recommendation
that a public inquiry be held so that the injuries suffered by Indigenous
communities can be fully acknowledged.
Indigenous peoples’ organizations have pointed out that the erosion of cultural
identity and the accompanying loss of self-worth brought about, in part, through
assimilationist policies like residential schools and the arbitrary denial of
some women’s Indigenous status, have played a central role in the social strife
now faced by many Indigenous families and communities. In the course of
researching this report, Amnesty International heard from many families who
described the personal loss and hardship they have experienced as a consequence
of these policies. Some described losing all contact with a sister or daughter
who simply disappeared after being put into a foster home or marrying a man from
another community. Other women described increasing desperate and dangerous
lives shaped by loss of culture, community and self-esteem. These are two
examples of the stories we have heard:
• Margaret Evonne Guylee’s mother was from the Whitedog Reserve in northern
Ontario but had been forced to give up her residence in the community in the
early 1930s after getting involved with a non-Indigenous man. Margaret Guylee
grew up in poverty in Toronto. She then raised six children herself while living
on social assistance. She disappeared in 1965. No missing persons report was
ever filed. Her daughter, Carrie Neilson, who was only four when her mother
disappeared, says she still carries the pain and bewilderment caused by her
mother’s sudden and still unexplained disappearance. "We believed for years that
we were not any good - after all, why would a mother abandon her children if
they were good?"
• Edna Brass is a respected elder and counselor working with Indigenous women in
Vancouver. As a child, Edna Brass spent 13 years in residential school. She
remembers being teased by the other children about a cleft palate that left
scars on her face. She remembers worse abuse at the hands of the staff running
the school: "I was sexually abused, I was raped, I was beaten." As a consequence
of what she endured, Edna Brass says she lost her ties to her culture and lost
her own way in life. She entered into a life of substance abuse and living on
the streets. Although she was eventually able to pull her own life together, she
says her family still suffers the scars of her own uprooting. Edna Brass says,
"I, myself, didn’t have a home. I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere and my
children have felt the same. They don’t know my family. They don’t know my
community. I never felt like my reserve is my reserve. I just try to fit in
where I can. My daughter suffered because of this."
These personal accounts illustrate one of the central conclusions of the Royal
Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. "Repeated assaults on the culture and
collective identity of Aboriginal people have weakened the foundations of
Aboriginal society and contributed to the alienation that drives some to
self-destruction and anti-social behaviour," RCAP concluded. "Social problems
among Aboriginal people are, in large measure, a legacy of history.
It is important to emphasize that the disruption of Indigenous families and
communities is not a thing of the past. Even as the residential school system
was being transformed and eventually phased out from the late 1950s through the
1970s, provincial and territorial governments began to place a dramatically
increased number of Indigenous children in foster homes and state institutions.
One study found that the number of Indigenous children in state care in the
province of British Columbia rose from 29 children in 1955 to 1,446 in 1965.
Despite many changes that have taken place in the field of Indigenous child
welfare, the Canadian government recently estimated that Indigenous children are
currently four to six times more likely than non-Indigenous children to be
removed from their families and placed in the care of the state.
These children are being removed from their families and communities to protect
them from abuse and neglect. There are clearly circumstances where such measures
are needed to protect the rights and welfare of the child. Unlike the
residential school system, child welfare institutions are not intending to break
children’s ties to their families and communities. In fact, since the early
1980s child services in Indigenous communities are increasingly provided by
Indigenous organizations funded by the federal government. However, many
Indigenous peoples’ organizations and other commentators have noted that
Indigenous children are often removed from families who want to care for them,
but for reasons such as poverty, substance addiction and other legacies of past
government policies, are unable to do so. And they question why there are not
more resources available to help Indigenous families address situations of
impoverishment, stress, and poor parenting before they reach the point where
children are endangered.
A joint study completed in 2000 by the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern
Development and Assembly of First Nations found that on average Indigenous run
child services programs receive 22 percent less funding than provincially-funded
counterparts serving predominantly non-Indigenous communities. The study also
found that there was not enough emphasis on funding early intervention programs
so that children’s welfare and safety could be assured without removal from
"You put a child into care and they get counseling immediately," one witness
told a Parliamentary committee, "but when a biological parent is looking for
those sources or that funding to maintain their own family and keep it together,
it’s not available to them."
The painful loss of ties to family, community and culture is a common element of
many of the stories of missing and murdered women that have been reported to
Amnesty International, some of which are presented in the case studies that
follow below. Such loss is not a necessary consequence of children being removed
from their families, or even of being adopted into a non-Indigenous family. Some
of these women were clearly raised with love and affection by caring foster or
adoptive families. There are many ways that ties to their heritage and identity
could have been maintained throughout their childhood or, if they had had the
chance, rebuilt in later life. Nor is loss of culture a direct cause of
violence. However, for young people in particular, a loss of a sense of
identity, belonging and ultimately self-worth needs to be understood and
addressed as a critical factor potentially contributing to self destructive
behaviour and in vulnerability to exploitation by others.
Indigenous women in Canadian cities: Displaced in their own land
The Canadian government’s Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples acknowledged in
its 1996 report that there have been widespread violations of Indigenous
peoples’ land and resource rights – including the erosion of more than
two-thirds of the land base of Indigenous communities -- since the formation of
the Canadian state. The Commission warned:
Without adequate lands and resources, Aboriginal nations will be unable to build
their communities and structure the employment opportunities necessary to
achieve self sufficiency. Currently on the margins of Canadian society, they
will be pushed to the edge of economic, cultural and political extinction. The
government must act forcefully, generously and swiftly to assure the economic,
cultural and political survival of Aboriginal nations."
With the loss of traditional livelihoods within Indigenous communities, the
opportunities for education and employment in Canadian towns and cities have
become a powerful draw for a growing number of Indigenous people. Almost 60
percent of Indigenous people in Canada now live in urban settings. Critically,
however, the majority of Indigenous peoples in Canadian towns and cities
continue to live at a disadvantage compared to non-Indigenous people, facing
dramatically lower incomes and a shortage of culturally appropriate support
services in a government structure that has still not fully adjusted to the
growing urban Indigenous population.
In the 1996 census, Indigenous women with status living off-reserve earned on
average $13,870 a year. This is about $5500 less than non-Indigenous women.
Other groups of Indigenous women, such as Inuit and Métis women, recorded
slightly higher average annual incomes, but all substantially less than what
Statistics Canada estimated someone living in a large Canadian city would
require to meet their own needs. In fact, many Indigenous women living in
poverty not only have to look after themselves but also must care for elderly
parents, raise children or tend to loved ones in ill-health, often with only a
single income to live on. Homelessness and inadequate shelter are believed to be
widespread problems facing Indigenous families in all settings. The difficult
struggle to get by is compounded by many Indigenous peoples’ experience of
racism, both subtle and overt, within the dominant society. As described by the
Canadian Panel on Violence against Women: "most Aboriginal people have know
racism first-hand - most have been called ‘dirty Indians’ in schools or foster
homes or by police and prison guards. Aboriginal people have also experienced
subtle shifts in treatment and know it is no accident."
As a whole, Indigenous people living off-reserve move frequently, more so than
other people living in Canada. For some, this is movement to and from their home
communities as they try to maintain a connection with their families and
cultures. For others, this movement may be a reflection of a kind of
rootlessness stemming from the fact that their ties to family and community were
severed long ago, perhaps by their loss of membership in their home community or
perhaps due to their removal to a residential school or some other form of state
care. One consequence of this "churn factor", as it is sometimes called, is that
many Indigenous people are not aware of -- or are unable to access -- the
services available to them where they live.
In Canada, the federal government is responsible for health and social services
on reserve and in Inuit communities, while the provincial and territorial
governments provide services elsewhere. This has led to a gap in services for
Indigenous people living in Canadian towns and cities. While Indigenous people
living off-reserve have access to programs and services designed for the general
population, these programs and services are not necessarily aligned to the
specific needs of Indigenous peoples, or delivered in a culturally appropriate
Over the last decade, the federal government has increasingly recognized the
need for programs and services for Indigenous people in predominantly
non-Indigenous communities. Funding, however, lags behind the growth in the
urban Indigenous population and the delivery of services through various
government departments is often uncoordinated. The Federal Interlocutor for
Métis and Non-Status Indians pointed out in 2003 that almost 90 percent of the
funding for programs designed for Indigenous peoples is spent on reserves, while
off-reserve programs for Indigenous people are delivered through 22 federal
departments, as well as provincial and territorial agencies. Responding to these
comments, a federal subcommittee on Indigenous child welfare described a
"jurisdictional web" in which there is often little coordination or
communication "within and between the municipal, provincial and federal levels
Indigenous people have formed a wide range of service organizations to help
address the needs of the growing urban Indigenous population, including
employment counseling, addiction services, health centers and shelters for women
and girls escaping violence. However, most, if not all, report that their work
is jeopardized by chronic under funding and the failure of government to provide
funding on a stable, multi-year basis. Being dependent on short-term funding
diverts energy from vital services to fundraising, or to managing crises when
funds don’t arrive. Without stable funding, long-term projects are difficult to
plan and organizations fear they won’t be able to keep their commitments to the
people they serve.
In 2000, the Ontario Federation of Indian Friendship Centres - organizations
that represent and provide support to Indigenous people outside their own
communities - surveyed Indigenous families about their lives in Ontario cities.
All those interviewed described the psychological hardship of their struggle to
provide for themselves with little support from the larger community. "Words
such as low self-esteem, depression, anger, self-doubt, intimidation,
frustration, shame and hopelessness were used to describe some of the crushing
feelings of Aboriginal children and parents living in poverty. Families are
feeling despair as they cannot see any way to ‘rise above’ their situations."
