Canadians are all-too familiar with Vancouver’s notorious Downtown Eastside where hundreds of women have gone missing without a trace over the past decades, the majority of whom are Aboriginal.
But a recent report addressing the high numbers of missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada reveals an alarmingly high rate of ongoing sexual and racial violence against Aboriginal women here in Ontario, resulting in their disappearances and deaths.
Entitled Voices of Our Sisters in Spirit, the March 2009 report by the Native Women’s Association of Canada has compiled 520 cases across the country, 59 of which, or 12 per cent, were in Ontario.
That’s a disproportionately high number given the size of Ontario’s Aboriginal population compared to the Western provinces where 80 per cent of Aboriginal peoples live.
Of those 520 cases across the country, 126 women are still missing, while 347 have been found dead in alleys, under bridges, on rural roads and in their homes as a result of neglect or homicide.
But why are Aboriginal women violently assaulted four times as frequently as non-Aboriginal women?
The tragic legacy of the Indian Act of 1876, which set up a system that discriminated against native women’s land ownership and legal status has left many on the margins of society.
Andrea Chrisjohn, director of Toronto Council Fire Native Cultural Centre, which offers social services to Aboriginal peoples, points to the residential schools as the precipitator of violence against women within Aboriginal communities.
“Abuse is all they knew in the schools,” says Chrisjohn. “If you’re taught that, how can you know any different? Young people never knew how to interact with the opposite sex. They learned abuse,” she adds.
According to Amnesty International, the marginalization of Aboriginal women has pushed them into extreme poverty, homelessness and prostitution, leaving them more vulnerable to being exploited both by Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal men.