Left: Shannon Alexander, 17 went missing with her friend Maisy Odjick, 16 on September 5, 2008 from Kitigan Zibi, Quebec. Right: Hilary Bonnell, 16 who went missing on September 5, 2009 from Burnt Church, New Brunswick. Her body was discovered today. All three girls were taken on my daughter’s birthday, September 5.
I’m declaring a state of emergency. This is a call to action. Something needs to be done, in a big way, to protect aboriginal women from violence, abduction and murder.
Today, police in New Brunswick announced they have discovered the remains of a young woman who they think is 16 year-old Hilary Bonnell, a Mi’kmaq from the Esgenoopetitj First Nation. She was last seen on the highway coming from her community of Burnt Church.
“She was so excited because I was going to give her my car,” said Pamela Fillier to the Telegraph-Journal. Pamela is Hilary’s mom.
“She was so excited to drive it. Now she is never going to get to drive it, she is never going to fall in love, she is never going to get to graduate, she is never going to get married and she is never going to give me grandchildren. I will never get to hold my baby girl again.”
I hadn’t realized the connection to me, until I compared Hillary with two Anishinaabe girls who went missin last year, Shannon Alexander, 17 and Maisy Odjick, 16 of Kitigan Zibi, Quebec. All three girls were taken on my 14 year-old daughter’s birthday, September 5.
Hilary, Shannon and Daisy are just three of hundreds of missing or murdered aboriginal women in Canada. Each loss is a personal tragedy. Together, they represent a national tragedy. Each of these women is somebody’s granddaughter, mother, auntie, niece or cousin. They are not only our Sisters in Spirit, they are our daughters too.
As of March 31, across Canada there are 520 missing or murdered aboriginal women. More than half remain unsolved. This number is not decreasing, it is getting higher and higher.
There are a number of factors contributing to the current situation. The rates of teenage pregnancies and single mothers lead to vulnerability. Poverty and homelessness forces women to the streets. Prostitution among teenage and underage women is rampant. Chronic disease, addictions and mental illness are also key factors. Family violence and the inequalities of the Indian Act force some women away from living in First Nation communities. In many of these cases, First Nations women don’t have very many choices, little protection and must avail themselves to the dangers of the streets.
Canada’s most notorious serial killer, Robert (Willie) Pickton was linked to 27 murders of women from Vancouver’s downtown east side. More than half were First Nations women. He was convicted of six counts of second-degree murder. It remains to be seen if he faces the remaining 20 or so charges. But you’d better believe there are a few more Willie Picktons out there.
That doesn’t mean all these women are involved in drugs or prostitution either. In many of these cases, vulnerable women are simply stalked, lured and abducted.
In many cases, police are being criticized for their inaction and treating cases of missing aboriginal women different from other cases.
Today, a tearful Pamela Filler said she knew what had happened who was involved in the murder of her daughter. She said she told the police but they didn’t listen to her.
And this is not just happening to the down-and-out. This is happening to young, vibrant First Nations girls, like Hilary, Shannon and Maisy.
According to the Native Women’s Association of Canada, just over one half (52%) of the women and girls in the their database are youth under the age of 30 years. Of this group, 14% were 18 years of age or younger at the time of the incident. That’s 72 girls just like Hilary, Shannon and Maisy.
Something has to be done to protect our daughters.
A focused approach to prevention and protection of First Nations women is needed, not on a case-by-case basis, but with a comprehensive, nation-wide focus. Something has to be done in a big way.
I would suggest this begin by calling a Royal Commission to look into the circumstances of missing and murdered aboriginal women. A royal commission could compel evidence from families, communities, government and law enforcement agencies across
Canada to put all the pieces together and make serious recommendations for implementation.
Recommendations could include setting in place measurable reductions in violence against women, including roles for all aboriginal organizations, the federal government, provincial and municipal governments and First Nations. We need to see significant reduction in poverty and homelessness. Increased long-term and sustainable investments are also needed in the areas of education, health, child care programs and housing programs specifically for First Nations women. Urban shelters and safe houses for vulnerable women need to be built and funded.
We also need to see improvements in the justice system to protect First Nations women. According to Douglas Miranda, this would include changes to the criminal code to increase sentences for violent offenders and new criminal provisions to protect vulnerable women; exploring the regulation of prostitution; improving enforcement and investigations and providing new tools to find missing women and prosecute violent offenders. Moreover, we need to develop an effective and wide-raging awareness and prevention campaign and development of protective programs such as a full-time national task force and street watch program.
We need to stop the infighting. “This is First Nations’ responsibility.” “This should be led by women.” “This is an off-reserve issue.” “No, this is an urban issue.” “This is a federal matter.” “This is a provincial and municipal matter.” In reality, this is an important issue for us all. We all need to accept responsibility and work together. No one needs to pass the buck or look out for number one.
Women need to feel safe. I don’t want to sound old-fashioned, but it’s the men’s responsibility to protect our women and our families. Our Anishinaabe teachings tell us this.
Sadly, even to this day, male privilege means the genders are not equal. There is no balance between the genders. I’m hopeful the day will come soon when male dominance is once and for all, humbled by the power, strength and beautiful Spirit of the women.
Until that day comes, we as men, need to stand up and do everything we can to Love, Respect and protect women. That means standing up on this issue, side by side with women, and calling for lasting change and justice for the 500 plus women that are calling out for help. This is a call to action.
We may not hear them but they are calling. Can you hear them?