Loretta Saunders’ death latest in growing epidemic

As the number of missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada continues to rise at an alarming rate, people, human rights groups and politicians strengthen the call for a national public inquiry

It’s Wednesday evening and the mood is sombre inside the St. John’s Native Friendship Centre (SJNFC). Moments ago the members of women’s drum group Eastern Owl, Inuit drum group Kilautiup Songuninga and a handful of children had learned police in Nova Scotia were now treating Loretta Saunders’ disappearance as a homicide.

A smudge ceremony is followed by a talking circle, a sacred ceremony where a feather is passed around and the person holding it can speak their mind without judgement from others. Thoughts and prayers are offered in English and Inuktitut for the 26 year old Labrador Inuk and her family.

The drum groups separate into different rooms so they can practice their songs. After singing the Women’s Warrior Song, the five members of Eastern Owl take a short break. Moments later one of them returns to the room and announces Loretta Saunders’ body has been found. There is silence as they look at each other with saddened but unsurprised expressions on their faces. They sing the Mourning Song.

Saunders, who was working on her honours thesis on missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, and who is said to have been three months pregnant, became the 95th victim on a list of missing or murdered women or children in or from Newfoundland and Labrador, compiled by staff at the friendship centre.

Amelia Reimer, a women’s outreach worker at the centre said she felt sick to her stomach when she heard the news of Saunders’ murder Wednesday evening. “Just a big pit, like a rock in the bottom of your stomach.”

It’s not known if Saunders was targeted because she was aboriginal, but her thesis supervisor Darryl Leroux wrote in an essay on Thursday that he didn’t care to speculate about her death, choosing instead to focus on the the bigger picture.

“It’s our doing, which Loretta articulated so clearly in her writing – theft of land base, legalized segregation and racism, residential schools for several generations, continued dispossession = social chaos,” he wrote.

“It is a recipe for disaster for indigenous peoples, and especially indigenous women. Who suffers most when access to land, to the ecological order at the basis of most indigenous societies, is limited, controlled, or outright eliminated? Is that not what’s at the basis of a settler society like our own, eliminating indigenous peoples’ relationship to the land (and/or their actual bodies), so that can we plunder it for our gain?”

Bad and getting worse

In an interview with The Independent on Thursday Reimer flipped through several pages of the long list of names, explaining the SJNFC included all missing or murdered women and children in the province on its list.

“With the unique background of Newfoundland and Labrador we’ve decided to extend our list to people who may not be known as aboriginal…but so many people here have aboriginal background, have a history,” she explained. “It may have been spoken about, it may not have been spoken about, because once again there’s the shame and marginalization that happens, especially over the last couple hundred years.”

Through its Sisters in Spirit project the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) documented the names of 582 aboriginal women who went missing or were murdered between 1990 and 2010, when the federal government cut funding to the initiative.

Earlier this year Maryanne Pearce, a doctoral student of law at the University of Ottawa, released the details of her research on missing and murdered vulnerable women in Canada between 1990 and 2013. Of the 3,329 names she compiled, 824 are aboriginal, a substantially higher number than NWAC, though Pearce’s data included three extra years.

Though only about four per cent of women in Canada are aboriginal, both NWAC and Pearce’s numbers show that aboriginal women account for almost one quarter of the country’s missing or murdered women. Estimates vary, but it is believed aboriginal women in Canada are five to eight times more likely than non-aboriginal women to be murdered or go missing.

According to a press release issued by NWAC on Friday, in the last six months alone at least eight aboriginal women have been murdered in Canada. That number does not include Bernice Rich, a 21-year-old Innu woman who was murdered in Sheshatshiu last June.

“[The] numbers are just going up really dramatically, and they’re…younger and younger, the women who disappear or who get killed,” NWAC President Michele Audette told The Independent on Wednesday, prior to the news of Saunders’ death. “So it’s getting worse.”

Audette acknowledges violence against aboriginal women is a complex issue with deep roots, but she says the Conservative government’s attitude toward First Nations, Inuit and Métis is making matters profoundly worse.

“We have more people in prison now, more aboriginal women in prison. We have more poverty in our communities, we have more poverty in the urban settings because of different programs or policies that this government cut or ended or created to—you know, it’s not helping our people,” she said. “And the discrimination is just growing and growing.”

The Native Women's Association of Canada documented the names of 862 missing or murdered aboriginal women in Canada between 1990 and 2010.
Through its ‘Sisters in Spirit’ initiative the Native Women’s Association of Canada documented the names of 582 missing or murdered aboriginal women in Canada between 1990 and 2010.

Indigenous rights groups, the United Nations, the premiers of all 13 provinces and territories and both opposition parties in Ottawa have called on the federal government to launch a national inquiry on missing and murdered aboriginal women. Last week four federal NDP members, including St. John’s South-Mount Pearl MP Ryan Cleary, stood in Parliament to ask that the Conservatives listen to the calls and launch an inquiry.

“We here, the elected representatives of the people, have a duty to act,” said Cleary. “Will the government agree to call a national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women?”