Prostitution is one means that some Indigenous women have resorted to in the
struggle to provide for themselves and their families in Canadian cities. A
survey of 183 women in the Vancouver sex trade carried out by the PACE
(Prostitution Alternatives Counseling and Education) Society found roughly 40
percent of the women said they got into the sex trade primarily because they
needed the money, and an additional 25 percent referred to drug addiction as
part of the reason they starting selling sexual services, while many others
referred to pressure from boyfriends or family members. Almost 60 percent said
they continued working in the sex trade to maintain a drug habit. In the PACE
study, more than 30 percent of sex workers surveyed were Indigenous women,
although Indigenous people make up less than two percent of the city’s
population. Indigenous women are believed to be similarly over-represented among
sex workers in other Canadian cities.
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has expressed concern about
"Aboriginal children [in Canada] who, in disproportionate numbers, end up in the
sex trade as a means of survival." The non-governmental organization, Save the
Children Canada, spoke with more than 150 Indigenous youths and children being
exploited in the sex trade. According to their report, almost all the youth and
children interviewed described "the overwhelming presence of disruption and
discord in their lives, accompanied by low self-esteem." Other factors common to
many of the young peoples’ lives included a history of physical or sexual abuse,
a history of running away from families or foster homes, lack of strong ties to
family and community, homelessness or transience, lack of opportunities, and
poverty. The report comments:
Any trauma that detaches children from their families, communities and cultures
increases the likelihood of involvement in commercial sexual exploitation. Once
a child or youth loses such basic parameters as safety, shelter, and sustenance,
their vulnerability forces them into situations whereby the sex trade can become
the only viable alternative for survival.
III. Violence against Indigenous women: widespread but poorly understood
According to a 1996 Canadian government statistic, Indigenous women between the
ages of 25 and 44 with status under the federal Indian Act, are five times more
likely than other women of the same age to die as the result of violence.
Indigenous women’s organizations have long spoken out against violence against
women and children within Indigenous communities – concerns that have still not
received the attention they deserve. More recently, a number of advocacy
organizations, including the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC), have
drawn attention to acts of violence perpetuated against Indigenous women in
predominantly non-Indigenous communities. A number of high profile cases of
assaulted, missing or murdered Indigenous women and girls has also helped focus
greater public attention – in some instances, very belatedly – on violence
against Indigenous women in specific cities. For example:
• A joint RCMP/Vancouver City Police Taskforce is investigating the
disappearance of 60 women and one transgender person from Vancouver, British
Columbia over the last decade. Sixteen of the missing women are Indigenous, a
number far in excess of the proportion of Indigenous women living in Vancouver.
A British Columbia man, Robert Pickton, is currently awaiting trial for 22
murder charges related to this investigation. Police and city officials had long
denied that there was any pattern to the disappearances or that women were in
any particular danger.
• In two separate instances in 1994, 15-year-old Indigenous girls, Roxanna
Thiara and Alishia Germaine, were found murdered in Prince George in eastern
British Colombia. The body of a third 15-year-old Indigenous girl, Ramona
Wilson, who disappeared that same year, was found in Smithers in central British
Columbia in April 1995. Only in 2002, after the disappearance of a 26-year-old
non-Indigenous woman, Nicola Hoar, while hitchhiking along a road that connects
Prince George and Smithers, did media attention focus on the unsolved murders
and other disappearances along what has been dubbed "the highway of tears."
• In 1996, John Martin Crawford was convicted of murder in the killings of three
Indigenous women, Eva Taysup, Shelley Napope, and Calinda Waterhen, in
Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Warren Goulding, one of the few journalists to cover
the trial, has commented: "I don't get the sense the general public cares much
about missing or murdered aboriginal women. It's all part of this indifference
to the lives of aboriginal people. They don't seem to matter as much as white
• In May 2004, a former British Columbia Provincial Court judge, David William
Ramsey, pleaded guilty to buying sex from and assaulting four Indigenous girls,
aged 12, 14, 15 and 16, who had appeared before him in court. The crimes were
committed between 1992 and 2001. In June, the former judge was sentenced to
seven years in prison.
• In Edmonton, Alberta, police are investigating 18 unsolved murders of women in
the last two decades. Women’s organizations in the city estimate that a
disproportionate number of the women were Indigenous.
NWAC believes that the incidents that have come to light are part of a larger
pattern of violent assaults, murders and disappearances of Indigenous women
across Canada. The organization has estimated that over the past twenty years
more than five hundred Indigenous women may have been murdered or gone missing
in circumstances suggesting violence.
Unfortunately, while there is clear evidence that Indigenous women in Canada
face an extraordinarily high risk of violence, significant gaps in how police
record and share information about missing persons and violent crimes means that
there is no comprehensive picture of the actual scale of violence against
Indigenous women, of who the perpetrators are, or in what circumstances the
violence takes place. Reports of violent crimes or missing persons may be
investigated by municipal police forces, provincial forces, Indigenous police
forces or the national police force, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP).
Police have said that they do not necessarily record the ethnicity of crime
victims or missing persons when entering information into the Canadian Police
Information Centre database, the principle mechanism for sharing information
among police forces in Canada. According to the Canadian Centre for Justice
Statistics, in 11 percent of homicides in 2000, Canadian police did not record
or report on whether or not the victim was an Indigenous person.
An RCMP task force is currently investigating 40 unsolved murders and 39 long
term missing persons cases in the province of Alberta. All but three of the
victims are women. These cases were identified in the course of what the RCMP
describes as a "comprehensive analysis" meant to identify possible links and
create a profile of common risk factors. A spokesperson for the project
interviewed by Amnesty International was unable to say how many of the missing
women are Indigenous saying there was "not a lot of focus on this."
A 1999 report by the United States Department of Justice provides statistics on
a range of violent crimes against Indigenous people in the U.S.A. According to
this report, Indigenous women are more than twice as likely as white women to be
the victims of violent crime overall and the rates of reported sexual assault
are more than three times higher for Indigenous women than non-Indigenous women
in the U.S. Roughly 15 percent of all violent attacks against Indigenous people
in the US, and 25 percent of sexual assaults, were reported as being carried out
by intimates and family members, while the vast majority of perpetrators were
either acquaintances or strangers. This is very close to the experience of all
other ethnic groups. What is unique about Indigenous women’s experience,
according to this report, is that fully 70 percent of all violent crimes against
Indigenous people in the US - and 90 percent of sexual assaults - are reported
to be carried out by non-Indigenous people.
To Amnesty International’s knowledge, similar statistics are not available in
Canada. This is one example of the kind of information that would help better
inform efforts to educate about and prevent violence against Indigenous women.
As one study on sexual violence against Indigenous women in Canada concluded:
Collection of race and crime statistics is encouraged on a larger scale than
what is currently available in order that we may better understand trends in
both Aboriginal offending and victimization patterns. Crime and victimization
policy is often informed by such statistics in order to prevent crime and effect
more efficient operation of the criminal justice system. Desperately needed,
culturally sensitive and appropriate programming cannot be developed without the
statistics to prove there is a need. Additionally, possible discrimination by
criminal justice members cannot be pinpointed unless there are statistics that
demonstrate there is overrepresentation within the system. By not collecting
racial background information, Canadian policy may be reflecting an inherent
bias of the racial majority, thereby potentially contributing to
over-representation of Aboriginal peoples within the criminal justice system.
Violence against Women in the Sex Trade
Whether or not prostitution is a criminal act, women in the sex trade are
entitled to the protection of their human rights. Concrete and effective
measures must be adopted to ensure their safety and to bring to justice those
who commit or profit from violence against sex trade workers.
Working in the sex trade in Canada can be extremely dangerous for women, whether
Indigenous or non-Indigenous. This is especially true for women who solicit on
the streets. In the PACE study, one-third of the women said they had survived an
attack on their life while working on the street.
Women in the sex trade are at heightened risk of violence because of the
circumstances in which they work, and because the social stigmatization of women
in the sex trade provides a convenient rationale for men looking for targets for
acts of misogynistic violence.
There are additional concerns around police treatment of Indigenous and
non-Indigenous women in the sex trade. The threat of arrest makes many women
reluctant to report attacks to the police or cooperate with police
investigations. As a result, the perpetrators may be encouraged by the belief
that they are likely to get away with their crimes.
Under Canadian law, the act of prostitution is not illegal, but communicating in
public for the purpose of buying or selling sexual services, as well as buying
or attempting to buy the sexual services of someone younger than 18, being found
in a place maintained for prostitution, and procuring or living off the proceeds
of someone else’s prostitution are all criminal acts. Many in the sex trade say
that the threat of enforcement of these laws is used to drive sex trade workers
from neighbourhoods where affluent residents are likely to complain, into less
visible, and therefore more dangerous areas.
The threat of arrest places sex workers in an "adversarial relationship" with
police. Sex workers are reluctant to seek the protection of police for fear of
being arrested. In turn, police tend to look on prostitutes with suspicion and
mistrust, and may blame them for putting themselves in positions of risk. The
executive director of Regina’s Sex Workers’ Advocacy Project, Barb Lawrence,
told Amnesty International about comments made by one police officer. A sex
worker missed an appointment with a Crown Prosecutor to give testimony in the
case of a murdered Indigenous woman in Regina. Lawrence, who had set up the
meeting, eventually received a call from the sex worker. It turned out that the
woman was being held by city police who wanted her to provide evidence on a
separate case. The police had refused to believe that she had a meeting with the
prosecutor’s office. When Lawrence and the prosecutors went to the police
station to meet the woman, the arresting officer reportedly said he had no
reason to believe the woman’s claims, saying "she’s just a hooker on the
The isolation and social marginalization that increases the risk of violence
faced by women in the sex trade is often particularly acute for Indigenous
women. The role of racism and sexism in compounding the threat to Indigenous
women in the sex trade was starkly noted by Justice David Wright in the 1996
trial of John Martin Crawford for the murder of three Indigenous women in
It seems Mr. Crawford was attracted to his victims for four reasons; one, they
were young; second, they were women; third, they were native; and fourth, they
were prostitutes. They were persons separated from the community and their
families. The accused treated them with contempt, brutality; he terrorized them
and ultimately he killed them. He seemed determined to destroy every vestige of
Racist Violence and Indigenous Women
The Manitoba Justice Inquiry said of the murder of Helen Betty Osborne:
Her attackers seemed to be operating on the assumption that Aboriginal women
were promiscuous and open to enticement through alcohol or violence. It is
evident that the men who abducted Osborne believed that young Aboriginal women
were objects with no human value beyond sexual gratification.
