Police (in)action and violence against Indigenous women in ‘Canada’ – Gender and Society

Police (in)action and violence against Indigenous women in 'Canada' - Gender and Society
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Andrea Roman Alfaro and Jerry Flowers

Tamara Lynn Chipman of Moricetown First Nation was 22 years old when she died in 2005. disappeared on Highway 16 near Prince Rupert in British Columbia, Canada in September. Immediately after her disappearance, volunteers from her community organized a search. But almost two decades later, there is still no sign of her. Like Tamara, young Native women have long gone missing or been found dead along Highway 16, commonly known as the Highway of Tears. Tamara’s disappearance has sown despair in her family and community and added to the ongoing tension between Indigenous people and criminal justice authorities.

In Canada, Indigenous women are 400 percent more likely than other Canadians to go missing (Feir & Akee, 2019). This number is comparable to refugees fleeing war-torn countries such as Syria, Guatemala, and Libya (Zong & Batalova, 2015). The problem is so widespread that the Canadian government has admitted it doesn’t know how many indigenous women are missing or killed.

For decades, Indigenous communities and organizations, supported by human rights groups, have mobilized to hold the Canadian state accountable for its failure to address the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Finally, in 2015 December. The Trudeau government announced the launch of an independent national inquiry that gathered hundreds of testimonies from relatives, survivors, elders and knowledge keepers, experts, officials and frontline workers. The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls released a two-volume report that outlined the issue of violence against Indigenous women and girls and provided recommendations for addressing violence against Indigenous women and girls in Canada.

Although the work of the National Inquiry was welcomed by the more progressive sector of Canadian settler society, the report did not sit well with certain groups, mainly because violence against Indigenous women and girls was called genocide. The reluctance of public officials, the media, and settlers to understand violence against Indigenous women and girls as a systemic problem stemming from colonization has made clear the racist and gendered violence that underpins Canada’s settler colonial state. Many critics of the inquiry report said the disappearances and murders were the result of violence by Indigenous men and risky behavior by Indigenous women. These explanations for violence against Indigenous women and girls are not unique or new.

In our latest article Gender and Society Constructing Innovation and Colonial Order: Police (In)action in Response to Violence Against Indigenous Women in Canada,” we found that Canadian police repeatedly use similar descriptions and explanations when dealing with reported incidents of violence against Indigenous women and girls. Based on 48 interviews with Indigenous peoples in different Canadian cities and 219 testimonies from the National Inquiry, we found that police portrayed Indigenous women and girls as “runaways”, “drunks”, “drug addicts” and “prostitutes” and to explain the violence reported by Indigenous women and relatives and friends looking for their loved ones. In addition, the police were indifferent and dispassionate about these reports, providing little information about the cases. Many times, relatives did not know that cases had been closed or reopened, nor did they know what had happened to their missing or murdered loved one. Finally, we also found a pattern in how the police dismissed and justified the violence. Authorities repeatedly pathologized Indigenous women and girls and quickly succumbed to searches for bodies or perpetrators. These police responses are so repetitive that they look like police scripts across Canada.

We have argued that the (in)actions of the police – what they say and do not say to others, what they do and do not do in response to cases – reproduce violence against Indigenous peoples, particularly affecting the continuity of Indigenous communities and cultures. Violence against Indigenous women and girls such as Tamara Lynn Chipman (22), Abigail Andrews (28), Chantelle Alice Rose Bushie (16), Delores Brown (19), Violet Heathen (49), Tina Michelle Fontaine (15), Simone Samarah Ann Sanderson, 23, Tabitha Kalluk, 38, and many others have serious consequences for Indigenous families and communities. Indigenous women have always been vital to the cultural and material survival of Indigenous peoples. Their disappearance and murder limit intergenerational survival and destroy family and community structures. Our research aims to help understand how violence against Indigenous women and girls continues and the consequences it has for sustaining colonialism in ‘Canada’.

Andrea Román-Alfaro is a Peruvian Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Toronto and a Canadian Vanier Scholar. Her research focuses on understanding how people make sense of violence and the social structures that facilitate violence. Her areas of interest include violence and society, punishment, criminalization and treatment. Her work has been published in magazines such as Social justice and Curriculum Request. She is currently working on a dissertation on the dynamics and politics of violence in Peru.

Jerry Flores is Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto Mississauga and the Toronto-St. Jurgis. He received his Ph.D. in 2014 studied sociology at the University of Santa Barbara. His interdisciplinary research examines how institutions such as schools, detention centers, and the police combine to shape the lives of at-risk Latina and Indigenous women and girls in North America.

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