Conservative minister Kellie Leitch, who holds the status of women portfolio, responded to the NDP members’ questions by offering condolences to Saunders’ family and reminding Canadians the government has committed $25 million over five years to missing and murdered aboriginal women.

Money is not enough, said Audette, who has been leading the call for a national inquiry and action plan. She also argues racism toward aboriginal people in Canada is on the rise, referencing a “hate crime” against an aboriginal woman in Ontario in Dec. 2012 when Idle No More was inspiring indigenous actions from coast to coast.

Two men kidnapped an aboriginal woman in Thunder Bay, then allegedly drove her outside the city, sexually assaulted and strangled her, leaving her for dead. She survived to tell the story though, and has remained unnamed out of fear her attackers, who have not been caught, will find and kill her.

“[T]hey said to her, ‘We hate Idle No More. You’re not the first Indian woman, and you won’t be the last,’” said Audette. “So it was a hate crime, two men raping her, thinking that she was dead. But she survived. And so we have more incidents like this, and of course we have more…people that will take our young girls [into] the sex trade, or human [trafficking]. So there’s more and more problems like this in our communities or urban cities.”

Indigenous rights in Canada

Indigenous cultures worldwide are recognized for their wisdom and understanding of the human’s place in the natural world, acquired through teachings and traditions passed on from generation to generation. In 2007, after two decades of consultations with indigenous groups around the world, the United Nations adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which sets out minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of indigenous peoples around the world.

Canada officially endorsed the declaration in 2010, but according to First Nations, Inuit and Métis groups across the country has done little to make meaningful progress with aboriginal peoples.

At the end of his nine-day visit to Canada last fall, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples James Anaya called the problem of missing and murdered aboriginal women here an “epidemic”.

Anaya commended the federal and provincial governments for implementing “numerous programs, policies and efforts that have…achieved notable successes.” However, he called the situation of Indigenous peoples in Canada a “crisis”, saying the steps taken by the federal and provincial governments are “insufficient, and have yet to fully respond to aboriginal peoples’ urgent needs, fully protect their aboriginal and treaty rights, or to secure relationships based on mutual trust and common purpose.”

Among his top concerns though was the “disturbing phenomenon of aboriginal women missing and murdered.”

Anaya said across the country he heard “a consistent call for a national level inquiry into the extent of the problem and appropriate solutions moving forward with the participation of victims’ families and others deeply affected.

“I concur that a comprehensive and nation-wide inquiry into the issue could help ensure a coordinated response an the opportunity for the loves ones of victims to be heard, and would demonstrate a responsiveness to the concerns raised by the families and communities affected by this epidemic,” he said.

“A long shadow of despair”

In 2008 the Government of Canada issued an official apology to survivors and the families of victims of the residential schools system, and launched the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which has reported that of the accounted 150,000 aboriginal children who were taken from their families and placed in government-funded, church-run schools which operated from from the 1870s until the last one closed in 1996, at least 4,000 died while in the schools’ custody.

The schools were set up “to eliminate parental involvement in the intellectual, cultural, and spiritual development of Aboriginal children,” the commission’s website says. “During this era, more than 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children were placed in these schools often against their parents’ wishes. Many were forbidden to speak their language and practice their own culture. While there is an estimated 80,000 former students living today, the ongoing impact of residential schools has been felt throughout generations and has contributed to social problems that continue to exist.”

At the end of his visit Anaya concurred: “It is clear that the residential school period continues to cast a long shadow of despair on indigenous communities, and that many of the dire social and economic problems faced by aboriginal peoples are directly linked to that experience.”

The federal government’s 2008 apology excluded survivors and families of victims of residential schools in Newfoundland and Labrador, and a dispute over who was responsible for the education of the province’s aboriginal population has ensued in court.

Many of the dire social and economic problems faced by aboriginal peoples are directly linked to [the residential school] experience.  – James Anaya

St. John’s lawyer Ches Crosbie is involved in a class action law suit against the Government of Canada for excluding Newfoundland and Labrador residential school survivors and families of victims from its apology and compensation plan.

“[T]he federal government’s resisting based on the idea that they didn’t have any involvement in the day-to-day running of it,” Crosbie told The Independent on Friday, referring to the five residential schools in the case. Located in Cartwright, Makkovik, Nain, Northwest River and St. Anthony, the schools were first run by either Moravian missionaries or the International Grenfell Association, and later the Government of Newfoundland.

“[T]he Prime Minister’s apology five years ago didn’t include Newfoundland and Labrador, and they’re resisting the claim based on the idea that it’s a different constitutional situation,” Crosbie explained.

Reimer says residential schools played a significant role in the problems faced by Canada’s aboriginal peoples today.

“These traumas and hurts were so systemic, so institutionalized in aboriginal society that you’re looking at generation after generation of that impact happening again, where all the children were being removed from communities,” she said.

“There were people who were sexually abused, and other types of abuse in those systems, and then they brought that type of abuse home to their communities. That type of violence, domestic violence, all those sort of issues are not traditional aboriginal values.”

