By Laura Stone, Canwest News Service
OTTAWA — Over the past year, 62 names have been added to the list of missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada.
A total of 582 women — up from 520 last year — are now on that list; women who were mothers, daughters, and friends, with names including Amber, Beatrice, Georgina.
And there are probably more.
Twenty more have disappeared since the last count in March 2009, but from about 1974 until now, few knew they were gone.
Over five years, the Sisters in Spirit initiative has sought to investigate who these women are and why they went missing or were killed. The project was founded in 2005 by the Native Women’s Association of Canada, through $5 million in funding from governmental agency Status of Women Canada.
The work done by Sisters in Spirit began with the assumption that there were 500 missing or murdered aboriginal women in Canada.
That number keeps growing.
“It’s important to understand that this work does not end with 582. The database could continue to go on forever, really,” said Kate Rexe, director of Sisters In Spirit.
Another $10 million in funding was promised towards the issue in last year’s federal budget, and secured by former status of women minister Helena Guergis. That money, however, has not yet been allocated.
Details are expected to be announced at a later date by Justice Minister Rob Nicholson, but opposition critics want answers now because, on Wednesday, the native association released a grim new report on the trends and circumstances surrounding missing and murdered aboriginal women.
What the report found was that aboriginal women continue to be the most at-risk group for violence in Canada. While aboriginal women make up three per cent of the population, they represent 10 per cent of the reported homicides, almost half of which are unsolved. By contrast, the overall clearance rate for homicides in Canada is 84 per cent.
The homicide rate for aboriginal women is almost seven times greater than non-aboriginal women.
Since 1974, there have been 393 known murders of aboriginal women — over a third of them occurring in last decade. Another 115 women are missing, with 21 suspicious deaths, and 53 unknowns.
Over two thirds of the cases came from the western provinces, with British Columbia having the highest number of known cases at 160. Ontario, for example, has 70 cases.
Saskatchewan, with its 61 cases, has the highest clearance rate — 78 per cent have been cleared by a charge — for any province or territory with more than 15 cases. Advocates believe more study into that province’s policies is necessary, and could help women in the rest of Canada.
And then there are the women who remain lost because authorities do not know they exist.
“There is a huge gap in the availability of data. In Canada, there is no one database where you can search missing and murdered (aboriginal women) together,” said Rexe. “You can’t really have a good understanding of what’s happening across Canada.”
The group is working to change that and started its own database based on 250 variables, including demographics and suspect information.
What is known is that aboriginal women are as likely to be killed by strangers as they are acquaintances. Most in the database were mothers, and were under the age of 30. Most died or went missing from urban areas and, contrary to common belief, not all of them were sex trade workers.
Liberal MP Anita Neville, the party’s status of women critic, said she has been trying for six or seven months to reach officials at the Justice Department to talk about the issue, but has had no luck.
She said her party wants a full investigation into the issue of missing and murdered aboriginal women.
“There’s no co-ordinated policy by this government. It’s a very patchwork approach to looking at the issues of violence against aboriginal women,” said Neville. “There is lots of work to be done to look at root causes that create the conditions in which women go missing.”
NDP critic Irene Mathyssen agrees.
“It is essential now, in light of this report, that the government be forthcoming about its plans for the $10 million promised to this issue in Budget 2010, and how it will be used to raise awareness and implement new policies,” she said.
The native association hopes to remedy the problem of “lack of justice” for aboriginal women by providing information to governments, communities, service providers, police and the justice system about what Rexe calls the systemic and historical “devaluing” of aboriginal people.
“Missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls is not just a women’s issue, or an aboriginal issue, it is a Canadian issue,” she said.
Nanci-Jean Waugh, a Status of Women spokeswoman, said that since 2007, the government has funded 150 projects totalling $28.7 million that work to eliminate violence against women generally. She added that many of these projects addressed specifically the issue of violence against aboriginal women and girls.
“Ending violence against aboriginal women is a priority of this government. It is also a shared responsibility of all levels of government, police, the justice system, aboriginal people, and civil society,” said Waugh.
It was also recently announced that Status of Women, in partnership with the Native Women’s Association of Canada, will be working on new projects and initiatives building on the research gathered by the Sisters in Spirit initiative.