Canada is Failing Indigenous Women

Paula Ethans
JD Candidate, 2018

The scale and severity of the persecution faced by Indigenous women in Canada is a human rights crisis. The impact of residential schools, the “Sixties Scoop,” and the Indian Act, as well as discriminatory child welfare policies continue to subject Indigenous women to cultural dislocation, and family breakdown.[1] But particularly troubling is the level of violence directed at Indigenous women in Canada, and Canada’s poor response to this violence.

Indigenous women are acutely vulnerable to violent crime

Indigenous women are particularly vulnerable to sexual, gender based, and domestic violence. Canada’s homicide rate for Indigenous women is seven times higher than for non-Indigenous women,[2] and while Indigenous women only make up 4.3% of Canada’s female population, they account for at least 11.3% of missing women in the country.[3] A 2009 government survey of Canadian provinces found that Indigenous women are nearly three times more likely than non-Indigenous women to report being a victim of a violent crime.[4]

Violence against Indigenous women is rooted in racism, a notion that is affirmed by many local and international organizations, as well as the poor relationship between Indigenous women and law enforcement.[5] Police procedures for responding to missing persons cases, for instance, often fail to acknowledge the pervasiveness and severity of the threats Indigenous women endure, which leads to slow and ineffective responses.[6] As well, harmful biases, which devalue family concerns, are pervasive in police departments, resulting in these concerns being ignored or producing lackluster investigations. The apathy that police exhibit towards Indigenous communities, and specifically the violence Indigenous women endure, is also linked to the vast over representation of Indigenous women in Canadian prisons. Indigenous women comprise 4% of Canada’s population, but they comprise 36.1% of our nation’s female inmate population (and this number is increasing).[7]

The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women National Inquiry has failed Indigenous communities

Somewhere between 1,200 and 4,200 Indigenous women in Canada have been murdered or are missing.[8] After many years of lobbying, the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) National Inquiry was launched in 2016. Given the apathetic investigations on the part of law enforcement, the Inquiry was launched to understand root causes of this epidemic. The Inquiry was meant to be a mechanism for advocates to understand how to address the epidemic, and for loved ones to gain closure. Unfortunately, the Inquiry is widely considered a failure. In May 2017, the government was still organizing conference rooms and catering, and had not yet heard from the families of the missing and murdered women.

That same month, the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) issued a dismal report card on the Inquiry. On 10 out of the report card’s 15 measures, the Inquiry simply failed. In 3 areas, it received cautions and in 2 areas there was not enough information to make an assessment.[9] NWAC’s unfavourable evaluation followed consistent complaints by advocates and family members that the process is falling far behind its intended pace, and that communication with affected families is wholly insufficient. NWAC declared that the Inquiry is not set up to consider the trauma endured by the victims’ loved ones.[10]

Canada’s attempt to do right by Indigenous women and their communities has failed. Those that the Inquiry is meant to serve feel forgotten and devalued.

Pressure is mounting at home and abroad

There is increasing pressure from Canadians, and the international community, for Canada to take responsibility for its treatment of Indigenous women. The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) expressed its concern that Indigenous women “are disproportionately victims of life threatening forms of violence, spousal homicides and disappearances,” and urged Canada to take action.[11] The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Committee Against Torture (CAT), and the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) have also noted the horrific conditions Indigenous women in Canada endure, urging Canada to enhance its efforts to end all forms of violence against Indigenous women.[12]

Where do we go from here?

If Canada is to create meaningful change, it must act. First, Canada must honour its obligations under domestic and international law, and specifically the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).[13] Second, we must lay out a coordinated national response to address existing gaps in policies, programs, and services that work to end violence against Indigenous women. Specifically, the government needs a comprehensive data collection system to record whether the victim is Indigenous, as well as standardized police protocols for missing person cases, and a dramatic improvement in the coordination of investigations for Indigenous missing person and homicide cases. Lastly, we must commit long term funding to ensure the provision of services for Indigenous women at risk of violence.

But mostly importantly, Canada must acknowledge this epidemic and take responsibility. Canada is failing Indigenous women.


[1] For purposes of brevity I will say “women” in this article, but this topic concerns Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirited persons.

[2] Jodi-Anne Brzozowski et al, “Victimization and offending among the Aboriginal population in Canada” (2006) 26(3) Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics at 7.

[3] Royal Canadian Mounted Police, “Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women: A National Operational Overview” (2014) at 8, online: <;.

[4] Shannon Brennan, “Violent Victimization of Aboriginal Women in the Canadian Provinces” (2011) Statistics Canada, online: <>. This figure is not complete, as it excludes violence against women in Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut, where most Inuit women live.

[5] The UN and Inter-American Commission on Human Rights uphold that racism and classism are the underlying causes of the murders and disappearances of Indigenous women, See: Human Rights Watch, “Submission to the Government of Canada on Police Abuse of Indigenous Women in Saskatchewan and Failures to Protect Indigenous Women from Violence” (19 June 2017), online: <;.

[6] Amnesty International, “Stolen Sisters: A Human Rights Response to Discrimination and Violence against Indigenous Women in Canada” (October 2004) at 2, online: <;.

[7] Vivian O’Donnell and Susan Wallace, “First Nations, Inuit and Métis Women” (30 November 2015) Statistics Canada, online: <>; Public Safety Canada, “2016 Corrections and Conditional Release Statistical Overview” (April 2017), online: <;.

[8] The RCMP reported 1,200 in 2104, but in 2016, ‘Walk 4 Justice’ collected names from families and communities and stopped counting at 4,232.

[9] Native Women’s Association of Canada, “NWAC REPORT CARD (second)” (January 2017 – April 2017), online: <;.

[10] Ibid at 6.

[11] Concluding Observations of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination: Canada, CERD, 80th Sess, CERD/C/CAN/CO/19-20 (2012) at para 17.

[12] Concluding Observations of the Committee Against Torture: Canada, CAT, 48th Sess, CAT/C/CAN/CO/6 (2012) at para 20; Concluding Observations of the Committee on the Rights of the Child: Canada, CRC, 61st Sess, CRC/C/CAN/CO/3-4 (2012) at paras 47–48, online: <;; Concluding Observations of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women: Canada, CEDAW, 42nd Sess, CEDAW/C/CAN/CO/7 (2008) at para 44.

[13] United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, GA Res 61/295, UN Doc A/RES/61/295 (13 September 2007).



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