- Sexualized Violence and Colonialism: Reflections on the Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women
Canadians live in a society where missing and murdered Indigenous women are so commonplace an occurrence that, for two years now, volunteers have organized to dredge the river that runs through the city of Winnipeg looking for the bodies of Indigenous girls and women who have disappeared. “Drag the Red,” as this organization is called, has yet to find any bodies, but its dredging operations often catch women’s underwear.1 The sheer horror of the prospect of Indigenous girls and women lying at the bottom of the river, a river that volunteers dredge, has yet to hit most Canadians, but, in 2015, Canadians elected a government that announced its intention to hold a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women, women who are unaccounted for across the country.
This issue came together after a symposium, jointly organized by the Canadian Journal of Women and the Law and the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action, in partnership with the Native Women’s Association of Canada on 30–31 January 2016, explored the prospect of a national inquiry. Indigenous women leaders, family members of missing and murdered women, academics, and activists, joined by six human rights experts from the United Nations and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, came together to explore what an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women could accomplish. In the spirit of what Pamela Palmater in this issue calls “Shining Light on the Dark Places,” this issue of the Canadian Journal of Women and the Law brings together some of the presentations from that symposium. We hope that in sharing some of the reflections of the symposium that we contribute to an ever-widening circle of narratives that brings us closer to ending a violence that is surely a slow genocide in progress. The contributions offered in the following pages are intended as part of a social movement to end this violence. A momentum is building; that much is clear. The violence against Indigenous girls and women must end; all of our lives depend on it.
The first challenge of the symposium was to find the words and the theory to describe and analyze what it means when the body of a fifteen-year-old Indigenous [End Page i] girl, a child in foster care, is found floating in the Red River. Tina Fontaine of Sagkeeng First Nation was murdered in 2014. Shortly before her death, police found Tina in the company of a fifty-three-year-old intoxicated man, and despite running her name through the system and presumably noting that she was a child in foster care, they released her. She was later found unconscious, taken to hospital, and released once again in the care of Child and Family Services. Housed in a hotel for children in foster care, Tina soon disappeared again. It is important, Pam Palmater writes in this issue, that we understand that Tina did not slip through the cracks. Instead, at several points in her young life, police and other state officials watched her death unfold in slow motion. An inquiry must examine the police as instigator, perpetrator, and enabler, Palmater argues, and it must call state officials to account.
In my own article, I suggest that we call the justice system to account for missing and murdered Indigenous girls and women. I examine those gray zones in law where violence against Indigenous girls and women is authorized. In one such case, a Cree woman, Cindy Gladue, bled to death from wounds inflicted by Bradley Barton, a white man who paid Gladue for sex. Barton was acquitted of all of the charges (the case is on appeal), and the excessive violence so routinely meted out to Indigenous women was simply put down to rough sex gone too far. Barton, I suggest, paid for the right to use Gladue’s body, a contract he understood as payment for the use of a thing and not a person. A body so used can be simply thrown away after use.
The law participates in this form of gendered disposability by accepting that the...