Violence Against Indigenous Women and Girls

Violence against Indigenous women and girls in Canada has only recently been acknowledged as a serious issue by governments, media, and mainstream society. This increasing attention is the result of the on-going dedicated work of various individuals, Indigenous communities, national and international organizations, and most importantly, Indigenous women’s organizations (Lamontagne, 2011. Violence Against Aboriginal Women. Scan and Report, Canadian Women’s Foundation).

Following the release of the searing 2004 Amnesty International report Stolen Sisters: Discrimination and Violence Against Indigenous Women in Canada, the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC)  launched the Sisters in Spirit project in 2005. As noted on the SIS webpage,  “The primary goal was to conduct research and raise awareness of the alarming high rates of violence  against Aboriginal women and girls in Canada”. The database developed by SIS has provided an important foundation for investigating root causes of the violence.

Before the Harper federal government terminated funding after many attempts to contain NWAC and the work they were doing, SIS documented more than 582 missing and murdered Aboriginal women, and worked closely with Indigenous communities and families to gather and make visible the individual life stories of these women. In May 2014, the RCMP reported that almost 1,200 Indigenous women had been murdered or had gone missing in Canada over the previous 30 years.

Sisters in Spirit vigils are now held annually in October to honour the lives of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG). The number of these vigils across the country has grown from 11 in 2006 to 212 in 2017, reflecting the sharp increase in awareness and greater activism on violence against Indigenous women and girls.

The development of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, launched by the federal government in 2016, was also prompted by sustained calls for action by organizations such as the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) and the Assembly of First Nations.

Although the NWAC had a significant influence on the development of the national inquiry, the continual failures to include Indigenous communities, family members of the missing and murdered, and NWAC in the process resulted in the NWAC withdrawing support for the overall process of the inquiry.  Three Report Cards developed by NWAC address issues with the national inquiry. In July 2017, the Ontario Native Women’s Association also withdrew its support.

The failures of the MMIWG inquiry are similar to those of the British Columbia Missing Women Commission of Inquiry. Various organizations called for the development of a public inquiry into the responses by police and the Canadian government in relation to the disappearances and murders of women from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The Missing Women Commission of Inquiry was launched by a British Columbia Order in Council in 2010 and submitted its final report Forsaken: The Report of the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry in 2012. However, a wide range of organizations withdrew early in the process because the Commission failed to consult with the communities affected.  As noted in Blue Print for an Inquiry: Learning from the Failures of the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry, “The Inquiry excluded the voices of individuals and communities that it should have worked the hardest to include: Aboriginal women, sex workers, women who use drugs, and women living in poverty who were most affected by the Pickton murders and the resulting investigations, and who remain at extremely high risk for violence.” Significant as these more recent developments are, it is important to recognize that Indigenous women’s activism on these issues has been around for decades. Numerous reports, initiatives, and advocacy efforts have emerged in relation to violence against Indigenous women and girls. Nationally, provincially, and locally, the existence of groups seeking to address violence and discrimination have had, and continue to have, an important role in the lives of Indigenous women and girls.

Our understanding of the  history of systemic violence perpetrated against Indigenous women must also encompass the genocidal practice of forced sterilization that took place over decades in Canada, as well as the significant over-representation of Indigenous women in prisons and in solitary confinement/involuntary segregation. The direct  sexual, physical, emotional, and psychological abuse abuse inflicted on Indigenous women through the residential schools system and the so-called “60s Scoop” must also be recognized, together with their destructive effect on Indigenous families and communities as a whole.

Unfortunately, documentation of efforts to make visible the violence against Indigenous women remains sketchy, and especially the efforts of Indigenous women themselves. This reflects the same colonizer relationship and racism that underlies the very violence itself. Only a very few archival materials directly reflecting the activism of Indigenous women on these issues are posted here. There are also several government reports and documents in which Indigenous women and organizations were involved. Other related materials show the solidarity of other feminist organizations and allies.

Please help us add new materials and information to this section. 

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The following also offers a very preliminary overview of and links to different Indigenous Women’s groups active on violence against Indigenous women during the 1970s to the 1990s, as well as reports and events specifically addressing these concerns. It is organized by decade.

1970s:

1973 – In 1968, the Ministry of Indian Affairs and the YWCS opens a hostel in Toronto to support Indigenous women facing multiple levels of abuse and oppression. A group of Indigenous women propose this hostel should be managed by Indigenous women, and Anduhyaun is created in 1973.

1975 – Home for Women in Distress – Prince Albert, Sask. The home operates through the Native Women’s Centre in Prince Albert

1976 – The Native Women’s Centre in Hamilton is a chapter of the Ontario Native Women’s Association. It is established to advocate and establish programs and services to meet the needs of Aboriginal women and youth experiencing abuse.