As the inquiry recognized, racism and sexism intersect in stereotypes of
Indigenous women as sexually "available" to men. This intersection of sexism and
racism contributes to the assumption on the part of perpetrators of violence
against Indigenous women that their actions are justifiable or condoned by
Frontline organizations contacted by Amnesty International confirmed that racist
and sexist attitudes toward Indigenous women continue to be a factor in attacks
on Indigenous women in Canadian cities. Police, however, are inconsistent in
their acknowledgement of this threat. Some police spokespersons told Amnesty
International that they believe that "lifestyle" factors, such as engaging in
the sex trade or illegal drug use are the most important risk factors, and that
other factors such as race or gender are not significant enough to be considered
in their work. Other police spokespersons told Amnesty International that they
have seen that racism and sexism are factors in attacks on Indigenous women and
that they consider Indigenous women as a whole to be at risk.
Over-Policed and Under-Protected
Numerous studies of policing in Canada have concluded that Indigenous people as
a whole are not getting the protection they deserve. This conclusion is
supported by the testimony of many of the families interviewed by Amnesty
International. A few described police officers who were polite and efficient and
who, in a few cases, even went to extraordinary lengths to investigate the
disappearance of their loved ones. Other families described how police failed to
act promptly when their sisters or daughters went missing, treated the family
disrespectfully, or kept the family in the dark about how the investigation – if
any – was proceeding.
A number of police officers interviewed by Amnesty International insisted that
they handle all cases the same and do not treat anyone differently because they
are Indigenous. However, if police are to provide Indigenous people with a
standard of protection equivalent to that provided to other sectors of society,
they need to understand the specific needs of Indigenous communities, be able to
communicate with Indigenous people without barriers of fear and mistrust, and
ultimately be accountable to Indigenous communities. As some police officers
acknowledged to Amnesty International, this is clearly not the case today.
Across the country, Indigenous people face arrest and criminal prosecution in
numbers far out of proportion to the size of the Indigenous population. The
Manitoba Justice Inquiry suggested that the over representation of Indigenous
people in the justice system may partly stem from the predisposition of police
to charge and detain Indigenous people in circumstances "when a white person in
the same circumstances might not be arrested at all, or might not be held." The
Inquiry explained that many police have come to view Indigenous people not as a
community deserving protection, but a community from which the rest of society
must be protected. This has lead to a situation often described as one of
Indigenous people being "over-policed" but "under-protected."
Many Indigenous people feel they have little reason to trust police and as a
consequence, are reluctant to turn to police for protection. Police forces were
used to enforce policies such as the removal of children to residential schools
that have torn apart Indigenous communities. Today, many Indigenous people
believe police are as likely to harm as to protect them. Amnesty International
has previously drawn attention to incidents in which police in Canada have been
responsible for, or are apparently implicated in acts of violence against
Indigenous people or apparent reckless disregard for their welfare and safety.
These include the 1995 killing of land rights protestor Dudley George by an
Ontario Provincial Police officer and the concern that police may have been
involved in a series of freezing deaths of Indigenous men on the outskirts of
The Saskatchewan Justice Reform Commission noted that "mothers of Aboriginal
youth have spoken about the apprehension they feel when their children leave the
home at night. Their fears involve the possibility of police abusing their
children." One Indigenous woman, herself a professor at a Canadian university,
told Amnesty International that she has instructed her teenage son to never talk
to the police unless she is present.
Protesting against the absence of any permanent police force in many Northern
communities, the Inuit Women’s Association of Canada has said, "In order to
serve all parts of the communities, the police have to know our communities,
they must be a part of our communities." Many police forces in Canada now
require officers to take courses in cultural sensitivity, cross cultural
communication or Indigenous history to help improve their understanding of
Indigenous communities. Despite such requirements, the Saskatchewan Justice
Reform Commission concluded, "police officers continue to be assigned to First
Nations and Métis communities with minimal knowledge of the culture and history
of the people they serve."
Despite the efforts of many police forces to hire more Indigenous officers,
Indigenous people are still underrepresented in police forces across Canada.
Greater effort must be made to hire more Indigenous officers, especially women.
More attention must also be made to integrate an understanding of Indigenous
communities into core learning experiences of all officers. For example, the
concerns, perspectives and needs of Indigenous communities should be reflected
in the operational scenarios used in police training. Officers also need the
time and the opportunity within their day-to-day duties to develop the necessary
relationships of mutual understanding and trust with Indigenous communities.
Unfortunately, many officers told Amnesty International that heavy workloads and
frequent, often mandatory, rotations in and out of assignments, present real
barriers to officers understanding and being trusted by Indigenous communities.
Police forces should work with Indigenous organizations to establish practices
and policies that can support not only the learning of individual officers, but
also an improved relationship between Indigenous communities and the force as a
whole. The Saskatchewan Justice Reform Commission pointed to a number of
positive practices within the Saskatoon police force that it felt should be
emulated elsewhere. These included the creation of an Indigenous liaison post
and regular cooperation with community elders, including having elders accompany
officers on some patrols in predominantly Indigenous neighbourhoods.
One of the critical areas for institutional reform highlighted by Amnesty
International’s research is the way police respond to reports of missing
persons. Many Indigenous families told Amnesty International that police did
little when they reported a sister or daughter missing and seemed to be waiting
for the woman to be found. Police point out that the vast majority of people who
are reported missing have run away or chosen to break off ties with family or
friends. Most people who have voluntarily "gone missing" in this way do quickly
turn up on their own.
However, this does not excuse incidents recounted to Amnesty International
where, despite the concern of family members that a missing sister or daughter
was in serious danger, police failed to take basic steps such as promptly
interviewing family and friends or appealing to the public for information.
These steps are particularly urgent when the missing person is a girl, as the
State has special obligations to find and protect children at risk. However,
every missing person report needs to be carefully assessed to determine the risk
to the missing person.
Unfortunately, even in large cities, many Canadian police forces do not have
specialized personnel assigned to missing person cases. Instead, the task of
assessing the risk and the credibility of the family’s fears may fall to
individual officers with little or no specific training or experience related to
To Amnesty International’s knowledge, few police forces have specific protocols
on actions to be taken when Indigenous women and girls are reported missing. The
national police force, the RCMP, does require that a specialized liaison officer
be involved in the case when the missing person is Indigenous. All forces should
work with Indigenous communities to develop and put in place more specific
protocols that are sensitive to the particular concerns and circumstances in
which Indigenous women are reported missing.
Because of the vital role they play in society, and the power they wield, it is
critical that police be held accountable. That must include accountability for
failing to fulfill their duties, as spelled out in official policies, to fully
and impartially investigate all reports of threats to women’s lives. That issue
emerged as a clear concern in the course of research for this report. The
families of missing and murdered women need to have greater formal access to the
police, for example through the appointment of community ombudspersons, to
ensure that their concerns are addressed in an appropriate manner.
The healing journey: justice for missing and murdered Indigenous women
All victims of violent crime have the right to justice. Under international
human rights laws and standards, justice is not limited to the prosecution and
punishment of the person who carried out the crime. Justice also includes a
public acknowledgement of the crime, the opportunity and the ability for the
victims of violence and their survivors to heal and to rebuild their lives, and
assurance that the crime will not be repeated.
Although the formal court system cannot address all of these needs on its own,
it nonetheless plays a vital role in assuring justice in the fullest sense of
the word. The Saskatchewan Justice Reform Commission noted that the Canadian
court system was imposed on Indigenous peoples without their consent and
continues to be looked on with suspicion and mistrust by many. To establish
trust in the court system, and ensure that court proceedings reflect an
awareness and appreciation of the specific circumstances of Indigenous peoples,
the Commission recommended cross-cultural training for all judges and the
appointment of Indigenous judges in every level of court. The Manitoba Justice
Inquiry had early recommended increased recruitment of Indigenous judges and
prosecutors and urged cross-cultural training "for all those working in any part
of the justice system who have even occasional contact with Aboriginal people."
It is important as well that Indigenous people who come in contact with the law,
either as the accused or as victims, receive appropriate assistance in
understanding the court system and having their voices heard. Amnesty
International notes that in many jurisdictions across Canada a system of
Indigenous court workers provides advocates to work on behalf of community
members dealing with the justice system. Clear policies and protocols should
also be established with respect to the timely provision of information,
including autopsy results and coroners reports, to the families of missing and
In 1999, the Canadian government itself told the UN Human Rights Committee that
the situation of Indigenous peoples is "the most pressing human rights issue in
Canada." Despite this admission, Canada has been repeatedly criticized by UN
treaty bodies, including the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural
Rights, the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the UN
Committee on the Rights of the Child, and the UN Human Rights Committee, for its
failure to implement comprehensive reforms identified as critical by its own
Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. Furthermore, the UN Committee on the
Elimination of Discrimination against Women has expressed concern about
"persistent, systematic discrimination faced by aboriginal women in all aspects
of their lives."
While the federal and provincial governments in Canada can point to numerous
programs undertaken to fulfill the rights of Indigenous peoples, the seriousness
of these concerns requires that government do more.
Many of the families and frontline organizations interviewed for this report
expressed concern and anger at the seeming indifference of Canadian officials
and Canadian society for the welfare and safety of Indigenous women. This
official indifference is well illustrated by the Canadian government’s response
to one of the most notorious killings of an Indigenous woman from Canada.
Anna Mae Pictou Aquash was a Mik’maq woman from Indian Brook First Nation, Nova
Scotia. On February 24, 1976, in the midst of a protracted and violent conflict
involving the American Indian Movement (AIM) and the US Federal Bureau of
Investigation (FBI), her body was found on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South
Dakota. An autopsy concluded that she had been killed by a single gun shot to
the back of her head. Despite the high profile of her death, and intensive FBI
operations targeting members of AIM, almost 30 years passed before anyone was
charged in her killing.
