Sisters In Spirit

October 4th is the day we honour and remember the lives of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. It is indeed a disturbing and heartbreaking reality that so many tragedies of this nature exist, but the reminder is essential to achieve change, so that one day the compiling of data around such events will no longer be a necessary tool.

Sisters in Spirit (SIS) conceived the idea of this day set apart from other days. SIS is a research, education, and policy initiative created by the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) in 2005, funded by Status of Women Canada. If we go back a little further, NWAC was incorporated in 1974 with a purpose to “enhance, promote, and foster the social, economic, cultural well-being of Aboriginal women within Aboriginal communities and Canadian society”.

The vision of SIS is to ensure all achieve their full potential and for upcoming generations to grow up with pride and with freedom to celebrate their heritage and history, to have opportunities to achieve a high level of academic education, and to be an active member within Indigenous communities and broader society. SIS’s starting place was to gather the statistical proof of the violence against Indigenous women and girls in Canada, using a sophisticated database with more than 200 variables to identify causal factors. We’ve known for decades that Indigenous women and girls are far more likely to face gender-based violence and violence due to hatred and racism.

In 2013, the RCMP confirmed the recording of 1,811 incidents of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls over the previous thirty years. SIS went further to uncover the details of the individual women and girls lost to murder and abduction. Who were these women and girls? Between 2000 and 2008, 153 murders were identified in the SIS database representing 10% of the total female homicides in Canada, while Indigenous women comprise only 3% of the female population. In addition, 115 women and girls were still missing. Two-thirds of those cases occurred in the western provinces, and more than half of the victims were under the age of thirty-one. 88% of those murdered and missing are mothers/grandmothers, while half of the murder cases remain unsolved.

By March 31, 2010, SIS had entered 582 cases into their database. The compiled data also revealed that Indigenous women/girls are as likely to be killed by an acquaintance as a stranger but are more likely to be killed by a stranger than non-Aboriginal women and girls. NWAC has made progress in bringing to light the issues of violence/disappearance, but still Indigenous women and girls continue to be the most at risk group. SIS brought the focus to the many cases of murdered and missing women and girls that went unreported and uninvestigated. Connie Walker and her podcasts closely examined several of these cases to inform the public of exactly what was happening and how our judicial system was responding and ultimately failing. SIS helped to expose this unacceptable statistic and broke the silence. In 2023, SIS tell us 53% of murder cases in their database have been solved compared to 84% of murder cases across the country being solved.

Too often we blame the victim in these crimes instead of looking to the root of the cause, to the issues that create the peril in the first place. To end violence against Indigenous women, women need to be restored to their sacred position as “teachers, healers, and givers of life,” says SIS. During the fur trade, a few European men recorded Indigenous women’s position in their family units and the Moon Lodge where women gathered during menstruation, considered a sacred time to rest and seek wisdom and a greater understanding of life. Women had their own language, were spiritual beings, were open to the sharing of wisdom from grandmothers both past and living. Women were respected and honoured and powerful in terms of their abilities and knowledge for survival. All that changed with the obligation to embrace the European way of life after contact.

We have made progress in bringing this information to centre stage, but still we must act on what we have learned and stop thinking of of them and us. It can’t be said enough that we are in this together. We all benefit from solving this bleak circumstance that society has so easily looked away from. SIS continues to do valuable work and today we acknowledge the effort and the success of their work. Let’s all look to the progress that has been made and how we spend this day of honour.