Understanding the Problem: Missing Aboriginal Women

[Before a problem can be solved, it must be understood]

 missing women2


There is no other more trustworthy or reliable source of information than someone who works with/for Aboriginal kids.  When Dr. Cindy Blackstock speaks, I tend to pay attention.  Cindy is Gitxan First nation is a staunch advocate for Aboriginal children and is Executive Director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society.  What is much more than all of that is the fact that Dr. Blackstock genuinely “gets it”.

The Residential School scandal in Canada still goes on today as it has in the past.  The names of the various institutions and sponsoring agencies have changed but the result remains the same.  On any given day, here in Canada there are in excess of 9,000 Aboriginal (First Nations, Metis and Inuit) children living outside the family and living in foster care. 

Alas, it is not enough to comprehend the vastness of the numbers themselves.  As important to mastering a new set of numbers, a logical point towards understanding the problem is getting one’s mind around the “why” of the tragedy. 

In Canada, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) offer some numbers.  According to the RCMP, 1,017 women and girls identified as Indigenous were murdered between 1980 and 2012—a homicide rate roughly 4.5 times higher than that of all other women in Canada.

We are told (by various national Aboriginal Organizations, Amnesty International and other sources) that almost 60% of the missing girls and women in Canada are Aboriginal.  We all know that the numbers are most likely under-stated.  That too is part of the problem.  It seems that, as country that is a leading economy and a frequent intervener in human rights causes in other places that when it comes to missing Aboriginal girls and women, we are in a state of national denial.  I frequently hear estimates of between 1200 and 2000 “missing sisters”.  Sad truth?  No one really knows and it does not even make a ripple on the nation political scene.

According to Dr. Blackstock’s research, we can assign a large part of the blame on lack of funding.  It is a fact that, like education and health care, skilled counseling and crisis intervention services for Aboriginal people is funded at less than 45% of what is funded in main-stream Canada.  Added to that, it is a given that remoteness and high transportation costs dwindle funding in all those areas.

Having spent time in/around many “communities” I can add my own thoughts as well.  It seems to me that high levels of youth suicides are in lock-step with the high number of homicides and missing sisters.  It is a known fact that youth suicides among Aboriginal kids are seven times the national average in Canada.

That the two sets of numbers connected is not rocket-science nor is it mere coincidence.  You can add to the coincidence a couple more similarities: abject poverty and dysfunctional family and clan infrastructure.  Compounding it all is a lack of hope created by underfunded educational opportunities.

But, do not be mislead into accepting that these 1200 to 2000 missing sisters simply left home and hit the road because they lived in miserable conditions.   There is another “hidden” culprit at work in this riddle.  Where, for over 150 years we had government agencies taking young Aboriginal kids into the “safe” and “nurturing” custody of Residential Schools; ostensibly that is no longer the case. 

The new agent of delivery may be well-intentioned and poorly operating Children’s Aid Societies (CAS).  Where the aim of the Residential School was to remove the”Indian” from the child; the new CAS model is supposedly to intervene and remove the child from harm.  The process simply is to snatch the child, transport him/her to a foster family in an urban center and thereafter, simply pretend that the “problem” has solved itself.

Enormous cultural shock and trauma occurs when a kid is moved from a remote community into an urban center.  Invariably, the “foster” lacks cultural sensitivity and has never received cultural awareness training sufficient to help the child adapt. Add to it the fact that that a large part of the new experience involves acclimatizing one’s self to attending a large school with diverse demographics.

Having spent a fair amount of time mingling with the “street kids” in/around Canada’s largest city (Toronto) I have come into contact with a surprisingly large number of Aboriginal kids who simply could not make things work in the foster family and hit the streets where they became immersed in the “seedy” part of urban-Canada’s underworld.  Drugs, petty crime, violence and street prostitution are introduced very quickly to someone who is (a) culturally new to the scene and (b) suddenly homeless.

The Residential Schools produced many problems: some known and some not talked about.  Not the least of the problems was a few generations of dysfunctional people – folks who had their own childhood brutally snatched.  Thus, we have dysfunctional adults creating dysfunctional family units.

It is my “sense” that the ultimate solution (if there is an ultimate solution to be had) may be to turn towards the pieces of the culture that that have been ripped from Aboriginal communities. Doubtless, Christian clergy attempting to “civilize and convert Aboriginal folks into the decent Christian ways never did come to grips with the threads that held “tribes and clans” together.  This cultural glue to a very large part was vested with Clan Mothers and Elders who were often interveners in times of family difficulties. 

The traditional grip of the Clan Mothers and Elders was among the first victims of quasi-religious colonization.  The removal of this critical under-pinning in the clan/tribe represents an insurmountable loss.  In the process, clergy discredited these older influences and assured the new-found congregants that the Elders and the Clan Mothers could easily be replaced with a Bible, a crucifix and a rosary.  It simply failed once history created abject poverty in the community and made each tribe/band member wholly dependent on social assistance and without the where with all to become self sufficient.  Add to this toxic formula, we then reintroduce victims of the Residential Schools and you have the critical storm.

There is tremendous trans-generational catastrophe created by the Residential Schools.  Oh, that the solution was so easy as to have the Federal government make a formal apology for the entire Residential School mess.  It isn’t.  In fact, the branch of government that has the greatest ability to inflict poverty is not our Federal government – it turns out to be the various provinces of Canada.  Thos individual provinces are the largest beneficiaries of timber and mineral resources exploited from “treaty” lands. Those same provinces have never come to the table and offered to solve the problems. Instead, the provinces have contented themselves by pointing fingers at the Federal government when, in fact they are more than equally culpable.  It is the provinces that have grabbed royalties from the mining and timber corporations and (no small coincidence) it is the process of exploitation of timber and minerals that has driven away traditional food stocks, made the locals wholly dependent on foods that have brought on epidemics of diseases such as sugar diabetes and created the abject poverty that is the norm in too many communities.

I will not argue here that funding alone is “the solution”. I would suggest that restoration of the cultural norms and underpinnings is easily the logical first step.  It makes a great deal more sense than permitting CAS’s to remove and then jettison 9,000 young kids who are presently in foster care and may indeed be the solution towards stopping the number of “missing sisters” to continue to escalate.

There are many stable and elderly adults among the various communities.  My experience tells me that these folks possess a fair amount of common sense and are untapped resources. Applying the concept of restorative justice by helping the Clan-Mothers and Elders fulfill a much more traditional role is not a quick fix.  However, it is also an admission that forced assimilation by way of colonization has been an abysmal failure. Providing these older/wiser individuals with basic training (only) as it refers to non-traditional problems such as drug/substance abuse and compensating them for what they did gratis in the past may be a better solution.

The alternative whereby these young people are being removed from the tribe/clan and dropped into foster situations in urban centers is not a solution. And to permit these CAS’s to continue to operate with a “free hand” makes no sense.  If these “kids” are considered to be “wards” of the state, it is unconscionable to not require the CAS’s to carefully monitor and regularly report individual foster cases.

Copyright   Thunderbird Rising 2015


The above article is copyrighted.  You may use, copy or distribute this article conditional on attributing your source (Thunderbird Rising) and the author (Lloyd Fournier)


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