Frequently asked questions about violence against Indigenous women

How many Indigenous women and girls have gone missing in Canada?

The best available data, an RCMP report released earlier this year, identifies 1,017 women and girls who were murdered between 1980 and 2012—a homicide rate roughly 4.5 times higher than that of all other women in Canada. In addition, the report states that as of November 2013, at least 105 Indigenous women and girls remained missing under suspicious circumstances or for undetermined reasons.

As explained below, the actual numbers may be even higher.

These women were daughters, sisters, mothers and wives. They were loved and valued and they are missed by their families. Every missing or murdered Indigenous woman and girl is a tragedy. The combined numbers are nothing less than a national human rights crisis.

Who is responsible for this violence?

The RCMP report does not identify how many of the perpetrators are Indigenous or non-Indigenous, but we know from individual cases that attacks on Indigenous women are carried out by Indigenous and non-Indigenous men alike.

The vast majority of murders are committed by someone known to the victim. This is true for Indigenous and non-Indigenous women alike.

The statistics published by the RCMP show that Indigenous women are 3.5 times more likely than non-Indigenous women to be murdered by a spouse or family member and 7 times more likely to be murdered by an acquaintance. (These numbers are derived from the RCMP report but not published by the RCMP.)

Regardless of the Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal identity of the perpetrator, or their relationship to the victim, attacks on Indigenous women take place in a social context in which discrimination, marginalization and impoverishment help put Indigenous women in harm’s way, deny Indigenous women the opportunity to escape violence, or even encourage some men to feel that they can get away with acts of violence and hatred against them.

All of society has a responsibility to help stop this violence.

Haven’t the police solved most of the murders?

The RCMP report shows that police deem the vast majority of murders of Indigenous and non-Indigenous women to be successfully closed. These figures may be misleading. We acknowledge that when it is clear that a murder has taken place, police in Canada generally do everything in their power to identify and build a case against whoever is responsible. In our view, the extremely high rate of violence against Indigenous women and girls in Canada means that police should also thoroughly investigate all suspicious deaths and disappearances, whether or not there is immediate evidence of murder.  As we highlighted in our Stolen Sisters report, there are concerns that this does not always happen. Unresolved missing persons cases and suspicious deaths are not part of the RCMP statistics on solved cases.

On a deeper level, even when a murder has been solved, a life has still been lost and woman or girl taken from her family and community. In addition to looking at whether the perpetrators have been caught, we need to ask whether the deaths could have been prevented.

Don’t governments in Canada already have many programs in place to address violence against Indigenous women?

Governments are obliged to make every reasonable effort to stop violence against women. The standard is not whether governments are doing something, but whether governments are doing enough.

Governments in Canada have taken positive steps—such as the work by the RCMP to at long last compile official statistics—the overall response has been piecemeal and inadequate.

The scale of violence threatening Indigenous women and girls requires a comprehensive, coordinated response to ensure that they are not put at risk in the first place and to guarantee that Indigenous women and girls receive appropriate and effective help to escape violence wherever they live.

In a series of joint states issued in advance of the annual October 4th Sisters in Spirit vigils, Amnesty International has joined with the Native Women’s Association of Canada and many others in calling for comprehensive response that would include measures such as:

  • Training, protocols and accountability measures to ensure effective and unbiased police response to all cases of missing and murdered women;
  • Independent review of cases where there are reasons to believe that the murder and disappearance of Indigenous women and girls has not been adequately investigated;
  • Consistent ongoing collection and publication of comprehensive national statistics on rates of violent crime against Indigenous women;
  • Adequate, stable funding to the frontline organizations that provide culturally-appropriate services such as shelter, support and counseling for Indigenous women and girls and their communities; and
  • Elimination of inequalities in the services available to Aboriginal families, such as on reserve children’s services, and other measures to close the economic gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

Why does Amnesty support a national inquiry?

An inquiry is needed to hold government accountable for putting in place a comprehensive and coordinated and response that meets the real needs of Indigenous women and girls. An inquiry would provide an opportunity for affected families and other experts to have their voices heard. It would also allow solutions to be brought forward and considered in a non-partisan, non-political arena, facilitated by a judge or other independent expert. It has become apparent that the urgently needed comprehensive, coordinated national response may never be achieved otherwise.

What about the previous studies that have been carried out?

The federal Minister of Justice Peter MacKay has referred to 40 previous studies that have been carried on various aspects of Indigenous peoples’ lives in Canada. The Minister’s list includes the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, two reports on missing and murdered Indigenous women by the Native Women’s Association of Canada, as well Amnesty International’s two reports on violence and discrimination against Indigenous women in Canada, Stolen Sisters and No More Stolen Sisters. The vast majority of recommendations made in these various reports have gone unimplemented. As Amnesty International stated in an open letter to the Minister, this list of largely ignored reports is indictment of the record of successive governments to respect the rights of Indigenous peoples. It is not a justification for continued inaction.

What’s a national action plan?

The United Nations has identified an obligation for every government to establish a “systemic, comprehensive, multisectoral and sustained” response to violence against women. This is what’s known as a national action plan. Crucial elements of a national action plan include the direct involvement of affected communities and a clear commitment to allocate appropriate financial and other resources. Canada has supported the UN resolutions calling for national action plans but has so far has made no commitment to instituting such a plan at home. The UN Secretary-General has said that all UN member states should have national action plans to stop violence against women in place by 2015.

Why do you say there are gaps in the RCMP report?

In its statistics on homicide, the RCMP report only includes cases where the investigating police force has concluded that a murder has taken place. The report explicitly does not include unexplained and suspicious deaths that have not yet been classified as a homicide.

In addition, police in Canada do not consistently record the Indigenous identity of victims of crime and there is little training or support to ensure that they do so accurately. The RCMP report acknowledges the unreliability of current police practices of determining Indigenous identity. The report claims that through a file review, carried out over a period of several months, they resolved the Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal identity of most homicide victims whose identity was previously recorded as “unknown,” but that this identity remains unknown for 95 homicide victims.

The RCMP report also does not distinguish between First Nations, Inuit and Métis women and girls or provide figures for homicide rates on reserve and off reserve.

The report does not provide any information on the numbers of perpetrators responsible for each attack or the role of others in helping carry out or cover up the crime.

The report does not include any information on how many of the women and girls previously sought help or protection from the police or service agencies or the response they received.