Community still searching for loved ones
On a briskly cold Thanksgiving Monday, Sandra Manyfeathers-O'Hara lays a bright painting of her sister across a park bench in Calgary's Beltline. Today would have been Jacqueline (Jackie) Crazybull's 48th birthday.
In the next half-hour, friends and family members gather across from St. Mary's Cathedral to remember and to ask for justice for Crazybull.
"She was somebody who really liked to laugh," says Manyfeathers-O'Hara. "She made everyone laugh with just the silly things she did."
On July 11, 2007, Crazybull, a mother of 12, was sitting on a bench with her cousin along 17th Avenue S.W. around 4 a.m.
In what Calgary police say they believe to be a random attack, Crazybull was stabbed to death.
Within the next hour, four other stabbings of two men and two women would take place across the city. Crazybull would be the only one to die. The identities of the four other victims have not been released.
The police told her that a car pulled up to where Crazybull was sitting to ask for directions. When she approached the car, Crazybull was stabbed.
No arrests have been made although three to five males are the suspected offenders, says Staff Sgt. Grant Miller. Today, although Miller says police are still investigating, Crazybull's case remains unsolved.
"I wanted not to believe it," says Manyfeathers-O'Hara. "I was like, 'No, it's not true. I didn't just hear that. She didn't die. She couldn't die. She's so strong, I can't imagine her being dead.'"
Manyfeathers-O'Hara adds that she believes Crazybull's case hasn't been given enough attention because she was aboriginal. Calgary police deny any racial discrimination.
"No one deserves to get stabbed, killed and left there like that," says Manyfeathers-O'Hara. "And not to ever have dignity, respect or any kind of closure towards your case."
A Canada-wide concern
Crazybull is just one of many aboriginal women who has been a victim of violence. The Native Women's Association of Canada has documented 582 cases of missing and murdered aboriginal women across Canada as of 2010. Here in Alberta, there are 93 cases alone. Forty-two per cent of Alberta's cases remain unsolved.
Calgary Journal In Focus Documentary aired on February 24 on CTV2
It's an issue that isn't going away according to many in the aboriginal community. Many say the legacies of colonization and government policies such as residential schools are the root causes of the high rates of missing and murdered aboriginal women.
Residential schools have been associated as the cause of many social problems that face the aboriginal community including addiction, poverty and the inability of survivors to properly parent their own children.
Unfortunately, Crazybull's case also echoes a 2009 Statistics Canada report that states aboriginal women are 3.5 times more likely than non-aboriginal women to be a victim of violent crime. Amnesty International Canada adds to the harrowing numbers, stating that Canada's aboriginal women between the ages of 25 and 44 are five times more likely to die as a result of violent crime.
Statistics Canada has also reported that aboriginal women, compared to non-aboriginal, are three times more likely to have experienced domestic violence from their spouse.
These numbers are all too familiar at Calgary's Awo Taan Healing Lodge — a shelter for all women and children who are fleeing domestic violence.
The shelter's 27 beds are filled to capacity. Awo Taan says it fielded 2,500 crisis calls last year and had to turn away around 2,000 women and children because they didn't have enough beds for them to stay.
"Not a day goes by that we do our work here at Awo Taan that it doesn't come to mind that there are so many missing women and children," says Josie Nepinak, executive director of the shelter.
This statement is especially true for Nepinak as her relative, Tanya Nepinak, is believed to have been murdered in Winnipeg in September 2011. In October 2012 a search was conducted at a garbage dump for her body. The search proved unsuccessful and her remains have yet to be found.
"They're mothers, grandmothers, daughters and nieces," says Nepinak.
"They're loved. They're missed. And they certainly didn't deserve to die the way that they did."
The inequalities faced by aboriginal women may also be connected to the growing number of missing and murdered. The women involved in the cases are often labeled as being high-risk due to associations with drug and alcohol addictions as well as prostitution.
Autumn EagleSpeaker, a Calgary blogger and activist for aboriginal issues, says that using a label such as "living a high-risk lifestyle" dehumanizes the person.
"Regardless of if they were living a high-risk lifestyle, there's a story behind how they got there," she says as her three children play in the background.
"We should be looking at it like, 'That's another person that's missing and we should help them return or help their family have solace in their hearts.'"