Anna Mae Aquash’s family have expressed frustration that the Canadian government
has done little to support them in their three decade long call for justice.
Anna Mae Aquash’s daughters, Denise and Deborah Maloney say they have sent
several letters to all levels of the Canadian government but the only response
they have ever received was a standard acknowledgement of receipt of their
letters. Denise Maloney says, "Any direct contact from any Canadian authorities
would be nice. The level of apathy from governmental authorities surrounding my
mother’s case is disturbing and insulting."
The case studies that follow illustrate some of the patterns of violence that
threaten the lives of Indigenous women in Canadian towns and cities. Concrete
measures that would reduce Indigenous women’s vulnerability to such violence
have already been clearly identified by Indigenous women’s organizations and by
official inquiries and commissions. What remains is for Canadian officials to
acknowledge the seriousness of the problem and to commit themselves to immediate
IV. Nine Stolen Sisters: Case studies of discrimination and violence against
Indigenous women in Canada
As has been noted above, no one knows how many Indigenous women have been
murdered or gone missing in Canada over the past three decades. The information
that would make it possible to answer that question is simply not available. In
Amnesty International’s research we have spoken with many women who have
experienced violence firsthand, we have interviewed family and friends of women
who have been killed or gone missing, and we have talked to front-line
organizations who work on a daily basis with Indigenous women who are coping
The following nine cases have been selected because they represent common themes
that have emerged in the course of Amnesty International’s research. They have
been chosen because they reflect the variety of factors that appear to put
Indigenous women at heightened risk. The root causes of discrimination and
violence are often complex and are invariably inter-connected. In some instances
it is quite clear that Indigenous women are either attacked by individuals or
inadequately protected by authorities expressly because of their Indigenous
identity. In some cases the Indigenous women who have gone missing or been
killed have been working in the sex trade and may have had addictions to alcohol
or drugs. All women in such circumstances, not only Indigenous women, face an
increased risk of violence and discrimination. The risk that Indigenous women
face in these circumstances is often exacerbated by racism and discrimination
because of their Indigenous identity.
Amnesty International’s research has also pointed to a variety of historical and
current factors that have led a disproportionate number of Indigenous women into
the sex trade, where they face that heightened risk. A number of the cases
recounted in this report demonstrate, in human terms, the disturbing connections
among past policies such as residential schools, societal discrimination against
Indigenous people, involvement in the sex trade, and deadly violence.
These cases also represent two critical aspects of the reality of violence and
discrimination against Indigenous women. In some instances the violence itself
is racist and sexist. In other cases it may be the response from the police,
other authorities, the media and the general public that is racist and sexist.
In yet other cases it is both.
Amnesty International is concerned that all of these dimensions to the problem
of violence against Indigenous women give rise to serious human rights concerns,
be it racist violence, discriminatory responses to violence, or the consequences
of the many discriminatory laws, policies and practices, past and present, that
have led to the marginalization of Indigenous peoples in Canada. These cases all
speak to the painful human cost of government failure to address those human
rights concerns. All dimensions to the problem demand a response from
governments across Canada. Yet the first case, a murder occurring more than
thirty years ago which resulted in a provincial inquiry into the Manitoba
justice system, is a stark reminder of the failure of governments to take
adequate action to date.
An unheeded warning: Helen Betty Osborne - murdered November 12, 1971
There is one fundamental fact: her murder was a racist and sexist act. Betty
Osborne would be alive today had she not been an Aboriginal woman.
Helen Betty Osborne was born in Norway House, a Cree community at the northern
end of Lake Winnipeg in the province of Manitoba. In 1969, at the age of 17, she
left her community to pursue her education, with the dream of becoming a teacher
and helping her people. At the time, Indigenous children who wanted to graduate
from high school had no choice but to leave their communities. The federal
government, pursuing a policy of cultural assimilation -- and having decided
that Indigenous communities offered no future for young people -- wanted
Indigenous children to get their education in predominantly non-Indigenous towns
and cities. In Norway House, the local school only provided the first eight of
the twelve grades of public school.
For two years, Helen Betty Osborne attended the Guy Hill Residential School
outside The Pas. Then in 1971 she moved into The Pas to attend high school.
A provincial justice commission, which would later examine the circumstances
surrounding the murder of Helen Betty Osborne, described The Pas, a town of
about 6000 people in 1971, as being sharply divided between Indigenous and
non-Indigenous residents. "At the movie theatre, each group sat on its own side;
in at least one of the bars, Indians were not allowed to sit in certain areas;
and in the school lunch-room, the two groups, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, ate
According to the Manitoba Justice Inquiry, tensions between the two communities
often turned violent, with police failing to intervene. There was also a pattern
of sexual harassment of Indigenous women and girls. Police officers who
testified before the Inquiry described "white youths cruising the town,
attempting to pick up Aboriginal girls for drinking parties and for sex." The
Inquiry found that the RCMP failed to check on the girls’ safety. The Department
of Indian Affairs also ignored the practice, failing to work with the schools to
warn Indigenous students of the dangers.
On Friday, November 12, 1971, Helen Betty Osborne went out with a number of
friends to a dance. At around 2 am, as she was walking back to house where she
was billeted, she was accosted by four non-Indigenous men.
According to the testimony of one of the men, the four had decided to pick up an
Indigenous woman for sex. When Osborne refused, they forced her into their car.
In the car, she was beaten and sexually assaulted. She was then taken to a cabin
owned by one of the men where she was beaten and stabbed to death. According to
the autopsy report, she was severely beaten around the head and stabbed at least
50 times, possibly with a screwdriver.
Twenty years later, the Manitoba Justice Inquiry concluded that the murder of
Helen Betty Osborne had been fuelled by racism and sexism:
Women in our society live under a constant threat of violence. The death of
Helen Betty Osborne was a brutal expression of that violence. She fell victim to
vicious stereotypes born of ignorance and aggression when she was picked up by
four drunken men looking for sex.
The Inquiry also pointed out that the life of Helen Betty Osborne might have
been saved if police had taken action on a pattern of threats to Indigenous
women’s safety that was already evident in 1971:
We know that cruising for sex was a common practice in The Pas in 1971. We know
too that young Aboriginal women, often underage, were the usual objects of the
practice. And we know that the RCMP did not feel that the practice necessitated
any particular vigilance on its part.
According to the Justice Inquiry, racism also marred the initial RCMP
investigation. Helen Betty Osborne’s Indigenous friends were initially treated
as suspects. Teenagers were interviewed without the consent or knowledge of
their parents. One of Helen Betty Osborne’s friends was taken out into the bush
to be interrogated. When she hesitated in answering a question, police threw her
over the hood of their car. They later took her to the morgue to see her
friend’s mutilated body. In contrast, police initially failed to act on a tip
naming the four non-Indigenous men responsible who took part in the abduction.
The men’s car was not searched until at least a year later and the Justice
Inquiry noted that the car’s owner was treated with extreme deference. Although
police were eventually convinced that these four non-Indigenous men were
responsible for the murder, unlike the Indigenous youths, they were not brought
in for questioning.
By the end of 1972, the police concluded that they did not have enough evidence
to go to trial. The case then lapsed for more than ten years until an officer
placed an ad in the local paper asking for information on the case. This ad
resulted in the discovery of new evidence on the basis of which the first
charges were laid in October 1986. After these charges were laid, media coverage
resulted in new information coming forward. Finally the first of the men charged
agreed to testify in return for immunity from prosecution.
In December 1987, one of the four men, Dwayne Johnston, was sentenced to life
imprisonment for the murder of Helen Betty Osborne. A second man was acquitted,
while the other two men who were present during the abduction and murder were
The Justice Inquiry determined that the most important factor obstructing
justice in this case was failure of members of the non-Indigenous community to
bring forward evidence that would have assisted the investigation. The Inquiry
concluded that the community’s silence was at least partly motivated by racism.
The question remains, however, why the police waited more than 10 years to
publicly seek the assistance of the community.
Dwayne Johnston has been released from prison on parole. The family of Helen
Betty Osborne has brought him into a traditional healing circle so that he can
better understand the crime he committed. The family has since become convinced
that Johnston, although responsible for a terrible crime, was not the principle
instigator of the attack on Helen Betty Osborne.
The Manitoba Justice Inquiry put forward an extensive list of reforms to be
undertaken to ensure that the justice system would provide Indigenous people the
protection they needed and not contribute to further victimization. The
recommendations were wide-ranging and required action from all levels of
government. Recommendations included recognizing Indigenous peoples’ right to
self-government, establishing Indigenous legal systems, addressing outstanding
land and resource disputes, recruiting more Indigenous police officers, ensuring
independent procedures for investigation and resolution of complaints against
police, establishing a special investigations unit to take control of the
investigation of possible incidents of serious police misconduct, and increasing
services to women escaping situations of violence. Amnesty International is of
the view that adopting these recommendations in a manner consistent with
international human rights standards would provide Indigenous women with greater
protection from violence.
In a book published ten years after the Inquiry made its final report, one of
the former Commissioners complained that the federal government had not
undertaken any of the recommended reforms within its jurisdiction while the
provincial government was still at the stage of studying which recommendations
The Aboriginal Justice Inquiry made over 150 recommendations. Almost none of
them have been acted upon. There is either the inability to understand the need
for improvements or the same century-long governmental inertia. The result is
clear; Aboriginal people continue to suffer at the hands of an inappropriate
In 1999, the provincial government convened the Aboriginal Justice
Implementation Commission to examine the status of the Inquiry’s
recommendations. That Commission made a further set of recommendations to the
provincial government. Amnesty International was repeatedly told by Indigenous
peoples’ organizations, lawyers, frontline service groups and others that they
believe that the pace of implementation of the recommendations continues to be
Not knowing Shirley Lonethunder - missing since December 1991
"I also can’t help wondering what kind of reaction there would be if these young
women were white? What kind of value do we place on human life?"
