by Julia Beazley

On February 26, in a rare and vitally important show of non-partisanship, Parliament voted unanimously in favour of Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett’s (St. Paul’s) motion to establish a special parliamentary committee to study the disappearance of far too many aboriginal women and girls in Canada. When I heard the news, my heart breathed a grateful sigh, “finally.”

The Motion reads, in part, that:

“The House recognize that a disproportionate number of Indigenous women and girls have suffered violence, gone missing, or been murdered over the past three decades; and that the government has a responsibility to provide justice for the victims, healing for the families, and to work with partners to put an end to the violence; and that a special committee be appointed, with the mandate to conduct hearings on the critical matter of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada, and to propose solutions to address the root causes of violence against Indigenous women across the country”

This is a welcome first step in responding to an urgent need in Canada – not just for our aboriginal communities, but for all of us together. More than 600 aboriginal women and girls have gone missing or been murdered in Canada since 1970. This is a disproportionately high number, and some groups advocating on behalf of the families of these women and girls estimate the number to be much, much higher still.

There is no authoritative list of missing and murdered women in Canada. The Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) has taken the lead through their Sisters in Spirit initiative to gather comprehensive statistics on the number of aboriginal missing and murdered women across the country. The information collected has moved Parliament to act, although short of calls for a more formal National Inquiry.

Aboriginal women in Canada experience levels of violence three times higher than those of non-aboriginal women, both in terms of incidence and severity. Young aboriginal women are five times more likely to die because of violence than non-aboriginal women. And aboriginal women are disproportionately represented in the number of missing and murdered women across Canada, most notably along BC’s “Highway of Tears” and from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. [1]

Each of these women was someone’s mother, or daughter, or sister, or auntie. Each one left behind grieving loved ones and family who are trying to find healing, far too many in the absence of any sense of justice on the part of their lost loved one. While it is common to speak of their ‘disappearance’, the truth is these women didn’t just disappear – they were taken. In far too many cases, so were their lives. Their families and communities are crying out for justice, for answers, for an end to the pattern and the violence.

In 2012, Wally Oppal, Commissioner of British Columbia’s (BC) Missing Women Commission of Inquiry, released his report Forsaken: The Report of the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry. In this detailed and lengthy report, Oppal makes important comments about the plight of the missing and murdered women of BC that this new committee would do well to heed. He calls the story of the missing women a tragedy of epic proportions, noting that the women were forsaken: first, by society in general failing to provide them with the basic conditions of safety and security to which every human being is entitled; and second, by the police who are entrusted with the responsibility of protecting all members of society, particularly the vulnerable, and for solving crimes perpetrated against everyone.

Oppal’s words are clear that while his inquiry focused primarily on failures in policing, ultimately all of society shares the responsibility for allowing this tragedy to unfold.

A disproportionate number of Robert Pickton’s victims were aboriginal: of the 33 women whose DNA was found on Pickton’s farm, 12 were aboriginal. While 3 % of BC’s population consists of aboriginal women, they comprise about 33% of the missing and murdered women.

Oppal identifies discrimination and systemic bias in the police response to the reports of women going missing. It’s a story I have heard told personally before, in heartbreaking detail.  My dear friend Trisha, who for many years was prostituted on the Downtown Eastside (referenced as DTES in the report) alongside many of Pickton’s victims, speaks publicly of how she and her friends reported other women missing, but were dismissed by police, told that “so and so” was a transient so they weren’t going to fill out the paperwork. But Oppal found that, in fact, the women were not transient. Rather most were deeply entrenched in the life of Vancouver’s DTES.

The report states, “The missing and murdered women were not ‘hookers’ or ‘STWs’ [street workers]: they were women, they were persons, they were human beings. They were complex individuals who, like everyone, had talents and problems, hopes and disappointments, aspirations and fear. They enjoyed a web of personal relationships and were members of their community.” It’s important to note that Oppal doesn’t find the discrimination and bias were intentional or individual on the part of the officers involved. Far more dangerous, the discrimination and bias were unintentional, systemic and societal.

He discusses the violence routinely experienced by the women, noting that “women engaged in the survival sex trade all fear violence and its pervasive influence on their lives. They experience violence at the hands of almost everyone with whom they come into contact with.”

Oppal writes, “the DTES strolls became a space where justice did not prevail, where violence against women was rendered invisible. Men were able to enter the zone, commit violent crimes and not be held accountable.” For their part, the Vancouver Police Department noted the conflict experienced in being mandated to enforce laws that aim to address the “nuisance aspects of the trade but do not resolve any of the underlying issues, and on the other side are concerns about the safety of street workers.”

For several years, The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada has been promoting the need for change in Canadian laws related to prostitution. Our existing laws related to prostitution are flawed. They don’t discourage prostitution, and they don’t protect vulnerable women.

We are calling for legal reform based on the legal and social framework of what is known as the Nordic model of law on prostitution; but I don’t want to hijack the importance of this Parliamentary study to make this point in my words. Instead, I’ll note that the Native Women’s Association of Canada has issued a similar and strong statement calling for the same legal reform.

As the new committee begins its work, we hope that their study can provide some encouragement, perhaps a step toward peace, for families and communities who have lost loved ones. We also hope that at least part of their study will include an examination of the many factors that make women vulnerable to violence and predation, and how government action on the pivotal issue of prostitution might prevent future occurrences and disappearances.



[1] Forsaken: The Report of the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry Executive Summary; The Honourable Wally T. Oppal, QC Commissioner, November 19, 2012, p.7,8.


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