Robert Pickton: A Pathological Individual or the Personification of Canadian Colonial Violence?, a special report by guest columnist and Indigenous scholar, Robyn Bourgeois.
Beginning in the early 1980s, women began disappearing from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside – one of the poorest regions in Canada. Over the next two decades, family and friends of missing women, along with community groups from the area, fought to bring these disappearances to the attention of police and local governments. Yet because many of these women battled severe drug and alcohol addictions, and because many were involved in the sex trade, police and city officials failed to act, claiming that the women’s street lifestyle made their disappearances difficult to investigate. Indeed, it wasn’t until 2001 that a formal police task force was established; and by this time, sixty-eight women (known collectively as the “Missing Women”) had disappeared from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
In 2002, a Port Coquitlam, BC, pig farmer named Robert “Willie” Pickton was charged in the deaths of twenty-six of the Missing Women. In December 2007, Pickton was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison with eligibility for parole after twenty five years. A second trial on the remaining twenty counts is expected to commence in 2008. If convicted of all twenty-six counts, Robert Pickton will stand as the worst serial killer in Canadian history.
While much has been made of the Missing Women’s common existence in the worlds of addictions, prostitution, and street life; very little attention has been paid to other startling commonality among the women at least one-third of the Missing Women were of Aboriginal ancestry when Aboriginal women make up less than one percent of the population of Vancouver.
Sadly, the overrepresentation of Aboriginal women in such violence is neither surprising nor new. Over the last twenty years, it is estimated that over five hundred Aboriginal women have gone missing and/or been murdered across Canada. This includes the disappearances and deaths of at least seventeen Aboriginal women along Yellowhead Highway Sixteen in northern British Columbia, now painfully known as the “Highway of Tears”. This also includes the deaths and disappearances of at least twenty high-risk women, the majority of whom are Aboriginal, being investigated by Project KARE in Edmonton, Alberta; and the serial killings of John Martin Crawford, a Saskatoon, Saskatchewan man convicted or killing at least four Aboriginal women during the early 1990s.
Statistics pertaining to violence show a grim existence for Canada’s First women. For example, Aboriginal women are five times more likely to die as a result of violence than any other Canadian women. Eight out of ten Aboriginal women experience violence in intimate relationships (including husbands, boyfriends, and family members). Seventy-five percent of Aboriginal girls under eighteen have experienced violence – particularly sexual assault – and of these, fifty percent experienced this violence before the age of fourteen. Indeed, the life expectancy for Aboriginal women falls more than seven years below the average female non-Aboriginal Canadian.
It is nearly impossible to separate the violence committed against Aboriginal women from issues of colonialism, racism, and poverty – all of which have worked together to push Aboriginal women to the margins of Canadian society, and thus, overexposed to violence. Histories of colonization have seen the erosion of traditional Aboriginal communities and the production of a grossly disadvantaged and destitute Aboriginal population. Additionally, racist colonial stereotypes that see Aboriginal women as “squaws” – dirty and sexually available women – results in Aboriginal women being targeted for sex – whether consensual or not.
The story is simple: Aboriginal women leave their communities – whether fleeing violence, trying to find work, or obtain an education – and find themselves alone in urban centers, with no social supports there to help them. As a result, many of these women end up involved in the sex trade – whether to support addictions that formed as a result of the isolation and desperation of urban life; or as a means of supporting one’s self or their family. The sex trade, being on the “wrong side of the law,” means that Aboriginal women are over-policed (often arrested for prostitution), but under-protected from acts of violence.
The point is that violence against Aboriginal women is not just an “Aboriginal issue”. It is about being a racial minority and an ‘outsider’ in Canadian society. Being Aboriginal is just part of the equation that results in the basic outcome of not having access to the means of survival, and being forced into dangerous and life-threatening situations just to ensure survival. The situation is not that different for young black men in Toronto, who are also forced into dangerous situations in order to survive and who in turn experience endemic violence and police brutality.
Violence against Aboriginal women is an issue of the utmost importance for all marginalized Canadians. The problem of violence against Aboriginal women is not the pathology of one individual, but the pathology of the colonial and imperialist Canadian society wherein this sort of violence is permitted against certain sections of its population.