Shirley Lonethunder, is a Cree woman and mother of two children, from White Bear
First Nations reserve in Saskatchewan. In 1991 she was 25 years old and living
in Saskatoon. Her family knew she used drugs. According to her brother, she also
occasionally worked in the sex trade to make enough money "to get by" and
provide for her children. In late November 1991, she told her mother, Doris
Lonethunder, she would be starting university in the New Year and asked her to
look after her infant son and daughter. She told her brother a different story.
She said she had to get out of Saskatoon to avoid the police. The last time her
family saw her was on December 20, 1991.
The Lonethunder family didn’t realize Shirley Lonethunder was missing until
March 1992 when they were contacted by her lawyer, who said she had missed a
court date. Until then, her mother thought Shirley Lonethunder simply "went away
somewhere." Now Doris Lonethunder began to fear for her daughter. She and her
son filed a Missing Person report with the Saskatoon Police that same day The
Saskatoon Police Service’s missing persons policy states that investigators have
a responsibility to "liaise with complainants" and should request media
assistance, if necessary, to help locate a missing person. According to Doris
Lonethunder, the police investigator was in regular contact with her at first,
phoning every week for approximately a month, then phoning every two weeks.
However, the police did not make any public appeals for assistance on the case
and the family members felt the police were not very supportive. After about
three months, the investigator stopped phoning. Approximately six months after
having filed a Missing Person report, Shirley Lonethunder’s brother contacted
the Saskatoon Police to enquire about any progress in the case. He says that he
was told there was no record of the Missing Person report. Saskatoon police
declined to answer Amnesty International’s questions about unresolved cases,
such as Shirley Lonethunder.
In 1992 Doris Lonethunder spoke to an Indigenous healer from the United States
who told her that he had had a vision of Shirley’s body at a location south of
Saskatoon, a short distance beyond the city’s limits and therefore in the
jurisdiction of the RCMP. At first, Doris Lonethunder hesitated to take this
information to the police because she thought the police, who did not believe in
"Indian ways", would not take her seriously. In the end, she spoke with an
Indigenous officer stationed at the local RCMP detachment, who responded
sympathetically and said she would look into this information. About a week
later, the officer was transferred, "And that," says Doris, "was it." As far she
knows, nothing happened with the information she provided. While
internationally-recognized policing standards would not obligate police to act
on information of this sort, the sensitivity and understanding that Doris
Lonethunder experienced when dealing with the Indigenous officer helped build
her trust and confidence. When that disappeared, the trust and confidence
slipped as well.
In October 1994, another woman’s remains were discovered in the general area
where Doris Lonethunder had asked the RCMP to search for her daughter’s body. By
the end of the month, RCMP had unearthed two other women’s bodies at the same
site. The three women were Eva Taysup, Shelley Napope, and Calinda Waterhen. All
three were Indigenous women who had been reported missing in 1992 and 1993. On
12 April 1995, a local newspaper quoted an RCMP officer as stating that the
force was considering excavating the grove where the three bodies had been
found. The officer indicated more bodies might be out at the site. In almost
immediate response the RCMP issued a press release denying having any plans to
excavate, stating that they had no indication there might be other bodies at the
site. Amnesty International has now been informed by the RCMP that there has
been a recent search of the area conducted by the Saskatoon Police Service,
including with the use of Ground Penetrating Radar, and that there are plans to
In 1996, John Martin Crawford was convicted of murder in the killings of Eva
Taysup, Shelley Napope, and Calinda Waterhen. He was the sole person charged and
convicted. Crawford had previously served seven years in prison for abducting
and murdering another Indigenous woman, Mary Jane Serloin, age 35, in 1981.
The body of another Indigenous woman, 37-year-old Janet Sylvestre, was found
outside Saskatoon in 1994. She had been raped and killed. No one has ever been
convicted in her murder.
Commenting on the apparent public apathy over the disappearances and murders of
Indigenous women in Saskatoon in the early 1990s, Janice Acoose, a professor at
the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College in Saskatoon wrote in 1996:
I have waited in agonized and frustrated silence for some kind of expression of
concern (perhaps even outrage) from members of the community, women’s groups, or
political organizations. To date, few, if any, have come forward and spoken to
the nature of this heinous crime or the need to protect Indigenous women who
were so obviously the target of this murderer. And perhaps, most importantly, I
waited for someone to come forward and respectfully acknowledge the lives of
these four women.
Shirley Lonethunder’s family is raising her children. They remain sure that
something terrible has happened to her. There is nothing else that would explain
the 13-year-absence of a woman who was so close to her family. Her mother says
"not knowing is a hard thing to actually deal with." According to Doris
Lonethunder, the Saskatoon police have not contacted her directly about her
daughter in at least 10 years.
She deserved to be safe Pamela Jean George - Murdered April 17, 1995
Pamela Jean George was a 28 year-old Saulteaux woman with two young daughters.
She was close to her family at Sakimay First Nation, located in southeastern
Saskatchewan. Struggling with poverty, Pamela George occasionally worked in the
sex trade in Regina.
Professor Sherene Razack of the University of Toronto has carried out a detailed
review of the transcripts of the trial of the two men who were eventually
convicted of Pamela George’s murder. The following details emerge from Professor
Razack’s review of those transcripts.
On the evening of 17 April 1995, Pamela George agreed to get into a car driven
by a 20-year-old white man, Steven Tyler Kummerfield. A second 20-year old,
Alexander Dennis Ternowetsky, was hiding in the trunk. Both men were university
students. They had been drinking, and neither had money to pay her. Kummerfield
drove the car to a field two miles past the outskirts of Regina. There, the two
men forced her to perform oral sex. They then beat her severely and left her
lying face down in the mud. Her body was discovered the next morning in a ditch.
Media reports suggest that the police investigation initially focused on other
Indigenous people and people living on the street. One Indigenous man was
reportedly interrogated four times. One or two weeks after the murder of Pamela
George the Regina Police Service received a tip from a woman who said one of the
killers had confided in a friend of hers. She was able to provide the names of
Kummerfield and Ternowetsky, who were eventually charged with first-degree
Testimony at the trial indicated that on the night of April 17th the two men
tried to pick up another Indigenous woman before they encountered Pamela George.
At the trial, that woman testified that she had refused to go with them and they
hurled racial slurs at her, reportedly calling her "Indian trash" and "squaw
slut." After the men returned from beating Pamela George to death, they
reportedly bragged to friends that they had picked up an "Indian hooker." Both
men admitted hitting Pamela George, but said they doubted they had killed her.
According to a friend who testified at the trial, Ternowetsky said, "She
deserved it. She was an Indian."
The case was tried before a white judge and all-white jury. Little attention was
given to the life of the victim, apart from her work in the sex trade. The Crown
prosecutor told the jury that Pamela George lived a life far removed from
theirs, and they would have to consider the fact that she was a prostitute as
part of the case. Mr. Justice Malone instructed jurors before their
deliberations to bear in mind that Pamela George "indeed was a prostitute" when
they considered whether or not she had consented to sexual activity. The Court
of Appeal decision briefly considered the prosecutor and Judge’s comments and
concluded they "were not made for the purpose of conveying a negative view of
the victim to the jury."
Amnesty International is concerned that comments of this nature may reflect
social attitudes faced by sex workers in general, and Indigenous sex workers in
particular. Professor Razack comments:
[Not] only did George remain the "hooker" but [the two defendants] remained the
boys who "did pretty darn stupid things’; their respective spaces, the places of
white respectability and the Stroll simply stood in opposition to each other,
dehistoricized and decontextualized. If Pamela George was a victim of violence,
it was simply because she was of the Stroll/ reserve, Aboriginal, and engaging
in prostitution. No one could then be really held accountable for her death.
The two men were convicted of manslaughter, and sentenced to six and a half
years in prison.
A police officer working in Regina at the time told Amnesty International
recently that he had been "disgusted" by the verdict. In his opinion, some of
the people involved in the investigation and prosecution of the case saw Pamela
as a sex trade worker, not a human being. He felt the treatment of this case
reflected this attitude from start to finish.
Taken from her family Janet Henry - missing since June 28, 1997
Janet Henry comes from the KwaKwaQueWak Nation in Kingcome Inlet in British
Columbia. She was the youngest in a family of thirteen. Her siblings have many
happy memories of their childhood together. Although their mother fell ill with
lupis and rheumatoid arthritis and had to undergo many operations, the older
children were able to look after their younger siblings. Their father, a logger
and fisherman, ensured that the family never went without. The eldest daughter,
Donna Henry, recalls growing up immersed in a very rich culture. When Janet
Henry was young, Donna Henry practiced traditional dances and songs with her.
The security the family once enjoyed was short lived. The three oldest children
were taken away to residential school. After the death of their father, their
mother no longer had anyone to help her care for the younger children. Janet
Henry and four of her brothers and sisters were placed in foster homes.
One of Janet Henry’s sisters, Sandra Gagnon, describes the break up of the
family as the beginning of "a living nightmare." Many of the siblings lost both
their ties to their culture and their sense of self-esteem. Their years in
residential school or foster homes were followed by alcoholism and depression.
Their sister Lavina was raped and murdered when she was 19. Another sibling
In the midst of all the trauma the family had been subjected to, Sandra Gagnon
remembers how they always expected that Janet would have a bright future ahead
of her. "Janet was really a brilliant young woman," she said. "I never could
have imagined what happened to her." Janet Henry graduated from high school and
attended hairdressing school. She got married and had a daughter, to whom she
However, when Janet Henry’s marriage broke up in the late 1980s, her husband
gained custody of their daughter. Janet Henry was devastated. Donna Henry
recalls, "I watched my baby sister spiral." Janet Henry eventually ended up
living in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, a low income neighbourhood known for
drug and the street level sex trades. Her family learned that she had begun
attending parties where she engaged in sex in exchange for drugs.