1978 – Beendigen is opened in Thunder Bay.  This aim of this group, which still exists today, is to provide support through culturally appropriate services and programs, and provide shelter to Aboriginal women and children dealing with violence. A brief history appears on their website and notes, “Beendigen has always integrated cultural teachings into many of its healing programs. Cultural awareness, the Medicine Wheel Teachings, medicine wheel, and traditional ceremonies are balanced with the education components of individual and group programming. Elders play an important role at Beendigen as they promote a traditional and cultural component which Beendigen believes is vital in the healing of woman abuse.”

1980s

1983 – The Niagara Chapter – Native Women’s Inc. of the Ontario Native Women Association is founded.  They are an autonomous local organization that continues today and encourages the active participation of Native women in society.

1984 – As reported, in the Alberta Status of Women Committee Newsletter (May 1984), the  “NorthWest Territories Native Women’s Association, along with the NorthWest Territories Women’s Bureau, and other women’s groups are deeply concerned about the increasing trend by NWT judges toward giving light sentences to native men charged with crimes involving violence against women and children on the grounds that such behavior is part of the native culture.” The groups are making this issue a priority and organizing a letter-writing campaign. One case involved giving three men who raped a 13-year old girl a one-week sentence. The judge noted the men did not consider it wrong and were ‘living their lives in a normal acceptable fashion in the way life is lived in the High Arctic’.

1985 – The Native Women’s Resource Centre of Toronto (NWRCT) is founded as a gathering place in Toronto where Aboriginal women could share resources, support one another, and practice their traditional ways.

1987 – An article appears in Women Spirit – Vol. 1, No. 6 – September/October 1987, published by the Native Women’s Resource Centre of Toronto, regarding the report Battered But Not Beaten: Preventing Wife Battering in Canada published by the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women and including two pages on Indigenous women.

1988 – Women Spirit (Vol.2, No. 3 – June/July 1988 reports that “The Native Women’s Resource Centre has published ‘A Guide For Native Women’, which tells Native women how they can get help if they are victims of wife assault.”

1989 – The Ontario Native Women’s Association (ONWA) releases Breaking Free: A Proposal for Change to Aboriginal Family Violence (1989). The report is the first of its kind in Ontario to examine the complexities of Aboriginal family violence from the perspective of an Aboriginal woman. The preface notes, “It is not possible to find a First Nations or Metis woman in Ontario whose life has not been affected in some way by family violence”, going on to say “The reasons behind the high incidence of family violence are intimately connected with the poor social, political and economic position we find ourselves in. The inability to determine who we are, racial prejudice and the history of governmental control in our lives through the oppressive instrument of federal regulation.”

1990s:

1990 – As reported in The Womanist (Spring 1992), “The Aboriginal Women’s Unity Coalition (AWUC) was formed in 1990 by Winnipeg Aboriginal women and community groups in response to inaction and silence on the case of Carl Krantz, who drugged, raped and videotaped 50 Aboriginal girls. The AWUC wanted to ensure these young women would receive counselling and support from the Aboriginal community to help in their healing process and to avoid further victimization from police and non-Aboriginal institutions.”

1992 – The report Violence in Aboriginal Communities notes that in November 1992, “the Women of the Métis Nation of Alberta organized an historic conference near Edmonton dealing specifically with sexual violence against Métis women. The interest shown by Métis women from across Canada was overwhelming.”

1992 -The Native Women’s Resource Centre in Toronto reports in Women Spirit – Summer 1992 that the Ontario government announced a fund toward fighting violence against aboriginal women The article notes that many who are victims of violence don’t go to the police because they feel they won’t be understood. The NWRD provides emergency, short-term services, a drop-in centre, academic up-grading classes, and healing circles. It also acts as a referral service for women who are victims of violence.

1995 – The Aboriginal Women’s Action Network (AWAN)  – now renamed Aboriginal Women’s Organizing Network (AWON)   is established to provide a voice for Aboriginal women’s concerns regarding governance, policy making, women’s rights, employment rights, violence against women, Indian Act membership and status, and many other issues

1999 -The National Aboriginal Circle Against Family Violence (NACAFV) emerges from a series of grassroots-level consultations with Aboriginal family-violence service providers and other experts from across the country. The first formal meeting is held in 1999 at the University of Manitoba and results in a recommendation for the establishment of a nationally representative body that would collect information, advocate the cause, and provide Aboriginal-specific resources and training support for those working in the areas of Aboriginal family violence, prevention, intervention, and longer-term care.

Renee Grozelle
Phd Candidate

Violence Against Indigenous Women and Girls Documents

Title Date Region
Breaking Free: A Proposal for Change To Aboriginal Family Violence 1989 Ontario
Violence in Aboriginal Communities 1994 National (all of Canada)