“They just throw our lives into the gutter, basically. Just another dead Indian.” These are the words of Destiny Paupanakis, whose mother, Martha Michelle, was murdered in her sleep in Manitoba, and whose sister, Angel Blue Sky Paupanakis, was hanged in a closet in Saskatchewan. “What they say is that she hung herself in the closet,” says Destiny, “but the bruises on her face say she didn’t. The stories just don’t add up. And there was nothing done about it.”
This is the tragic reality facing Indigenous women. As many as 4,000–or possibly even more–have gone missing or been murdered over the past 30 years. This is the context in which the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls was launched in December 2015. The inquiry lasted three and a half years, and the final report was published in June 2019, consisting of 231 “calls for justice.”
After the fourth anniversary of the report, how many of the calls for justice have actually been fulfilled: 100? 50? 10? No. The answer is two. Out of 231—an insult. The only calls that have been completed are number 5.20, which requested alterations to the Corrections and Conditional Release Act, and number 5.23, which requested the appointment of a Deputy Commissioner for Indigenous Corrections. To recap: the three and a half years spent on the inquiry’s research along with the four years given to the government to act on it have thus far culminated in a tweak to a 30-year old document, and the appointment of a new government employee.
The CBC deems that 106 of the calls are “in progress,” meaning that there has been some kind of on-paper change or some degree of funding put toward them. Take for example, point 4.6: “Immediately commence construction of new housing and the provision of repairs for existing housing to meet the housing needs.” Housing, especially in remote communities, is in dire straits. There are numerous accounts of years-long waitlists, crowded houses, and houses with severe mould or infestation problems. The Assembly of First Nations estimates that it would cost $44 billion over 10 years to actually address this point. The federal government has pledged only $4.3 billion, and gave itself a round of applause, for doing so.
Actions speak louder than words
It’s not a coincidence that Indigenous women are the demographic facing such especially dire circumstances; nearly half of all Indigenous women in Canada live below the poverty line. When someone’s economic conditions are desperate, it forces them to do things they otherwise wouldn’t, like stay in an abusive relationship, hitchhike, turn to prostitution, and so on. This desperation makes them more vulnerable to violence. Indigenous women frequently become “easy targets” for predators while the state does nothing to fix the situation.
The government’s incessant rhetoric about wanting to address the crisis is in stark contrast to its actions, or rather, its inaction. Take for example the disturbing case of four Indigenous women murdered in Winnipeg last year, all by the same killer. The remains of two of the women—Morgan Beatrice Harris and Marcedes Myran—are believed to be in the Prairie Green landfill, but despite pleas from the families and even a protest blockading the landfill demanding a search, the police have refused to search for the bodies, and the federal government has refused to provide funding for a search.
“If the search is not carried out,” said Cathy Merrick, grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, “it will demonstrate to all First Nations across Canada that this government condones the despairing act of disposing of First Nations women in landfills.” The entire saga begs the question; “would the police refuse to search the landfill if the victims were white?” In 2021, police in Toronto searched a landfill for months, looking for one man, and eventually found his remains. But the remains of the Indigenous women in Winnipeg have been deemed too unimportant for the police’s time. “Just another dead Indian.” The Canadian state has spent billions upon billions of dollars bailing out corporations and cynically prolonging the bloody war in Ukraine, but when given the option to spend a tiny fraction of that money to bring peace to devastated communities, it turns a blind eye.
Why has nothing changed?
“I feel like there wasn’t any investigation, they just did enough to file their report and that was it,” said Isabel Daniels, whose 16-year old sister Nicole was murdered in 2009—found frozen to death with bruises and some of her clothes removed. These accounts are common. Indigenous people describe their experience of getting brushed off by police when one of their loved ones is killed. This approach from the police, and every level of the Canadian state, has been going on since Canada became a country.
It is sometimes said that past behaviour is the best indicator of future behaviour. To anyone with knowledge of Canada’s history, the cruel passivity of the federal government is unsurprising. In the 19th century, when Canadian capitalism was beginning to come into its own, its most fundamental goals were consolidating its control of the land and developing a cheap labour pool. From this came the creation of reserves, and the infamous Indian Act of 1876, filled with provisions aimed at destroying Indigenous cultures, customs, and traditions, in order to assimilate Indigenous people into bourgeois society. As the capitalists’ chokehold grew stronger, they used their leverage to force Indigenous people into all manner of exploitative treaties. Take it from Joseph Provencher, the “Indian Commissioner” at the time, who said in 1873:
“Treaties may be made with them simply with a view to the extinction of their rights, by agreeing to pay them a sum, and afterwards abandon them to themselves. On the other side, they may be instructed, civilised, and led to a mode of life more in conformity with the new position of this country.”
Since then, there have been many instances of state violence against Indigenous people consistent with the goals of Canadian capitalism. For example, the Anicinabe Park occupation of 1974 demanded better living conditions, better education and more access to land which they had traditionally used. This was met with brutal police repression and arrests. For a more recent example, take the Wet’suwet’en demonstrators who were protesting Coastal GasLink, a pipeline planned to go through their traditional lands. This pipeline could threaten to poison the water in the streams they’ve relied on for centuries. In 2020 the Wet’suwet’en protesters were also met with repression and arrests. At these moments when the Indigenous struggle reaches its highest intensity, the true face of Canadian capitalism reveals itself. This explains the disappointing aftermath of the national inquiry. The federal government has proven that it cannot be convinced to care about the struggles of Indigenous people, even a little bit. In truth, it cares about nothing but protecting the interests of the capitalist class, like the owners of Coastal GasLink.
The solutions to the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women are not complicated. Many are laid out in the Inquiry. For example, spending $44 billion on housing would make for a vast improvement for the health, and security of Indigenous people. Call 4.8 demands “safe and affordable transit”, specifically for rural communities. This would reduce the amount of hitchhiking Indigenous women need to do to get around. But housing and transit are not cheap. Someone has to pay for it. The ruling class, and their friends in government have shown that they are unwilling to pay.
Words, however, are cheap. But all the empty words and broken promises from bourgeois governments have done nothing to fix the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women. The lack of progress on the “calls for justice” shows clearly that the quality of life, and safety of Indigenous women is not their priority. To actually solve this crisis, the enormous existing wealth of society has to be put to use to address long standing social problems. This is only possible if the system which created these problems, capitalism, is abolished. Since its inception, Canadian capitalism has relied on the oppression of Indigenous people. The only way forward is to overthrow it.