MMIWG Chief Commissioner Marion Buller was among the speakers at a UBC conference, which heard from Indigenous advocates on both sides of the border.
The crisis of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) flows over the Canadian border into the U.S., and advocates from both sides are meeting in Vancouver to try to find solutions to this international dilemma.
“I wish I could say the problem stops at the international border. It certainly doesn’t,” Marion Buller, Chief Commissioner of the national MMIWG inquiry, said Monday at a two-day conference at the University of B.C.
The conference, An Epidemic Crossing the Medicine Line, was held in collaboration with Georgetown University and explores the issue of violence against Indigenous women on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border.
Last week, the national MMIWG national inquiry released its final report, after hearing from 1,500 survivors and relatives across the country, and concluded there was a genocide happening in Canada.
Buller said the inquiry heard from Indigenous children stolen during the Sixties Scoop, who were raised in the U.S. by non-Indigenous families and are now searching for their culture. Commissioners also learned startling details from every coast of human trafficking across the border.
“Human trafficking is a far greater issue that I ever imagined, and is far greater in scope geographically than I ever imagined,” Buller said Monday.
The commissioners heard as well from various organizations in the U.S. who want advice from Canada on how it ran its inquiry.
Bette Jacobs, a Georgetown law professor, said she hopes the Canadian report will start a similar conversation south of the border.
“The release of the commission report in Canada gives us the platform to draw the public’s attention to our collective concerns,” said Jacobs.
“It is brave and courageous that Canada took the first steps into this inquiry … Today is the beginning, it is not the wrap up, or the conclusion.”
Among the other speakers was Annita Lucchesi, executive director of the California-based Sovereign Bodies Institute, which researches violence against Indigenous women. Lucchesi, a survivor of domestic and sexual violence, is building the U.S.’s first MMIWG database.
She has documented 4,000 cases — roughly 1,700 of those in Canada and the rest in the U.S. — and believes as she continues to collect the data it could grow by 20,000 more names.
Among the victims on both sides of the border: the average age is 28; one in 10 are domestic violence related; eight per cent were sex workers or victims of sex trafficking; and mothers were disproportionately represented.
Perhaps the most troubling statistics are that one third of the cases are girls under the age of 18, and three-quarters of the victims who were in foster care were also victims of sexual assault.
“Our women are scared, they are constantly thinking what can I do so this doesn’t happen to me?” said Lucchesi, who spoke to the conference via Skype.
“The reality is it doesn’t matter how you dress: as an Indigenous woman you are going to be targeted.”
Margaret Moss, director of UBC’s First Nations House, is from Fort Berthold in North Dakota and holds both law and nursing degrees. She said Indigenous women in the U.S. are murdered per capita at 10 times the rate of other Americans.
Moss said there are similarities in both countries, such as transportation concerns that exist along Canada’s Highway of Tears. However, there are also some U.S.-specific laws that must be changed, such as outdated federal legislation that governs reserves and fails to keep women safe. She said roughly 87 per cent of all perpetrators against Indigenous women in the U.S. are non-Indigenous men.
“It is a huge problem on both sides of the border … There are a lot of root problems that are the same,” Moss said, noting they include economic and geographic challenges.
“Then legal problems really take over in the US, clashes and old laws, but the outcomes (in both countries) are the same: murdered and missing.”
Buller, a retired B.C. judge, said she does not view the inquiry report’s 231 recommendations as mere suggestions, but something that Canada must legally enact. This country, she argued, has signed many international treaties designed to keep women safe but in the end has failed to do so — and therefore must act, or remove its signature from these human-rights declarations.
“Indigenous girls and women and 2SLGBTQQIA people daily experience violence and the genocide continues. You can’t have it both ways,” she told the conference.
She remains optimistic change will happen because of the many determined women she met during the course of the inquiry.
“Women keep their families together, 2SLGBTQQIA people face incredible discrimination … and yet people make it through the day. I’m so in awe of their strength and courage and resilience,” she said.
“Canada cannot unhear the truth now, the world cannot unhear the truth. There is hope.”
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