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The ‘silent genocide’ haunting Canada’s liberal dream

A culture of extreme violence against indigenous women and girls has become deeply entrenched in Canadian society

Indigenous women are 16 times more likely to be murdered or missing than caucasian women [Artur Widak | NurPhoto via Getty Images]

For more than a decade, Canada has successfully cultivated a pristine image of liberalism, progression and inclusivity, presenting itself as everything that its brash neighbour is not.

When Donald Trump built the wall, Justin Trudeau threw open his country’s doors to the world’s refugees. While Americans continue to grapple with relentless gun violence, Canadians have proactively tightened their firearms regulations. And where the US resists renewable energy, Canada has embraced all things green.

But scratch beneath this veneer and the nation’s darker side starts to surface.

Unbeknown to much of the world, a culture of extreme violence against indigenous women and girls – amounting to “genocide” in the government’s own words – has become deeply entrenched in Canadian society.

Researchers have reported that indigenous women are 16 times more likely to be murdered or missing than caucasian women, and are three times more likely to be sexually assaulted or raped.

Suicide rates are far higher for this group, too – at 35 deaths per 100,000 indigenous women, compared to 5 per 100,000 for non-indigenous women.

Even forced sterilisation – a procedure more commonly associated with the world’s poorest nations, and not developed Canada – is still practised in parts of the country, typically at the hands of white doctors.

Senator Yvonne Boyer says at least 12,000 women have been affected by forced sterilsation since the 1970s [Senate of Canada]

There are no official statistics on how many indigenous women are still being sterilised against their will, but senator Yvonne Boyer, whose office is collecting the limited data available, says at least 12,000 women have been affected since the 1970s.

Although an awareness of the plight of indigenous women is beginning to grow in Canada, experts believe the full scale of suffering endured by this group has yet to be realised, with decades’ worth of crimes going unregistered by police.

Over the past several years, Dr Karine Duhamel has heard testimonies from more than 3,000 indigenous family members and survivors of violence, and served as an investigator in Canada’s National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, published in 2019.

“During the national inquiry, we became aware of numerous indigenous murder cases that weren’t on the police’s official list,” she says.

“If you add up all the cases where victims were misidentified or where families were too afraid to say the victim is indigenous, you start to see that in fact, the scope of this violence is actually much bigger than even we are able to document.”

‘I was ignored. I was alone’

It took Morningstar Mercredi four decades to realise that she had been sterilised against her will. After years of not being able to conceive, she first uncovered the truth during a gynaecologist appointment.

“I’m sitting on an examining table. The gynaecologist is looking at me,” Ms Mercredi recalls. “He tells me that I have scar tissue damage in my uterus, and my left ovary and fallopian tube have been removed.”

The specialist then went on to explain that in his professional career, he had never seen a damaged uterus like hers.

Ms Mercredi was only 14 years old when she was sterilised at Saskatoon City Hospital in Saskatchewan, central Canada. She underwent a non-consensual procedure while six months pregnant from rape after being admitted for spotting and cramping.

“I did not agree to the surgery that the doctor was adamant I should have. When I asked, ‘Why?’, I was ignored. I was alone, underage, and there was no one I could contact,” she says.

Weeks later, Mercredi was released from hospital with an incision from her panty line down to her belly button, and without her baby.

Morningstar Mercredi was only 14 years old when she was forcibly sterilised [Telegraph]

Cases like this are not exceptional – nor as historic. Earlier this year, a Canadian doctor was sanctioned by authorities for removing an indigenous woman’s fallopian tubes without her consent in a standard surgery to relieve abdominal pain – despite objections from other medical staff during the procedure.

A Senate report published as recently as July 2022 concluded that forced sterilisation is not “confined to Canada’s distant past”, rather the practice is “ongoing” and is largely rooted in a racist strategy to “subjugate and eliminate indigenous peoples”.

Four years before that, the UN Committee Against Torture told Canada it was concerned about persistent reports of forced sterilisation, saying all allegations should be investigated and those responsible should be held accountable.

Many of these reports follow a typical pattern, with doctors taking advantage of indigenous women during surgical procedures or in the aftermath of labour. Victims who have come forward in recent years detail accounts of doctors telling them that they could not see their newborn until they agreed to a sterilisation procedure.

“I’ve been screaming my head off about forced sterilisation for years. My question is, ‘Why don’t people give a damn?’’’ says Senator Boyer. “We’ve collected hundreds and thousands of stories documenting this horrific practice. It’s undeniable that this is still occurring.”

