Abbildung einer indigenen Frau, zusammengesetzt aus vielen einzelnen Portraitfotos
Gender based violence and Indigenous resilience need to gain visibility. | Image: “Still Dancing” © Jonathan Labillois

Time for True Stories: Stereotypes Absolve Gendered Violence against Indigenous in Canada

Across North America, May 5 is a day to commemorate the thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, two-spirit, and gender diverse people. Beyond giving space for remembrance and mourning, May 5 is connected to the aims of building knowledge, raising public awareness, stimulating solidarity and underlining the need for action to end the disproportionate deadly violence. While politics and the judicial system are reminded on this day to deliver rights and justice, another important factor for change should also gain attention: the collective imagery of the Indigenous needs to be decolonized to transform the systemic structures of violence.

At first, connecting Canada with political violence reads like a mismatch. The multicultural immigration society is a liberal democracy and an international political mediator. However, Canada was founded on an all-encompassing system of colonial intrusion with effects that still shape the societal reality: “Settler colonialism is (…) as much a thing of the past as a thing of the present”, is a finding from Settler Colonial Studies. It is meanwhile recognized that the colonization was achieved in today’s Canada, inter alia, by the partial enslaving of the Indigenous population; forced displacement from land upon which their livelihood depended; or the abduction of Indigenous children from their communities to force them into the “Indian Residential School System (IRS)”, with the aim of erasing their cultural identities. This was declared a cultural genocide by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRCC) based on extensive investigations. Yet, Indigenous survivors continue to experience colonial violence in manifold forms, such as racialized discrimination, denial of land use rights, exclusion from state services and other problems. Indigenous women and girls, two-spirit, and gender diverse people are moreover exposed to disproportionate risks of disappearing or being murdered: Indigenous women account for less than 5% of the Canadian population but were reported in 2022 to make up 24% of female homicide victims. According to the latest figures published by Amnesty International for Canada (as of April 2024), Indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA+ people are six times more likely to be murdered than their non-Indigenous counterparts.

Red Dress Day and the MMIW Inquiry Process

The staggering rates of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and gender diverse individuals are not a recent phenomenon. Still, it took decades of action until Indigenous activists succeeded in holding the government accountable, organizing protest marches and vigils, setting up a database of victims, and continuously demanding a national inquiry. The Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC), founded in 1974, was the main actor that addressed the issue and its root causes. Together with the NWAC, Amnesty International advocated and amplified the call from early on. They published a report in 2004 documenting the high risk of violence against Aboriginal women, and how the official government remained indifferent or even aggravated the situation by proliferating stereotypes and victim-blaming. The report documented that the violence perpetrated against Indigenous women and non-action from state agencies constituted human rights violations. It took more than ten additional years of sustained pressure from grassroots movements and international lawyers before the federal government established the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in 2015, which operated from 2016 to 2019. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada had supported the call for a national public inquiry. Shocking events like the late uncovering of a serial killer in the area of Vancouver, or a documentary pointing at the many disappeared and murdered Indigenous women and girls along the “Highway of Tears” fell into this time. Additionally, targeted campaigns also played an important role to make the tragedy visible.

The National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and Two-Spirit People, also known as Red Dress Day was originally inspired by an art installation: In 2010, the Métis artist Jaime Black hung empty red dresses in public spaces to symbolize the many missing and murdered women. In the years that followed, several initiatives for collective action brought more attention to the critical situation of Indigenous human rights: Since 2012, the movement Idle No More has urged Canadian society to repair the damages done by colonization; it quickly grew to a global network. Following an event in 2013, 30 September became an annual Canada-wide campaign day in commemoration of the sufferings imposed on the Indigenous by the residential school system. It’s a statutory holiday since 2021.

However, in spite of the growing visibility and connected claims to regain rights and agency, in 2018, the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women still found Canada failing to implement numerous recommendations on the elimination of discrimination against women. She declared that persisting inaction was fueling continuing high levels of violence. Across the reports it was confirmed that poverty, lack of public services and inequities in Indigenous women’s access to rights were key factors to make them extremely vulnerable; while racialized gendered stereotypes caused decades of government and law enforcement inaction. In combination, these factors represent a living legacy of colonialism.

