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March 9, 2011

Harper and murdered Aboriginal women

The Canadian Charger

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Dawn Crey was a beautiful girl, from the Stolo First Nation on British Columbia’s majestic Fraser River. But she and her sisters and brother had a tragic childhood: their father suddenly died, and the four children were taken from their mother and placed in three separate foster homes, far from their community. Dawn and her sister Faith never healed from the scars of that abusive home. Both would later die working Vancouver's east side streets.

Dawn’s DNA was found on the farm of the notorious serial killer who was eventually charged with the murders of 26 women. 

But charges could not be laid in Dawn’s case because not enough remains could be found.  Had the police followed up on leads they had in the 1990s, the murderer might well have been put away long before Dawn disappeared that night in February 2002. 

But who cared? 

Of the 67 women missing from those streets, almost all were Aboriginal.  Disposable, so it would seem.

But Dawn’s story caught the eye of a Metis film-maker, Christine Welsh.  Reading in the newspaper that a 23rd woman’s DNA had been identified at the farm, Welsh decided it was time to start putting a face and a story to the grim statistics. 

Thus was inspired her award-winning film Finding Dawn.  It can now be viewed online and is distributed by the National Film Board.

In 2004, Amnesty International published a report called Stolen Sisters: Discrimination and Violence Against Indigenous Women in Canada. It documented 80 cases of missing or murdered Aboriginal women, and pointed to widespread indifference on the part of the police. 

The Native Women’s Association of Canada believed the real number was much higher, but had no proof.  They launched an initiative called Sisters In Spirit, to memorialize the dead and gather more information.  Already since 1991 they had held a Women’s Memorial March every February 14 in Vancouver.  Now they took their actions to Parliament with an annual October 4 vigil for the dead and missing.  Church groups across Canada took up this vigil in support of Sisters In Spirit. 

The murdered and missing women must not be thought of as mainly sex trade workers. 

Ramona was a high school student who disappeared when hitch-hiking to town on BC’s “Highway of Tears” on graduation night.  Her body was found 10 months later.  Daleen, a married mother of a 3-year-old, and studying to become a teacher, disappeared after an evening of karaoke at a Saskatoon night club.  The police didn’t begin investigating for almost a year.  After four years her remains were found and the murderer charged.  All these women are still bitterly missed by their families.

The Paul Martin government in 2005 granted the Native Women’s Association of Canada $5 million, for the Sisters In Spirit project to conduct a 5-year study into missing and murdered Aboriginal women.  SIS used the money well, researching hundreds of cases and developing a detailed database that won praise from police forces and Amnesty International.  By the time they completed their report in 2010, they had confirmed 582 cases – but they believed their work was far from done.  They intended to continue their research.

But the Harper government had other plans. 

In November 2010 it was announced that any future funding for NWAC depended on their no longer using the term Sisters In Spirit, and not using any government money to continue work on their excellent database.  It was a shocker, and bewildering to those working in the field. 

According to the Aboriginal People’s Television Network, the decision to cancel funding for Sisters in Spirit was made at the end of 2009, after then Status of Women minister Helena Guergis had “fought tooth and nail” in Cabinet to have it preserved. 

We find this significant, since Canadians – and even Ms Guergis herself – were never given a credible reason for her abrupt dismissal from Cabinet and caucus a few months later.  We may note as well, that Nov. 2009 was also the time when the famous “NOT” was inserted in the document approving funding for KAIROS – an interchurch group which supported Sisters In Spirit.  Those closest to the situation now believe that minister Bev Oda actually approved the funding for KAIROS and signed off on it, only to be told by someone higher up to reverse it, and to take the fall for doing so.  She apparently put up less of a fight than her colleague.

What was so toxic about the work of Sisters In Spirit, in Harper’s eyes? 

This is a man who doesn’t tolerate a hair out of place in the image of Canada he wants to project. 

The man who – also in December 2009 – prorogued parliament for a reason that should have been obvious but was never mentioned:  He didn’t want the embarrassing discussion about the Afghan detainees to be in the newspapers while tourists would be visiting for the Olympic Games. 

Such a man would not tolerate funding a group that tells shocking truths about our country.  And what did the Sisters In Spirit report, What Their Stories Tell Us, say? 

“To address the issue of violence, one must understand the history and impact of colonization on Aboriginal peoples in Canada.  It is the ongoing narrative of violence, systemic racism and discrimination, purposeful denial of culture and language and traditions, and legislation designed to destroy identity, that has led to the realities facing Aboriginal peoples.  …  Colonization is not simply a strategy of the past but an ongoing reality that reinforces the silence surrounding the violence experienced by First Nation, Inuit, and Metis women today.  …  Our research has found that the intergenerational impact and the vulnerabilities resulting from colonization and state policies – such as residential schools, the ‘60s Scoop’, and the child welfare system – are underlying factors in the outcomes of violence experienced by Aboriginal women and girls.”

The 60s Scoop refers to the common practice during the 1960s of removing Aboriginal children from their families and communities to be raised in white households – just as happened to Dawn Crey and her brother and sisters. 

We may think that these practices, along with the residential schools, are ancient history – but the shattered family unit has not yet been able to remake itself.  With the loss of the integrity of the family, the honoured place of women was also lost.

Whether Mr. Harper wants to hear it or not, it’s important that it be said.  As our Aboriginal sisters demand that their anguish be heard, they are indeed finding dawn again for their people.  And for us if we are willing to learn.

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M. Elmasry

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