EagleSpeaker had an aunt who went missing in the 1960s. Her case also remains unsolved.
A strong scar
The Government of Canada began the process of implementing residential schools in coordination with various Christian religious groups in 1874. The schools removed aboriginal children from their homes, forcing them to assimilate into Canadian culture. Many aboriginal children suffered physical and verbal abuse in the schools, in addition to not being allowed to perform any of their cultural practices or speak their native languages. The last residential school closed in 1997.
Here in Alberta, there were 25 residential schools that taught 14,000 students.
"It's as if they are disposable and invisible people," says Cheryle Chagnon-Greyeyes, administrative co-ordinator at the University of Calgary's Native Centre.
Chagnon-Greyeyes, whose Cree name means, "Healing woman who walks far," is a survivor of domestic abuse. She now works to help heal the aboriginal community from what she calls the "Canadian Holocaust."
"What has happened to Aboriginal Peoples in Canada really is a cultural genocide," she says referring to residential schools.
In the federal government's formal statement of apology, Prime Minister Stephen Harper acknowledged that residential schools have contributed to some of the social problems Aboriginal Peoples still face today.
"The government now recognizes that the consequences of the Indian Residential Schools policy were profoundly negative, and that this policy has had a lasting and damaging impact on Aboriginal culture, heritage and language," reads the apology.
Nepinak, a survivor of the residential school system, also believes the policy had profound effects on the aboriginal community.
"You were considered to be less-than, you were considered to be a little savage, you were someone who needed to be assimilated totally and to leave your aboriginal-ness at the door," she says.
This loss of culture is said to have contributed to the aboriginal community the risk factors associated with becoming either missing or murdered. These include homelessness, poverty, migration to urban settings, unresolved grief and trauma, and addiction.
"It just goes back to a cyclical cycle of abuse," says EagleSpeaker.
"You've created this hot bed of people, and to deal with a lot of the painful struggles, people fall prey to alcoholism and drugs or high-risk lifestyles, like going into prostitution just because it's a way to numb out the pain," she adds.
The legacy of residential schools has been called a scar of systemic discrimination on the Aboriginal People's history in Canada.
"Because there is a strong scar there, you want to hide, you want to run away," says Michele Audette, president of the Native Women's Association of Canada, referring to the plight of aboriginal people suffering from the effects of residential schools.
A loss of funding
In 2010, the federal government ceased funding to the Native Women's Association of Canada's private database of 582 cases, saying they were no longer going to fund research projects of that nature. The federal government then announced a $25 million funding commitment between 2010 and 2015. This would help to establish a national database for all missing persons, and support programs that are working to reduce violence in aboriginal communities and toward aboriginal women.
Yet, Audette says she thinks the information needed to understand what is happening to aboriginal women will be diluted in the proposed larger database.
"It was starting to change, bringing some hope, proposed solutions and concrete action," says Audette of the Native Women's Association of Canada's database.
Currently, the database is being run by volunteers and is gathering data on missing and murdered aboriginals from the past, as well as the present, Audette says. The numbers are increasing by one to two women per month.
One proposed solution to reducing the number of aboriginal women still going missing and being murdered is a national public inquiry into the issue.
"We're talking about life here; missing or killed," says Audette. "We're also talking about the suffering of the family who is still alive, and then the community, the nation and Aboriginal People's across Canada. We're all affected by this."
Support for the inquiry is widespread throughout the aboriginal community and is garnering support from other demographics as well.
"If there's a deficiency or a deficit in regards to taking care of these issues, then that needs to come out," says Chief Charles Weasel Head of the Blood Reserve.
"We've heard enough feedback and reports from the families themselves and from organizations that are supporting the families, that the only way we're going to really capture and put a stop to this whole dilemma is to come out with a national inquiry."
In recent talks, fuelled by the Idle No More movement, the federal government has refused to start a national inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women.
"We will not give up until we're satisfied with the commitment from the federal government," says Audette. "It might take six months or 10 years, but it is something we will push for every day."
While the aboriginal community waits on the inquiry, those inside believe that it's their own responsibility to begin some of the healing process through cultural practices such as sweat lodges and ceremonies.
"It's a matter of taking responsibility as individuals, as a community and as people to heal ourselves," says Chagnon-Greyeyes.
- By Laura Lushington