Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG)

The residential school system was both integral to — and emblematic of — a system of colonial subjugation mired in racism and inequality, and the damage it wrought to individuals, families, and communities continued to be felt long after the last IRS was closed in 1996. One of the most significant harms resulted from the separation of children from their parents, breaking family ties, and deeming Aboriginal people to be unfit to raise their children. This was compounded in the 1960s with the so-called ‘Sixties Scoop’, during which time it is estimated that around 20,000 indigenous children were ‘scooped up’ and taken to live with predominantly white, middle-class families.3 As a result of this, the Canadian government was judged to have ‘substantively failed First Nations children’ (Blackstock 2008).

The impact of the IRS and other colonial policies on women was particularly acute. The TRC concurred with legal scholar Constance Backhouse that ‘Canada’s lack of action on missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls and other forms of systemic violence can be attributed in part to “the legacy of misogyny and racism that runs through the heart of Canadian history’” (TRC 2015b, 161). The statistics are certainly sobering. In 2013, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) reported over 1,181 cases of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in Canada in a 30-year period from 1980 to 2012. According to the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC), indigenous women were between three and three-and-a-half times more likely to be victims of violent crime than other women, and the violence they faced was often more severe. They were also three times more likely to be killed by a stranger than non-indigenous women, and five times more likely to be killed by someone they knew (Brule 2018, 338).

In its Calls to Action, the TRC called for the government to address the issue of victimisation of Aboriginal women and girls through an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women, and by exploring the linkage to the residential school system:

We call upon the federal government, in consultation with Aboriginal organizations, to appoint a public inquiry into the causes of, and remedies for, the disproportionate victimization of Aboriginal women and girls. The inquiry’s mandate would include:

i. Investigation into missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls.

ii. Links to the intergenerational legacy of residential schools.

(TRC 2015a, point 41, 4)

As such, the issue of the large numbers of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls was inextricably linked to IRS, both because of the effect of IRS on indigenous communities and because of what they symbolised, as well as what the TRC was supposed to address — namely the recalibration and resetting of Canadian society' and, in particular, a resetting of indigenous-settler relations through decolonisation.

In 2015, the Canadian government launched a National Inquiry' into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls to look into and report on the systemic causes of all forms of violence against indigenous women and girls, including sexual violence. The National Inquiry' opened in September 2016, ran for two and a half years, and issued its final report on 3 June 2019.

In total, 2,386 people participated in the truth-gathering process, with 1,484 family members and survivors providing testimony, 819 individuals sharing their experience through artistic expressions, and 83 ‘Knowledge-Keepers’ and officials providing testimony in a series of 15 community and nine expert hearings. The final report, Reclaiming Power and Place, described the ‘persistent and deliberate human and Indigenous rights violations and abuses [which are] the root cause behind Canada’s staggering rates of violence against Indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA people’4 (MMIWG 2019). The report stated that this violence amounted to ‘a race-based genocide of Indigenous Peoples, including First Nations, Inuit and Metis, [...] empowered by colonial structures’ (MMIWG 2019, 1).

The use of the term ‘genocide’ was the subject of much controversy when the final report was issued.’ The contested nature of the term and its application to this situation is beyond the scope of this chapter, but it is noteworthy that the term was also invoked by the TRC to describe the destruction of indigenous culture and values that lay at the heart of the IRS, just as it has been used to describe structured colonial violence against indigenous peoples in Australia, the United States, and elsewhere (Wolfe 2006). The National Inquiry found that in Canada, the loss of culture and negative depictions of indigenous women and girls contributed to, and was experienced as, ‘a form of trauma that extends across generations’ (MMIWG 2019, 22). Genocide was conceived of as ‘the sum of the social practices, assumptions and actions’ detailed in its report, including the very high levels of direct violence perpetrated against indigenous women and girls, and material rights violations in the areas of health, security, and justice. Colonial violence and endemic racism were identified as the root cause of the normalisation of violence against women and girls in the indigenous community and the ‘appalling apathy’ of the settler population (MMIWG 2019, 6).

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