It was a dangerous life. Violence against sex workers in the Downtown Eastside
is all too common. By 1990, however, women in the Vancouver sex trade, and the
families of women who had gone missing from the downtown Eastside, had begun to
suspect that there was more to this danger than random acts of violence.
Janet Henry was apparently aware of the danger and therefore phoned her brothers
and sisters frequently to let them know she was okay. The last time they heard
from her was in late June 1997.
Janet Henry’s family quickly became worried about her when her usual telephone
contacts with them ceased. Sandra Gagnon and her brother went to the Downtown
Eastside neighbourhood looking for her. After a few days, they reported her
missing to the police. Because the small amount of money that Janet Henry had
was still in her bank account, the family feared the worst.
Sandra Gagnon believes the police initially had one or two suspects in mind and
did what they could to follow these leads. However, once these suspects were
ruled out, she says the family heard less and less from the police. She speaks
positively of the officers who initially investigated her sister’s
disappearance. However, like other family members whose sisters and daughters
disappeared from the Downtown Eastside during this time, Sandra Gagnon feels the
city and the police force should have acknowledged the wider pattern of
disappearances much sooner and taken concerted action to ensure the safety of
women in the Downtown Eastside. "They never took the threat seriously," she
says. "I can guarantee you that if it wasn’t the Downtown Eastside and they
weren’t hookers, something would have been done in an instant."
In April 1999 family members of missing women called on the police to issue a
reward for information about the women who were going missing in the Downtown
Eastside. Although police had recently offered rewards for information about
robberies in more affluent neighbourhoods of the city, they initially declined
to do so in the case of the missing women. Instead the city suggested offering a
$5000 reward for any of the missing women who came forward, implying that they
did not believe they had been victims of foul-play. Mayor Owen said, "Police
have said there is no indication of crimes. Why don’t we start with [the $5000
reward] until we find out that someone is killing these women?"
Under mounting pressure from the families and increasing media coverage of the
issue, the police force eventually changed its position. The first posters
offering a reward for information on the missing women were distributed in July
1999. A small group of officers was assigned to work on the disappearances on an
ongoing basis. In 2000, the RCMP joined the review of evidence. A larger task
force was formed the following year.
On 6 February 2002, the Vancouver City Police/RCMP Task Force moved into a farm
in Port Coquitlam, outside Vancouver and sealed it off. For 21 months, they
conducted one of the largest police searches in Canadian history. On the basis
of evidence collected at the farm, the Crown initially laid charges against
Robert Pickton, the owner of the farm, for the murder of 15 women who had gone
missing from the Downtown Eastside, the vast majority of which were women who
went missing after 1997.
Robert Pickton’s case is expected to come to trial in 2005 or 2006 on at least
22 charges. In the meantime, the investigation of other women missing from the
Downtown Eastside continues. By April 2004, the number of cases under
investigation by police had grown to 60 women and one transgender person.
Nineteen of the missing women are Indigenous.
Janet Henry is not among the women whose DNA has found at the Port Coquitlam
farm. One of Janet Henry’s sisters went through the clothing and other
belongings found by police at the farm but didn’t recognize anything of Henry’s.
Family members continue to hope that their sister is still alive, but are slowly
giving up hope. "I go into denial and just keep hoping that maybe she just went
far away and she has been unable to get a hold of us," said Donna Henry. But
deep down inside, I know. We will probably never see her again."
"A daily part of life" Sarah de Vries - missing April 14, 1998; confirmed
dead August 6
So many women, so many that I never even knew about, are missing in action. It’s
getting to be a daily part of life.
Sarah de Vries was born on May 12, 1969. Sarah’s mother was an Indigenous woman
from the West Coast of Canada, who was also of European and African Canadian
ancestry. Her father was an Indigenous man from Mexico. During the first year of
her life, Sarah de Vries lived with her mother on weekends and with another
family during the week. After ten months, her birth mother decided to give her
up for adoption. She was adopted by a white couple in Vancouver.
Her adoptive family remembers Sarah de Vries being a bright and happy child who
was always eager for the attention of her parents and her three siblings. She
loved to write stories and poetry and kept a journal most of her life. She also
loved to swim and some of her happiest times growing up were at a family cottage
"I remember her as being a very happy little girl, adventurous and very
interested in the whole world around her," her sister Maggie de Vries recalls.
"She was athletic, creative and loved to tell stories."
Despite these happy memories, Maggie de Vries feels that her sister may have
missed out on the sense of stability or belonging that she craved and needed as
a child. By the time Sarah de Vries was six, her parents’ marriage was in
difficulty. They separated when Sarah de Vries was nine and two the two older
children stayed with their father while de Vries and her younger brother went to
live with their mother.
At the same time Sarah de Vries was beginning to think of herself as an outsider
between cultures. She was self conscious about the fact that she stood out
within her family and within the almost exclusively white neighborhood where she
lived. She also struggled to understand why her birth mother had given her up
for adoption. Maggie de Vries remembers one time her sister cried for hours when
a teacher asked her to draw up her family tree.
In her twenties, Sarah de Vries wrote in her journal:
Man, I don’t understand how the adoption agency could let a couple that are both
of the opposite colour as the child become this child’s legal guardians. I
understand that they were not as strict as they are today on things of race,
gender and traditions. But, come on, did they honestly think that it would have
absolutely no effect on my way of thinking or in the way I present my persona?
I’m not accepted into the Caucasian social circle nor am I accepted in the black
social circle, for I am neither white nor black... I’m stuck in the middle and
outside both. I have no people. I have no nation and I am alone.
At other times de Vries wrote about how much she loved her adoptive family and
how conflicted she was about them. She was caught shoplifting near the end of
grade five and ran away for the first time shortly before her fourteenth
birthday. Yet that summer, she wrote in the family cottage guest book, "I really
love you a lot and I am so glad to have been adopted into this family …" And
that August she wrote in a letter to her sister,
I really love you a lot, no matter how mean and nasty I am to you, and when I
think how mean I was, I feel really bad, so I LOVE YOU. I wish I could tell Mom
how unhappy I am, but I myself don’t know. But I do know this. I love you and
Mom so much that I start to cry when I think about you.
Over the following year, she ran away many times, often staying out for days at
a time. Her parents would look for her but could not prevent her from running
away again. She gravitated to downtown Vancouver where, still a child, she
supported herself by selling sex.
She clearly struggled with a sense of dislocation and a need to define her
identity. She felt lost between two worlds. On the street she found friends and
a sense of community
Sarah de Vries began experimenting with drugs and gradually became addicted to
heroin and later to cocaine. She also used crack cocaine. In one of her journal
entries, she wrote: "Supporting a heroin and cocaine habit is not fun and games;
you have to make the money. No money. No drugs. No drugs, you go sick. You go
sick, forget trying to pull a trick."
Sarah de Vries kept coming home for brief periods of time until she was
eighteen. She also spent time in group homes and in a youth detention centre.
During her time on the streets, friends recall that she remained a kind and
giving person. She would look out for younger girls, encouraging them to go
home. She would also look after homeless people. Friends described her as having
an effervescent personality that attracted many people to her.
In December, 1990, Sarah de Vries had her first child, a daughter, who was born
addicted to heroin. The next year, 1991, she spent six months in prison. In May,
1996, she had her second child, a son. He was born addicted to heroin and
cocaine and spent his first few months in foster care because neither Sarah de
Vries nor social services informed de Vries’ family about him. At about the same
time that her son was born, Sarah de Vries discovered that she was HIV positive
and that she had hepatitis C.
Sarah de Vries was aware that other women in the sex trade were dying violent
deaths, from overdoses and physical violence. Or were going missing. In December
1995, she wrote in her journal:
Am I next? Is he watching me now? Stalking me like a predator and its prey.
Waiting, waiting for some perfect spot, time or my stupid mistake. How does one
choose a victim? Good question, isn’t it? If I knew that, I would never get
However she could not overcome her drug habits or take other steps to get off
the street. Toward the end of her life, she wrote,
I’ve sentenced myself to life imprisonment, no chance of parole, no chance of
release, no judge, no jury, no pre-sentence inquiry. …I made this big, empty
cold, senseless cell, escape proof. And, of course, I left no mistakes; in no
part of my brilliant architectural plan is there a way for anybody to get in and
realize who I really am, not that I know the answer to that question.
Sarah de Vries had a padlocked room in a small house in the downtown eastside
where she lived and could keep her things. Having a room of her own and a stable
address helped to keep her safe. But in the fall of 1997 she moved out. She had
plans to find an apartment with her then boyfriend, but that didn’t work out.
She then ended up living in hotels, as she had done in her teens and early
Through all of it, Sarah de Vries maintained contact with her family. She
visited her son once in foster care, before he moved back east to live with his
grandmother. She saw her daughter every summer when her daughter came to
Vancouver and had started drawing an alphabet colouring book for her. She also
saw her sister regularly when her sister took her to doctor’s appointments.
Sarah de Vries was last seen on April 14, 1998. A close friend tried to report
her missing, but he alleges that the Vancouver police refused to take the report
because he was not a family member. He contacted de Vries’ sister, Maggie de
Vries, who filed the report. Maggie de Vries says the police did not interview
her about her sister’s disappearance until 10 more days had passed.
Maggie de Vries recalls that individual police officers were helpful and clearly
working hard to find out what happened to her sister. However, like other
relatives of women who disappeared at this time in downtown Vancouver, she is
frustrated that the police and the city took so long to acknowledge there was a
larger pattern beyond the individual cases and to mobilize a coordinated
On August 6, 2002, the family was informed by the Task Force that Sarah de
Vries’ DNA had been found on the Port Coquitlam farm which has been at the
centre of the joint Vancouver Police Department/RCMP Missing Women’s Task Force
investigation into the abduction and murder of women from the Downtown Eastside.
As of September 2004, no charges had been laid in her murder. Robert Pickton is
expected to come to trial in 2005 or 2006 on at least 22 charges of murder
stemming from that investigation.