Lasting Colonial Hierarchies

Based on the claim that certain “discovered” areas were unoccupied “no man’s land”, the competing European colonial powers sorted out their claims amongst each other from the 17th century on, for the most part simply robbing the resident Indigenous peoples of rights, territory and lives. The Canadian Confederation, founded in 1867, moreover implemented the “Indian Act” to assert its power. This law determined who was considered to be “Indian”, where they were allowed to settle, who was entitled to which services and other fundamental issues. The wide-spread institution of matrilinearity was eliminated with this Act, which meant for many Indigenous women the loss of fundamental rights which had defined their status, identity, governance power, and kinship agency: The new state was male, established binary gender views and a heteronormative order. Gender variant people were not recognized and became conceptually excluded. The Numbered Treaties, written 1871-1921 between the British Crown and First Nations followed the same hetero-patriarchal concept, i.e. European men privileged Indigenous men as contract partners, cut off Indigenous women from vital resources and accepted no other forms of gender or sexual identities. The implications are profound: Colonial legislation facilitated discrimination and caused lasting vulnerabilities. State legality not only became connected to the strategic violence applied to make Indigenous disappear as who they were before, and to deprive them of important sources of strength, but with a particular impact for women who lost previous authority and social status. Amendments have not done away with all the negative effects built in the Act. Aboriginal women and girls tend to live in disadvantaged social and economic conditions.

The most important intervention that was taken in the past two decades to unravel the history of discrimination and its lasting implications was the process surrounding the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRCC). It was mandated to investigate the history and consequences of Residential Schools where assimilation politics were implemented and physical, mental, and sexual abuse had flourished, amounting to cultural genocide. When Prime Minister Trudeau ceremonially received the final TRCC report in 2015, he apologized and asked forgiveness. Political promises were given to unravel and fight systemic discrimination, correct disadvantageous treaties, invest in healing, dialogue, education, safe transportation and further infrastructure to create equal opportunities for the Aboriginal peoples of Canada: ”We know what is needed is a total renewal of the relationship between Canada and Indigenous peoples. We have a plan to move towards a nation-to-nation relationship based on recognition, rights, respect, cooperation and partnership”, said Trudeau.

In spite of such ambitions, many problems have remained untackled, in structural terms and in mainstream discourse. Regarding the latter, imagery of the Indigenous as a source of trouble is persistent and conspicuous, deeply rooted in White society’s storytelling across North America. “Popular myths that shape our historical imaginary extol the virtues of the ‘pioneer spirit’ and the practices of ‘civilizing new frontiers’ and ‘settling empty lands’,” summarized Paulette Regan who directed the TRCC. Such narratives legitimize the erected system of power and conceal its violent mechanisms. Colonial history tends to be normalized and justified with tales of the dangerous Indigenous peoples and their irrational refusal towards ‘progress’. Quite obviously, the Indigenous populations did represent a threat to the Empire’s colonizing move and therefore fell victim to ‘clearing’. Joanne Barker’s extensive media analysis reveals how these and similar narratives have continued to inform the mindset of White Canadian society until the present. She describes “the murderable Indian” as an imagined terrorist figure condensed over the centuries by hegemonic storying about Indigenous resistance, and as one that feeds an established culture of impunity. Barker’s research findings point to accumulated perceptions surfacing not only in typical situations that result in killings, but likewise in how courts decide and majority public opinion is shaped, or confirmed.