Canada’s dark colonial past

Experts say the practice – and wider mistreatment of Canada’s indigenous women – stems from the country’s colonial past and its eugenics movement, which attempted to control the reproduction of “inferior” persons.

Both Alberta and British Columbia passed Sexual Sterilisation Acts in the 1920s and 1930s, permitting surgical procedures to be imposed on minorities without their consent. These laws were repealed in the 1970s – yet the attitudes remain.

“So much of what’s still happening today is based on an underlying set of values that maintain that indigenous women and girls are somehow less deserving of basic human rights and of safety than everyone else,” says Senator Boyer.

“It’s baffling that our country has such a sterling reputation for human rights because indigenous women have always been exploited and treated as worthless.”

As such, very rarely do cases of violence against indigenous women and girls make the headlines, and when they do, they detail grave tales of discrimination and a lack of accountability within Canada’s justice system.

Dr Duhamel highlights a recent case in Winnipeg, Manitoba, where police are refusing to search a landfill for the remains of two indigenous women who were murdered by an alleged serial killer. The suspect, Jeremy Skibicki, has been charged with four counts of first-degree murder, yet authorities stand by their decision not to fund the search, citing safety risks.

“The longer the government waits, the less likely those women will be identified,” says Dr Duhamel. “I dread to think, ‘What if these women were non-indigenous?’ The search would already be happening.”

Perpetuating cycle

This sense of institutional indifference allows perpetrators in Canada to continue to target this group with limited fear of detection, prosecution, and penalty – and so the cycle continues.

As many as 4,000 indigenous women and girls are believed to have been killed or gone missing in Canada over the past 30 years, despite making up less than 5 per cent of the total population. Every death is a tragedy, and these disproportionate figures point to an epidemic in violence that has gone largely unaddressed by authorities.

The “Highway of Tears” is just one example. This infamous 450-mile stretch of road in British Columbia has become synonymous with the deaths and disappearances of indigenous women, dozens of whom have been found murdered along this corridor since the 1950s. Yet more than 50 cases remain open, in a trend that is repeated across the country.

Red dresses have come to signify the disproportionate number of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls [Amber Bracken]

According to the Native Women’s Association of Canada, nearly half of murder cases involving indigenous women and girls in their database have yet to be solved. Only 53 per cent of these have led to charges of homicide, which is much lower than the national clearance rate of 84 per cent.

“I’ve heard from family members who have been travelling from one end of the country to another, with stickers on their cars, trying to raise awareness about their missing loved ones,” says Dr Duhamel. “They haven’t been at this for two weeks or two months, they’ve been at it for 20 years. 30 years. 40 years. And they’re still waiting.”

The institutional failings

It’s been decades since advocates began raising the alarm about this crisis, eight years since the federal government launched a national inquiry, and four years since Canada’s national inquiry on the matter released its final report.

In this publication, Dr Duhamel and other experts outlined 231 “Calls to Justice”, a series of actionable steps directed at all levels of government and society to end and redress this genocide. Yet very few have been put into action – a source of “national shame,” say advocates.

Instead, “the government keeps trying to put band-aids on gaping wounds,” says Dr Duhamel.

The persistence of forced sterilisation demonstrates this. Rather than seeking to tackle the practice, says Senator Boyer, the government is simply “giving money to somebody who says, ‘Let’s create a cartoon with some indigenous characters to raise awareness about forced sterilisation. My job is done now’.”

But despite the scale of Canada’s genocide, as acknowledged by the 2019 national inquiry, there have been some recent signs of progress.

A participant of the annual Red Dress Day march, hosted by Project REDress, commemorating the lives of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls across Canada [Artur Widak | NurPhoto via Getty Images]

In the Senate’s report, The Scars that We Carry, Ms Mercredi and numerous other witnesses publicly shared their experience as survivors of forced sterilisation for the first time.

Since then, the government has officially recognised the 13 recommendations that were put forward, including Bill S-250, which will make the practice a criminal offence punishable by up to 14 years in prison, if it passes through parliament.

Indigenous women are increasingly raising their voices in the public domain, too, leading discussions about how to address Canada’s silent genocide and making clear they are no longer willing to accept lesser lives.

“I’ve taken my power back,” says Ms Mercredi. “Not only have I been heard for the first time, I’ve been validated and embraced by warrior women who have endured something similar to me.

“I’ve been able to recognise the scope and atrocity of the violence that was done to my body, as well as the degree that I was forced to compartmentalise my trauma. This has begun my healing process.”


(c) 2023, Telegraph


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