A target of racism? Cynthia Louise Sanderson - killed August 30, 2002
Cynthia Louise Sanderson, a 24 year-old Cree mother of two children, lived in
the small town of Shellbrook, near Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. She was the
youngest of three children. She had her own house and worked part-time jobs but,
according to her sister Linda Pechawis "she just got tired of struggling with
money" and realized she needed an education to get fulltime employment. In 2002,
she was accepted into the Universal Career College, a post-secondary training
institution in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. She moved in with her sister, bringing
her four year-old daughter and leaving her seven year-old son in her mother’s
care since he was still in school.
Cynthia Sanderson started at Universal Career College in April 2002 with the
goal of becoming a legal assistant. By June, her attendance was steadily
declining. Finally, at the end of the month she talked to her instructor about
her alcohol abuse. She admitted herself to a Saskatoon detox centre in July and
then a rehabilitation centre at Ahtahkakoop First Nation in August. On August
25th she went to stay with her mother for a week.
On the evening of August 30, 2002, Cynthia Sanderson went out with a friend and
her cousin in Prince Albert, 134 kilometres north of Saskatoon. Around 1 a.m.
they got into a dispute with a white man, Anthony Barr, outside a bar. Accounts
of what happened next vary. According to Sanderson’s friends, Barr called out a
racist insult. The trio swore back and kept walking. The man followed them in a
truck. As Barr drove slowly beside them, they argued and exchanged racial slurs.
Barr challenged the two men to a fight. He stopped the truck and got out, but
when the two men moved toward him, Barr jumped back into his truck and drove
ahead a short distance. After this happened a second time, Cynthia Sanderson
apparently ran up to the driver’s side of the truck. This time he didn’t pull
away. One of her friends testified that he heard Barr call her something like
"Indian whore." Another said Barr propositioned her. Barr then grabbed Cynthia
Sanderson by her jacket and drove away, dragging her alongside the truck for up
to fifteen feet. When she lost her balance, Barr let go, ran over her and sped
away. Cynthia Sanderson was taken to hospital where she died as a result of her
injuries shortly after 4 a.m.
When Barr returned to the bar later that night, a witness pointed him out to
police and he was arrested. After Cynthia Sanderson’s death, Barr was charged
with criminal negligence causing death and leaving the scene of a crime. The
Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN), an Indigenous advocacy
organization, called on the Crown prosecutor to charge Barr with a "hate crime."
The prosecutor decided this case did not meet the criteria, but did elevate the
charge to manslaughter. At trial, the judge acquitted Barr of the manslaughter
charge and convicted him of dangerous driving causing death and failing to
remain at the scene of a crime. Barr was sentenced to three years in prison.
Cynthia Sanderson’s sister Linda Pechawis says that no one at the hospital tried
to contact Sanderson’s family while she was still alive. Cynthia Sanderson had
contact information for her mother and sister in her day-planner, which she used
as a purse. "She didn’t have to die alone and scared," stated Pechawis. Cynthia
Sanderson’s two friends traveled to Shellbrook to contact her mother and take
her to the hospital in Prince Albert but they were too late. Prince Albert
police informed Amnesty International that a communications "screw up" had
occurred between them and the Shellbrook RCMP. The Prince Albert police had
contacted the RCMP, who were supposed to inform Sanderson’s mother that her
daughter had passed away, but she was not told this news. When she arrived at
the hospital, she was expecting to find her daughter alive. A police
investigator broke the bad news to her.
Linda Pechawis has filed a complaint against the Prince Albert Police Service
through the Special Investigations Unit of the FSIN. She says that police
officers did later apologize to her for mistakes the force made in the handling
of the investigation. While she appreciated their candour, she questioned
whether racist attitudes influenced not only the crime but also the police
response. "They knew that they didn’t do their job," Linda Pechawis told Amnesty
International. "Sometimes I really think that her being Native could’ve been a
reason. I hate to say that, but P.A. [Prince Albert], they say, is a pretty bad
place for racism."
The Prince Albert Police Service told Amnesty International that there were
"never any racist attitudes shown by police in any component of the
investigation" and that the first two officers at the scene were "visible
members of the First Nation community." An officer with the force, who clearly
is concerned that Indigenous women do face high levels of violence, which he
termed "cold, racist and sexist" and added that he hopes there will be "positive
changes for a seriously at-risk group."
Not a priority Maxine Wapass - Missing May 17, 2002 confirmed dead in
Maxine Wapass was a 23 year-old Cree woman who was very close to her large
family. As a little girl, she was raised by her grandfather at Thunderchild
First Nation in Saskatchewan. After he died in 1987, when Maxine was eight, she
was raised by an aunt.
As a young adult Maxine Wapass stayed with her cousin Marilyn Wapass in
Saskatoon but enjoyed returning to Thunderchild First Nation on holidays and
whenever the opportunity arose to visit. "All of us tried to be together at
Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, whenever we can eat, we all get together," said
Maxine Wapass had no children, but was close to her nieces and nephews. She was
especially close to Marilyn Wapass’ children; when her cousin was attending
university or working, Maxine Wapass would baby-sit them. From Marilyn Wapass’
point of view, her cousin helped raise her children.
On 17 May 2002, Maxine Wapass phoned her cousin at work about a trip to the
reserve they were planning. Marilyn Wapass told her as soon as she got home from
work, they would drive to Thunderchild. Marilyn Wapass recalled that she "wanted
to get [Maxine] away from the city" because "she was getting into her drugs
When Marilyn Wapass got home from work, Maxine Wapass was not there. She did not
call and she never returned. Marilyn Wapass was not worried at first. She knew
that her cousin had a lot of friends and she could end up anywhere. Maxine
Wapass had talked about getting back together with an ex-boyfriend who lived at
Little Pine First Nation so she assumed her cousin had gone to his reserve. Two
weeks later, however, he phoned, and asked where Maxine Wapass was. Marilyn
Wapass went to Thunderchild and told her mother and everyone else there that she
had not seen Maxine Wapass in approximately two weeks. Her mother advised her to
go to the police.
From the beginning, Marilyn Wapass says she felt that she and the lead
investigator did not have a very good relationship. She was calling the police
regularly to pass on information about her cousin and to ask for updates. She
says she felt that the investigator "was getting tired of me calling and he had
told me that this case wasn’t his priority." When the investigator went on
holidays, two other officers became involved. Marilyn Wapass felt more at ease:
"I felt like they were really doing the best job that they could and they were
going out on the street and they were interviewing people and they really wanted
to solve the case." In August 2002, the two officers did a television interview
about Maxine’s disappearance. Shortly after the interview was aired, the lead
investigator returned to work and the two other officers did not continue.
Marilyn asked a band councilor from the Thunderchild First Nation, Irma Horse,
to be the family’s contact with the police. Ms. Horse in turn contacted the
Special Investigations Unit (SIU) at the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian
Nations (FSIN), a provincial Indigenous advocacy organization, for assistance.
The family also took it upon themselves to try to obtain information about
Maxine’s disappearance. In the fall of 2002 they raised $5000 for a reward for
information, and distributed posters in Saskatoon, throughout Saskatchewan,
including reserves, and Alberta. The Thunderchild First Nation paid for
newspaper ads in Saskatoon and Edmonton, Alberta. In November 2002, Maxine
Wapass’ remains were found in a rural area 16 kilometres west of Saskatoon. The
police confirmed her identity three months later, and informed the family on 6
February 2003. Due to the location of the remains, the RCMP became involved in
the investigation. A RCMP representative came to Thunderchild and met with the
family after the closed-casket funeral.
The FSIN’s Senior Special Investigator agreed to liaise with the police on the
family’s behalf because they felt they were having difficult experiences with
the police. He reviewed the file and determined that work was being done, but
had not been conveyed to the family. He went to Thunderchild First Nation and
met with the family, and later set up meetings between them and the police. He
added that, once the family began meeting regularly with the police, some good
information came forward from the reserve that the police would not have
received if the communication lines had not been opened.
Thunderchild councilor Irma Horse believes that if the FSIN’s Special
Investigations Unit had not become involved, the case would not have gone
anywhere. "Nothing was being done," she said.
In June 2003, the RCMP laid charges against Maxine Wapass’s ex-boyfriend. The
trial is schedule to commence in late November 2004. Saskatoon police declined
to comment on this case, so as to not "jeopardize either the prosecution or the
A family torn apart for the second time Felicia Velvet Solomon - 16 years old
- missing, March 25, 2003 confirmed dead in October, 2003
Felicia Solomon was born on July 21, 1986 at Norway House Cree Nation in
northern Manitoba. She was the oldest of six children and a cousin of the late
Helen Betty Osborne.
As a teenager, Felicia Solomon lived with her family in Winnipeg where she
attended high school. On the evening of March 25, 2003, the 16-year-old did not
return home and did not call. Her mother says she phoned the police that evening
and again the next day, but the police did not investigate.
On March 27th, Solomon’s mother learned that her brother had died. Although she
was worried that she had still not heard from her daughter, she felt she had to
return to Norway House for her brother’s funeral. She returned to Winnipeg early
on the morning of March 30th and called the police right away. The police did
not come to her home until 1:00 a.m that night. She describes the officers as
being inattentive, laughing and acting rudely. The officers filled out a missing
person report at that time but told her that according to policy they would have
to wait 48 hours before they could do anything.
A Winnipeg police spokesperson has told Amnesty that the force responds to
missing persons reports based on an assessment of the risk to the missing person
and does not have a policy of waiting 48 hours, as many in the public believe.
Nonetheless, the family ended up making their own missing persons posters and
began putting them up all over Winnipeg. They say they received no help from the
police and that the police made no effort to publicize the disappearance.
According to the family, the police simply told them "to keep looking around for
A little over a month after Felicia Solomon disappeared, the family contacted
their Chief and Council at Norway House. One of the councilors, Mike Muswegon,
contacted Child Find, a national non-governmental organization based in
Winnipeg, which agreed to produce posters. Muswagon also contacted the Assembly
of Manitoba Chiefs, the political body representing First Nations in Manitoba,
and arranged a press conference.