Crosbie said he didn’t understand the magnitude of the impact residential schools had on the thousands of aboriginal people in Newfoundland and Labrador until he began speaking to survivors.

“Before the case I’m not sure that I did, but at this point I can appreciate that going through the experience of being in a school where the ethos was to strip you of your language and your culture, and your ties to your family and your cultural identity, has to be wounding in a lifelong sense.

“It was very regimented, it was a sort of ‘total’ environment,” he continued. “And it was also brutal, perhaps more so in the earlier years and less in the later years. But one of the discoveries of a client that I went to, he told me how the Moravian Minister used the cat o’ nine tails for discipline. That stays with you because, hey, you figure the cat o’ nine tails went out with press gangs.”

Gone but not forgotten

Reimer said she and Pearce spoke Thursday afternoon after Reimer discovered Pearce’s database contained the names of 19 missing or murdered aboriginal women from Newfoundland and Labrador the SJNFC did not previously have record of, bringing the Newfoundland and Labrador tally to 114 names. Conversely, the SJNFC had the names of at least 11 confirmed aboriginal women who were not on Pearce’s list.

“We’re going to update each others’ lists and collaborate there,” said Reimer. “So if right there contact with me just tripled the numbers for Newfoundland and Labrador on her nationwide project, it’s really hard to gauge how many cases are out there that aren’t being reported to anyone. How many cases were out there where nobody bothered to report it? Or it was reported as ‘unknown circumstances’ or just forgotten?”

The lists do not include the Beothuk, who were targeted in genocidal campaigns by European settlers in Newfoundland. Nor do they include any of the undocumented Mi’kmaq deaths resulting from clashes with Europeans who colonized the island. It is also unclear how many children died in the residential schools here.

Renewing the call

On Thursday Cheryl Maloney, President of the Native Women’s Association of Nova Scotia, held a press conference where she tearfully addressed the murder of Loretta Saunders.

“I think Canadian society and especially our prime minister has been able to ignore the reality of the statistics that are against aboriginal girls,” she said, surrounded by supporters. “Every aboriginal girl is vulnerable, and for Canada to have ignored it for so long, it’s disheartening. How many more families does this have to happen to before they take seriously the problem, the inequity of aboriginal people and the problems our girls face in this world growing up in Canada? We shouldn’t be growing up in a country where we’re at risk to be missing or murdered more than anyone else … There’s something wrong in Canada if aboriginal people have to live this fate.”

Volunteers at the St. John's Native Friendship Centre have been working on a 'Faceless Dolls Quilt', each block representing a missing or murdered woman or child from Newfoundland and Labrador. This one (pictured above) was made on Friday to for Loretta Saunders. Photo by Amelia Reimer.
Volunteers at the St. John’s Native Friendship Centre have been working on a ‘Faceless Dolls Quilt’, each block representing a missing or murdered woman or child from Newfoundland and Labrador. This one (pictured above) was made on Friday to for Loretta Saunders. Photo by Amelia Reimer.

Nunatsiavut President Sarah Leo also issued a statement Thursday. “At the time of her tragic death, Loretta was working on a thesis project on missing and murdered aboriginal women as part of her university studies,” she said. “But she is not just another statistic. She is a daughter, a granddaughter, sister, niece, aunt and a friend. May she rest in peace, knowing that she left behind many loved ones who will always remember her for who she was, and that her work will continue.”

A special parliamentary committee on violence against indigenous women concluded last month and will table its report on March 7. Audette said the committee “wasn’t strong enough,” and that it was “totally partisan, where the Conservatives had the majority.

“I gave them an ultimatum on Nov. 21 [that] if we don’t see in that report the real involvement of the native women of Canada, NWAC, we know that we won’t see in any recommendation the urgency of having a national public inquiry,” she said. “So for me, I’ve said it’s already biased. The exercise, it’s not frank, it’s not truthful, and it’s already saying what the Conservatives would like to see, or wish to see.”

The Native Women’s Association of Canada delivered a petition to Ottawa last month with 23,000 signatures, calling for a national public inquiry.

“It’s just playing with lives,” Audette said of the government’s satisfaction with the parliamentary committee in lieu of a public inquiry. “Women are disappearing. It’s not helping the missing and murdered women, and families affected by that. Compared to the inquiry, where it’s…independent, they have a mandate, a road where it’s gonna be strong resolutions where it’s not partisan. And it will tell the truth to the government.”

After Saunders’ death a new petition began circulating via change.org, this time calling directly on Prime Minister Stephen Harper to launch a national inquiry. As of Saturday it had almost 6,000 signatures.

On Saturday Loretta Saunders’ sister Delilah Terriak announced on Facebook she would like help organizing a nationwide vigil for March 27.

“While we found my sister, she and I know of too many stories of women who will not be laid to rest. This needs to change now. I plan on holding a country wide vigil and would love to have any help organizing actual gatherings in your community. This is for all women, not just you, me or Loretta.”

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