Journalist Emmanuelle Walter had lived in Canada for less than a year when she came upon an article about our missing and murdered women, a subject that has only of late become part of a mainstream conversation. The France native was shocked that a country revered for its interest in global human rights seemed relatively unperturbed by the plight of its own most vulnerable citizens.
“I had this image of Canada as a country where human rights was respected,” says Walter, who admits she soon became obsessed by the topic. That obsession culminated in the writing of her new non-fiction book, Stolen Sisters: The Story of Two Missing Girls, Their Families, and How Canada Has Failed Indigenous Women, an impassioned investigation not only into the reasons why nearly 1,200 indigenous girls and women have been killed or gone missing in this country, but also why so little has been done to rectify this tragic state of affairs.
We talked to Walter about how Canada’s colonial past has wrought a terrible present, what a truly effective inquiry into missing and murdered women might look like and what can be done now to protect indigenous women.
Your book is coming at a time when there is a strong political push to launch a federal inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women. What kind of inquiry do you think would be most effective?
We need to work with indigenous organizations and ask them, ‘What do you need? How can we help you?’ This would be the first goal. We also need to face our history of colonialism and we need to face this distance that exists between indigenous communities and the rest of Canada.
Speaking of our colonial past, a light bulb went off for me in the book when you talk about the residential schools (where the government took aboriginal kids from their parents and raised them in Christian boarding schools, where they often experienced physical and sexual abuse). You connect that history to the current situation and suggest it’s kind of a natural—although horrible—legacy. Why is it so important for Canadians to connect these dots?
When I talked about systemic racism in the book, I talk about the lack of social services, the lack of media attention and police, and the fact that social services are not adapted to indigenous women’s needs. But [another] a part of this systemic racism is our inability to understand what’s gone on [in the past].
I think most women would be surprised to learn that indigenous women live with an excessive and heightened risk of violence and death in Canada. Some statistics say they are four times more likely to be murdered. What are the causes behind that increased risk, and how can we address it to make indigenous women safer?
Women are in danger on reserves because of the legacy of residential schools and all the mental aftershocks that come from that. But they are also in danger off the reserves because they are overrepresented in the population of the most vulnerable women. Everywhere—whether it’s on the reserve or off—they live in poor, violent environments. You don’t choose to live in that environment. Just like you don’t choose to be poor or homeless. This is one of the main reasons why they’re at risk to be killed.
To address it we have two kinds of solutions—we have to have short-term solutions like more emergency shelters and transitional housing for indigenous women fleeing violence. Did you know that emergency shelters for indigenous women are less funded than regular shelters? It’s incredible. We also need simple things like more buses on the Highway of Tears [a stretch of British Columbia’s highway 16 along which at least 19 women have been murdered] and buses on isolated roads [so young women don’t have to hitchhike]. We also need more long-term solutions geared toward fighting poverty.
It’s controversial to talk about the role that men play in these crimes. But you do talk about a bit it in the book and you note that some indigenous activists are talking about sexism and its affects and the men in their communities. It still seems a touchy subject. Is that true?
You know that statistic that says that 70 percent of the men that kill indigenous women are aboriginal? Bernard Valcourt, the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, mentioned it last February. The statistic is probably right. Every woman is more likely to be killed by someone she knows—not just aboriginal women. But the way he used the statistic was disgusting. In his mouth it meant, ‘It’s not our business. Take care of your community.’ It’s not because 70 percent of the murderers are aboriginal that it’s not our business. If you take a small Quebec village and we suddenly discover that all of the men are violent against their wives then we would care about it!
But again, what’s very particular to note is that while indigenous women are more likely to be killed by someone they know, they are also much more likely to be killed by somebody who is not a member of their family than other non-indigenous women. They are not safe anywhere. So then it’s a social issue. It’s not an aboriginal family issue. When the 70 percent statistic went out some aboriginal activists said it’s not true, it’s a manipulation. I said to my activist friends, Don’t be afraid of that number because it’s true but it’s the same for all [women.] We are all more likely to be killed by someone we know.