On June 11th 2003 Winnipeg police river patrol officers found a severed thigh
near the water’s edge. On June 16th, a man who was walking along the north bank
of the river spotted an arm that was severed near the shoulder. In October, DNA
testing confirmed that the body parts were those of Felicia Solomon. The rest of
her remains were never found. As of August 2004, the crime had not been solved.
Felicia Solomon’s family remains frustrated by the attitudes of the police. The
family believes they were treated differently than non-Indigenous people would
have been. One of the family members commented, "When we listened to the news,
when something happened to someone else’s child, whether they are white or from
any other kind of race or culture, they do everything. It’s completely different
when an Indian person goes missing. We see that."
Family members also take issue with the stated reluctance of the police they met
with to take action as soon as Felicia Solomon’s disappearance was reported to
them. "In our culture, when a child is missing, you automatically look for that
child. Especially when you know your child and you know that they phone."
Solomon’s mother knew her child. "We shouldn’t have to had to wait 48 hours."
Felicia Solomon’s grandmother complained that after the family’s press
conference the media had unfairly labeled her granddaughter a prostitute and
gang member because the family was poor and because of the part of the city they
live in. She feels that the police inaction was also influenced by these
assumptions. "Just because our daughter was on welfare and she lived on the west
side doesn’t mean that Felicia was a prostitute, or a gang member or that she
was a druggie. You know, they label Aboriginal people right away. That’s the
part that we didn’t like and I can’t say anything positive about the police
because they were no help. We didn’t get help. We still don’t get help."
Unanswered questions Moira Louise Erb - missing August 2, 2003; found dead
September 17, 2003
Moira Erb was born Marilyn Latender at the Fort Alexander First Nation in
Manitoba; she was taken away from her birth mother by a social service agency
when she was one year old. Her sister Patsy Fontaine remembered being 7 years
old in 1978 and carrying her baby sister out to the car that would take her to a
foster family. She did not see Moira Erb again until they were reunited about
twenty years later.
Just before she turned two, Moira Erb was adopted into a farm family who had two
children of their own. She ran away from home at the age of 16. She passed
through a series of youth centres and group homes before ending up living on the
streets in Vancouver, where she got involved with illegal drugs and the sex
trade. She eventually had a child and later got married. The marriage did not
work out. When she left her husband, she started using heavy drugs again. She
entered into a relationship with a man with whom she had two sons. This
relationship also did not work out and Moira returned to the sex trade. She
eventually returned to Manitoba.
A health worker who befriended Moira Erb in Winnipeg described her as "funny,
smart, honest and generous." She loved her children and would try to send them a
small amount of money whenever she could. Erb’s friend said that her heart was
breaking because she couldn’t be a parent to her children all of the time.
However, Moira Erb was also very sick. She had tested positive for HIV/AIDS but
her drug addictions were interfering with her taking her medications.
In June, 2003, Moira Erb’s daughter came to Winnipeg for a visit and stayed with
Erb’s father at his farm. Her two sons were also brought to the farm for a brief
visit that month. Erb made a promise to get off drugs so that she could see her
children more often. She ended up staying off drugs for the month of July and
told a friend that she was applying to go back to school.
Moira Erb went missing on August 2, 2003. She told her roommate that she was
going to go next door. Then she apparently asked a neighbour to take her
downtown. Her roommate looked for her but couldn’t find anyone who had seen her.
Erb’s roommate reported her missing a week later. On September 17, 2003, Moira
Erb’s badly decomposed remains were found in a rural area north of the Winnipeg
airport near train tracks. The police concluded that her injuries were
consistent with being struck by a train. Police do not suspect foul play.
Patsy Lafontaine does not believe that is how it happened. Moira Erb’s father
also has his doubts. Both point to the isolated location. Both point to the fact
that Erb’s body was found without any shoes. Both ask: Who took her there? Why?
What did they do to her?
Moira Erb’s father last had a brief phone message from the RCMP in late January
2004 indicating the investigation was ongoing but providing no updates. Patsy
Lafontaine has never heard from the police. Knowing some of the rough
neighbourhoods her sister sometimes worked in Patsy Lafontaine has gone to those
places herself, and "sat at the corner" to ask questions. She does not believe
the police have followed those same leads. In September 2004 the RCMP informed
Amnesty International that the case had been "meticulously investigated" and the
conclusion reached was that "Ms. Erb died tragically as the result of being
struck by a train." The family has no details of the specific findings of any
such investigation and continues to have unanswered questions about Moira Erb’s
V. Conclusions and Recommendations
No one should suffer the grief of having a sister, mother or daughter suddenly
disappear never to be seen again. No one should have to live in fear that they
will be the next woman or girl to go missing.
Canadian officials have a clear and inescapable obligation to ensure the safety
of Indigenous women, to bring those responsible for attacks against them to
justice, and to address the deeper problems of marginalization, dispossession
and impoverishment that have placed so many Indigenous women in harm’s way.
All levels of government in Canada should work urgently and closely with
Indigenous peoples’ organizations, and Indigenous women in particular, to
institute plans of action to stop violence against Indigenous women. The
following platform for action is based on the recommendations made by the
families of missing women, frontline organizations working for Indigenous
women’s welfare and safety, and official government inquiries and commissions,
as well as standard interpretations of the human rights obligations of
1. Acknowledge the seriousness of the problem
All levels of government, including Indigenous governance structures, should:
-publicly condemn the high rates of violence against Indigenous women – whether
within Indigenous communities and society as whole -- and make public their
plans to address the crisis.
-undertake a review of outstanding recommendations from Canadian commissions,
inquiries and inquests pertaining to the safety and welfare of Indigenous people
with a view to ensuring their timely implementation.
- clearly outline the measures taken to address the problem of violence against
Indigenous women in Canada in reports to relevant UN human rights bodies,
including the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, the
Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the Human Rights
2. Support research into the extent and causes of violence against Indigenous
The federal government should ensure adequate funding for comprehensive national
research on violence against Indigenous women, including the creation of a
national registry to collect and analyze statistical information from all
In consultation with Indigenous peoples’ organizations and organizations
representing ethnic minorities, protocols should be developed to ensure that
police consistently record and appropriately use data on the ethnicity of the
victims and perpetrators of violent crimes.
The federal government should request the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on
the situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous people and
Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, to
jointly study and document patterns of violence against Indigenous women,
including in Canada.
3. Take immediate action to protect women at greatest risk
Federal, provincial and territorial governments should ensure adequate,
sustained, multi-year funding to ensure the provision of culturally appropriate
services such as shelters and counseling for Indigenous women and girls.
Police should work closely with Indigenous women’s organizations and other
frontline groups to identify and implement appropriate and effective protocols
for action on missing persons cases, with a view to developing standards for
police response in keeping with the risks to Indigenous women and girls.
Police forces should provide specialized staffing to review and coordinate
responses to missing persons cases.
As part of ongoing review and implementation of laws regarding the sex trade in
Canada, give police clear instructions to ensure that the fundamental rights of
women involved in the sex trade are protected in the course of all law
4. Provide training and resources for police to make prevention of violence
against Indigenous women a genuine priority
All police officers should receive adequate training to ensure an understanding
of violence against women in a range of settings including family violence,
child sexual exploitation and violence against women in the sex trade.
The scenarios used in police training should incorporate issues of cultural
sensitivity and violence against women.
Meetings with Indigenous women leaders and other community members should be
organized to build understanding of the specific risks to Indigenous women in
Canadian society and establish and strengthen relationships of trust between
police and Indigenous communities.
All police departments should review issues of workload, staffing levels and job
rotation to ensure officers have the opportunity to become familiar with and can
develop relations of trust with the specific communities they are intended to
serve and protect.
The actions of police, including compliance with policies on the investigation
of missing persons cases, should be subject to independent civilian oversight.
Funding should also be provided for the creation of independent advocates and
liaison workers for Indigenous people in contact with police.
Officers found to have failed to act on reports of missing women, or to have
carried out biased or inadequate investigation of violence against women, should
be subject to appropriate discipline.
Clear polices and practices should be established with respect to the timely
provision of information, including autopsy results and coroners reports, to the
families of missing and murdered persons.
5. Address the social and economic factors that lead to Indigenous women’s
extreme vulnerability to violence
The federal government should provide adequate, sustained, multi-year funding
for initiatives to deal with the immediate and intergenerational impacts of both
the physical and psychological abuse suffered at residential schools, including
the loss of cultural identity.
Federal, provincial and municipal governments should subject all social programs
to a periodic review to ensure the accessibility and resourcing of programs for
Indigenous women and families is at least on a par with those available to
non-Indigenous people in Canada.
Federal and provincial governments, with the full participation of Indigenous
women, should organize a high level intergovernmental and interdepartmental
meeting to ensure proper coordination and information sharing on initiatives to
address the safety and welfare of Indigenous women and girls.
In collaboration with Indigenous representatives and organizations, the federal
government should take urgent action to address the chronic unemployment and
poverty faced by Indigenous women and men both on and off reserve.
The federal government should commit to fully implementing outstanding
recommendations of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples which address
poverty and social marginalization of Indigenous people in Canada, as has
repeatedly been urged by United Nations treaty bodies.
6. End the marginalization on Indigenous women in Canadian society
All levels of government should work with Indigenous peoples to strengthen and
expand public education programs, including within the formal school system,
that acknowledge and address the history of dispossession and marginalization of
Indigenous peoples and the present reality of racism in Canadian society.
All levels of government should adopt such measures as are necessary to ensure
that Indigenous women are consulted in the formulation and implementation of any
policy that could affect their welfare and status.
Amnesty International is a worldwide voluntary, activist
movement that works
impartially to prevent violations of people's fundamental rights.
Amnesty International Canada (English speaking) 312 Laurier Avenue East,
Ottawa, ON, K1N 1H9 | Phone: (613) 744-7667 or 1-800-AMNESTY Fax: (613) 746-2411