Preventing Aboriginal women from falling through the cracks

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iStock_ homelessWhen Mistissini teenager Lynn Iserhoff went missing in Montreal in early January, only to turn up a few days later at a west-end police station, she managed to evade a fate that continues to befall thousands of Aboriginal women across Canada.

Narrowly escaping a alleged human trafficking scenario, Iserhoff’s name was removed from the growing list of missing and/or murdered Indigenous women in Canada, which the RCMP had listed at around 1200 as of May 2014. Iserhoff may have beat the odds, but more must be done to see that these women and girls do not go missing in the first place.

According to Dr. Dawn Harvard, Vice President of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, while there are numerous factors as to why so many Indigenous women go missing in the first place, at the bottom of it all is 200 years of racism, dehumanization and degradation of Indigenous peoples.

Referencing the recent case of Roxanne Louie, a 26-year-old Osoyoos woman who had been missing for several days before her body was recovered on January 7 and her mother-in-law was charged with her murder, Harvard said the tone that the police had taken while addressing the media was inappropriate. Rather than sounding alarm bells because Louie had missed her flight and had a three-year-old boy who was dependent upon her, the police tried to “reassure” the public by saying that Louie had likely gone out partying and lost track of time. This all plays into the racist notion that Indigenous women are all substance abusers and therefore can easily forget about their responsibilities.

“There is that lingering, un-thinking, unconscious racism. (To say) that they are probably just out partying or that they would just be irresponsible is absolutely absurd. I could not believe it,” said Harvard.

At the same time, Harvard said these kinds of remarks would never have been made about a non-Indigenous woman, but it is what is seen over and over again when Indigenous women go missing. But, whether more Indigenous women are being reported missing, are murdered or are victims to horrific violence, the profile of Indigenous women in the media as victims has increased significantly over the past few years.

Referencing the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights report, which was released in January and supported calls for an inquiry into the rates of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada, Harvard pointed at why so many Indigenous women remain at risk.

She said the report outlines the phenomenon is rooted in poverty and oppression that combine to make women vulnerable. When an Indigenous woman goes missing the media will often infer that she was living a high-risk lifestyle. Harvard said that nobody ever starts out in life choosing this type of scenario for themselves, but instead ends up there because of the poverty they are subjected to and the lack of resources for Canada’s Indigenous peoples.

“Nobody starts off at the age of five, playing in their imagination dress-up corner pretending that they are going to be homeless. This is a circumstance of a tragedy that has happened because of 200 years of oppression. The high-risk lifestyle is certainly not a choice and so being in vulnerable circumstances right from day one has certainly contributed to this situation,” explained Harvard.

Harvard said the lack of shelters and other resources for First Nations women on reserve plays a role. There are only about 45 shelters funded by Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada for the entire country.

At-risk women frequently have nowhere to go, given the lack of housing and overcrowded homes on most reserves. As a result, they will often try an urban centre like Montreal or Toronto in search of services. But it is there that they find themselves exposed to new threats that include predators looking to exploit the circumstances that have sent them searching for help.

According to Harvard, a much of the violence against Indigenous women actually happens when they enter into urban settings.

Predators are protected by prevailing prejudice and stereotypes about Indigenous women, as police such as the case in Osoyoos downplay the threat or blame the victims.

“They know they can commit these acts with impunity because historically and until quite recently nobody gave a rat’s ass. Nobody bothered looking for these girls. How many people said that Native girls especially were going missing in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and being taken to a pig farm and nobody bothered to even go check? They had Pickton in custody and nobody bothered to check his place.

“We have that kind of situation where nobody bothers to put an effort into even looking into it,” said Harvard.

Not all women who are abducted or exploited come from society’s margins. According to Harvard, young Native girls from good families are also targeted when they have go to the cities for services. From there they can be easily lured and then groomed.

“Sometimes they come down (to the cities) because they think that somebody loves them. Another common one is someone who positions themselves as a saviour or a help to these girls, telling them that they can sleep on the couch until they can get on their feet,” Harvard explained.

“Especially in the case of someone who is coming to a city for rehab or trying to get established, someone friendly offering them help can seem like a miracle. But then they find out that it was just too good to be true and it was all a big ruse to get her under his thumb.”

Harvard said that joint strategies need to be developed because the onus can’t simply be put on reserves to come up with solutions, as they are chronically underfunded. While the federal government has been quick to create “action plans,” they are simply PR window dressing that simply list defunct programs and government departments that are inclined to pass the buck.

The Cree have been working on a response since 2008, when the justice department founded the Crime Victims Assistance Centre (CAVAC).

Donald Nicholls, the Director of Justice for the Cree Regional Authority, said CAVAC officers were sent to a conference on human trafficking to see how vulnerable the Cree are to trafficking threats.

Nicholls said CAVAC, Cree Women of Eeyou Istchee Association, the Mistissini Women’s Association and Public Health Department in Mistissini recently met to discuss the issue of human trafficking.

“We talked about the vulnerability of our women and children when they go south and how we can look at that together and come up with ways of educating people and making them more aware,” said Nicholls.

“Maybe there is a way of not only educating them of the dangers but that there are people out there who are actively looking for women and children. Maybe they could be educated on how they can seek help.”

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