Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Canada's Missing Women

Hundreds of Aboriginal Women Disappearing in Canada, Some on the "Highway of Tears"
By Joan Delaney
Epoch Times Victoria Staff
Dec 15, 2005

Nineteen-year-old Helen Betty Osborne was sexually assaulted and brutally murdered in The Pas, Manitoba on November 12, 1971. Three decades later, on March 25, 2003, Helen's cousin, Felicia Solomon, went missing in Winnipeg. Her body parts were found three months later, but her killer has yet to be found.

In the years between these two murders, more than 500 Aboriginal women have gone missing across Canada, from Vancouver to Ottawa, Edmonton to Halifax. Some have been murdered, some are missing and presumed dead, and others seem to have disappeared into thin air. A large number of the missing women were drug addicts and prostitutes living out a desperate existence in some of Canada's seediest districts.

Police Protection?

Local governments and police insist they are doing all they can to halt the deadly trend. But the Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC) says there is a failure on the part of the authorities to acknowledge that a disproportionate number of murdered and missing Canadian women are of aboriginal descent and that much more needs to be done.

"It's important that the general population begin to understand the devastating effects this has had on aboriginal communities and families," says NWAC's executive director Sherry Lewis. "People haven't really been exposed to the magnitude of the problem."

In 1996, a shocking government statistic showed that aboriginal women were five times more likely to die as a result of violence than any other group of Canadian women. In their 2004 "Stolen Sisters" report, Amnesty International said that while there has been a lack of effective action on the part of police and government agencies, the "social and economic marginalization" of indigenous women is the reason so many end up living in dangerous situations.

The report cites a history of governmental policies that have torn apart aboriginal families and communities, eventually propelling a large percentage of women into extreme poverty, homelessness and prostitution. The vulnerability of these women is in turn exploited by "indigenous and non-indigenous men to carry out acts of extreme brutality against them."

Amnesty says that acts of violence against these women are due to racism and perpetrators realizing there is little chance of repercussion as the authorities seem indifferent to the welfare of native women.

Amidst allegations of racism and neglect by the people of The Pas after Helen Betty Osborne's murder, a 1999 inquiry into how the investigation was conducted found that racism played a significant part in the case.

It also found that police had long been aware that white men were preying on young native women in the town but "did not feel that the practice necessitated any particular vigilance." The inquiry recommended that the same mistakes not be repeated and that an apology be issued to the Osborne family.

Director Lewis says "there are issues" regarding racism in the police force. "Sisters in Spirit," a campaign launched by NWAC in 2004 in response to the alarmingly high levels of violence against aboriginal women, plans to interact with police at various levels to improve issues such as a lack of trust between natives and police.

"Highway of Tears"

Lewis says the missing persons reporting process is a key area that needs to be improved because in many cases police will not file a report until after someone has been missing for 48 hours, by which time the trail has gone cold. She adds that Sisters in Spirit will also develop a media strategy because historically the media is much more likely to report the disappearance or death of a Caucasian than that of an aboriginal.

"When a number of aboriginal women had gone missing along the Highway of Tears, little or no media attention was paid," says Lewis. "But when Nicole Hoar, a non-aboriginal woman, disappeared on that same highway there was a media frenzy."

Amnesty estimates that at least 32 native women have disappeared on Highway 16, the notorious "Highway of Tears." The long and desolate stretch of road runs between Prince Rupert and Terrace, British Columbia. Many people hitchhike along this highway, but some, mostly young native women, never reach their destinations.

Serial Killers

Other "hotspots" where native women have been disappearing are near the Halifax Airport and in and around Edmonton, where 12 prostitutes have been murdered in the last 16 years five since January 2003.

AIDS educator Amber O'Hara, who gives HIV/AIDS workshops on reserves across the country and is writing a book on the disappearances, says there is no doubt that serial killers are operating in many parts of Canada. She believes there have been at least five serial killers preying on women in B.C. at different times. The disappearances along highway 16, she says, are the work of one man.

Approximately half the 67 women missing from the Vancouver downtown east side are native, and many of those are thought to have been victims of Robert Pickton, a serial killer from Port Coquitlam who has so far been charged with the murders of 27 women, most of them prostitutes. Police, who are actively investigating seven of the deaths that occurred on Highway 16, have said there is no evidence that it is the work a serial killer but have not completely ruled out the possibility.

O'Hara says that for years before Pickton was caught, the Vancouver police refused to believe there was a serial killer operating in the area. O'Hara also finds it frustrating that there aren't more treatment and detoxification programs available, saying that many of the women who went missing from Vancouver's downtown eastside were on waiting lists for drug treatment. She believes that if women were given adequate support and a safe place to recover, ninety percent of them would turn their life around.

"Our government just doesn't see addiction as the disease that it is," says O'Hara. "Nobody grew up wanting to be a drug addict or a prostitute. I'm tired of hearing the government say they don't have the money."

Amazed She's Still Alive

Sadie Morris, a 20-something native girl who currently lives on the streets of Calgary, says that the disappearances of aboriginal girls is often tied to drugs debts. "That's what most of the people die from," she says. "Owing money and, you know, doing too many drugs.

"They owe money to somebody and they can't get out of it&so they wind up dead or stabbed or something."

Morris, who began working the streets as a prostitute in Vancouver at age 13, says she is amazed she's still alive.

"I've seen lots in Vancouver. I've seen girls in dumpsters. I've seen girls get stabbed right in the middle of the street and get taken away, just like that. And there's nothing you can do about it or else you'll end up like that."

Morris's account is corroborated by another young native girl on the streets of Calgary, who wishes only to be known as Larisha.

Larisha believes many young native girls find themselves on the streets because of drug problems. Both she and Sadie identify crack and cocaine as the most pandemic. Disappearances are often the result of girls fleeing either from abusive men or drug debts, or being killed for their debts.

Larisha recounts the story of a friend of hers who had been involved in prostitution and developed a drug problem. "I guess she owed some money for drugs," she says, holding back tears. "It wasn't good, I tried to stop her from doing that stuff, but it didn't work."

Last year, police found her friend's body in a Calgary river, suspecting the girl had been raped and killed.

Copyright 2000 - 2005 Epoch Times International


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