The Violent Impact of Gendered Stereotypes

Colonial hierarchy in Canada affects Indigenous women in a gendered version of racialized discrimination. Being deprived of ancestral rights and related sources of authority, systematically disempowered and economically marginalized, they have become particularly vulnerable. This is reflected in the extraordinary levels of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls discussed above. While derogatory stereotypes feed a culture of impunity in favor of the perpetrators, it has also been found that related claims are often not taken seriously by police or are poorly investigated, and biased storying plays an important role in prefiguring this extreme deadly violence. The Canadian National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in 2019 confirmed that prejudice, stereotypes, and inaccurate beliefs and attitudes prevented police in many cases from investigating. Previous reports, e.g. one compiled by Human Rights Watch in 2013, had already found failure of police to protect Indigenous women and girls, and even violent acts perpetrated by police forces. Racialization combined with gendered attributions of Indigenous women’s allegedly unstable high-risk lifestyles, lacking order and (self-) discipline were found to justify a lot of police inaction. Mutual obstruction of different law enforcement institutions (from tribal to federal) has an exacerbating effect and is at the same time another example for how classifications that were introduced with colonial politics continue to inform the present.

”Was our land not enough to keep you away?” is one question raised in the context of a recent exhibition dealing with the MMIW at the Museum of Northwestern Art, drawing attention to the interconnection between colonial dispossession and the loss of human security. Indigenous women embody this interconnection. They lost agency power with colonial legislation, and the society that was created by exactly these interventions places them at the highest risks in Canada to become kidnapped, sex trafficked, or killed – without notable action being taken. Although it is known that 2SLGBTQQIA+ people are also at increased risk of violent crimes, reliable victimization numbers are even harder to grasp because non-binary (self-)identification is hardly depicted in crime statistics or gender based samplings. Put differently, there is still a long way to go to make the whole extent of gender based violence visible.

In sum, devastating stereotypes of Indigenous people in Canadian collective memory are part of the master pattern of domination – intersecting with different categories of social hierarchy, and most importantly with gender. It’s high time to confront this interconnection more broadly, to learn the truth and do away with distorted images, victim blaming and biased storying that fuel continuous violence. May 5 is a good entry point and an important symbolic date for showing solidarity, but from each May 6 to the next May 4 more action is needed on a daily basis to fight the systemic foundations of the continuing violence.

Sabine Mannitz
Dr. Sabine Mannitz leitet den Programmbereich „Glokale Verflechtungen“, ist Vorstandsmitglied am PRIF und PI im Forschungszentrum „Transformationen politischer Gewalt“ (TraCe). Sie forscht u. a. über Prozesse des Wandels politischer Kultur, soziale Identität und Erinnerungskultur/-politik. // Dr Sabine Mannitz is head of the research department “Glocal Junctions”, a member of PRIF's executive board and PI in the Research Center “Transformations of Political Violence” (TraCe). Her research fields include processes of change in political culture, social identity and practices of remembrance/remembrance politics.

Sabine Mannitz

Dr. Sabine Mannitz leitet den Programmbereich „Glokale Verflechtungen“, ist Vorstandsmitglied am PRIF und PI im Forschungszentrum „Transformationen politischer Gewalt“ (TraCe). Sie forscht u. a. über Prozesse des Wandels politischer Kultur, soziale Identität und Erinnerungskultur/-politik. // Dr Sabine Mannitz is head of the research department “Glocal Junctions”, a member of PRIF's executive board and PI in the Research Center “Transformations of Political Violence” (TraCe). Her research fields include processes of change in political culture, social identity and practices of remembrance/remembrance politics.

Weitere Beiträge zum Thema

At the Age of the Pandemic: The Global Memory of the Holocaust and Armenian Genocide at a Crossroads Over the last forty years, the Holocaust has become a distinct aspect of Western culture and a universal lesson for protection of minorities and human rights. By contrast, the Arme...
A punto de escalar: grupos indígenas se movilizan en contra del gobierno en Colombia Desde el 10 de Marzo de 2019, grupos indígenas en el suroccidente Colombiano protestan. La actual radicalización de la Minga, demuestra no solamente la negligencia del gobierno y l...
On the brink of escalation: indigenous groups mobilize against the government in Colombia Since March 2019, indigenous people in the South-Western part of Colombia mobilize. Systematic neglect by the government and security fears have contributed to widespread grievance...