Benjamin Shingler

Indigenous women’s lives held cheap in Canada, say activists

Disproportionate number of female homicide victims and missing people in Canada are aboriginal

PORTAGE LA PRAIRIE, Canada — It’s not hard to pick out Bernice and Wilfred Catcheway’s home.

Posters of their daughter, a dark-haired girl with a bright smile, are affixed to the back of their pickup truck and the aluminum siding of their small bungalow.

Jennifer Catcheway went missing on June 19, 2008. It was her 18th birthday.

She called home that morning at around 11 a.m. and told her mother she would be home for dinner.

“We were planning a barbecue,” Bernice recalled recently at her home in Portage La Prairie, Manitoba, a city of 13,000 surrounded by the canola fields of the Canadian prairie. “She wanted steak. She was specific on that.”

Even then, Bernice knew something was wrong. Jennifer told her she was in a car with two men in a small town several hours north.

“I said, ‘What are you doing out there? You come home this instant,’” Bernice said. “I felt such a pain in my stomach. Fear gripped me.”

Jennifer Catcheway was last seen on her 18th birthday.
Benjamin Shingler

It was the last time she spoke to her daughter. The police would eventually take the men in for questioning, but there wasn’t enough evidence to lay charges.

Six years later, Catcheway’s disappearance remains unsolved.

The case is part of an alarming trend in Canada.

Earlier this year, a report prepared by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police found record of 1,181 cases of missing and murdered aboriginal women from 1980 to 2012.

The RCMP report affirmed what many had long suspected: indigenous women “are over-represented among Canada’s murdered and missing women.”

The total was higher than previous independent estimates, and led to renewed calls for a national inquiry to determine the root causes of the problem. Activists argue the disproportionate number represents a failure by police and government to come up with a solution.

The media, as well, has been criticized for its role. A 2010 study found depictions of murdered aboriginal women were “more detached in tone” and less likely to appear on the front page than those of white women.

Beverly Jacobs, a lawyer, activist, and the former head of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, has been trying to raise awareness about the problem for years.

“It’s a crisis and it always has been,” she said, blaming all levels of government, including indigenous leadership.

“The numbers indicate how critical an issue it is. The fact that indigenous women are being attacked — that’s historical. This isn’t a new issue. It’s been happening since the beginning of colonization.”

‘We’re all just people. We have families, we have a world, and we’re not disposable.’

Bernadette Smith

aboriginal activist and educator

Canada’s Conservative government has resisted calls for an inquiry. Andrew McGrath, a spokesman for the minister of status of women, says the government has taken steps to address the issue through a national DNA-based missing person’s index and tougher laws against violent crimes.

“We've done countless studies, and even a parliamentary committee on this topic to help better understand this national tragedy,” McGrath wrote in an email. “Now, we're interested in taking what we've learned and implementing immediate and concrete measures that will reduce violent crimes against aboriginal women and girls.”

Still, tragic stories continue to play out across the country.

On Sunday, the body of Tina Fontaine, a 15-year-old indigenous girl, was pulled from a Winnipeg river. Police are calling the death a homicide. Fontaine had been living in foster care and had run away. A vigil was held in her honor on Tuesday.

David Langtry, acting chief commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission, called for "a national action plan to confront this issue."

"This is not acceptable in a country like Canada," he said in a statement

Bernice and Wilfred Catcheway have spent the last six years searching for their missing daughter Jennifer.
Benjamin Shingler

Manitoba, a prairie province with one of Canada’s largest aboriginal populations, has some of the most troubling numbers.

From 1980 to 2012, nearly half (49 percent) of female homicide victims were aboriginal, according to the RCMP report. Aboriginal people comprise 16.7 percent of the population of Manitoba.

Bernadette Smith, a tall, strongly built woman with soft brown eyes, has become a leading voice among aboriginal activists in the province since her own sister, Claudette Osborne, went missing.

Osborne was 21 — three years older than Catcheway — when she disappeared on July 24, 2008.

The circumstances, however, were quite different. Osborne struggled with drug addiction and was involved in prostitution in a rough Winnipeg neighborhood, while Catcheway was living with her parents in a small town, and had plans to apply for her first full-time job.

But the families see a shared root cause  — a lack of respect for aboriginal women.

“We’re all just people,” Smith said recently, sitting by her backyard pool in Winnipeg, while her daughter splashed in the water. “We have families, we have a world, and we’re not disposable.”

Smith, an education consultant on aboriginal issues, has been pushing for better social programs geared toward at-risk women that would help them to break away from a cycle of drug addiction and violent relationships.

The RCMP report found that most of the homicides were “committed by men and most of the perpetrators knew their victims — whether as an acquaintance or a spouse.” Twelve percent of the victims were involved in the sex trade.

Smith is optimistic. She said police and government have made strides since her sister went missing.

In recent years, there have been a number of new programs geared toward aboriginal women and youth. Organizations like Ka Ni Kanichihk, based in downtown Winnipeg, offer leadership workshops for aboriginal girls and young women.

There’s also a police liaison who communicates with families, and an adviser on aboriginal women’s issues in the provincial government.

“When my sister went missing there weren’t any services,” Smith said. “You were just given a number. And the media was horrible when she went missing — dismissing her as a drug-addicted sex worker.”

“Women aren’t just on the street because they want to be,” she said. “They all have a story to tell.”

Last December, Smith told her sister’s story before a government committee on violence against aboriginal women.

She explained how Osborne had given birth to a baby girl two weeks before she went missing. Her daughter was taken from her by social services at the hospital.

Osborne had recently moved to a small town outside of Winnipeg with her partner and their son in the hopes of starting fresh, away from the lure of drugs and the sex work that paid for them.

She was enrolled at a drug treatment center and the couple hoped to eventually get their daughter back.

After being separated from her, though, Osborne returned to Winnipeg’s north end, a neighborhood that has struggled with drugs and prostitution.

“The guilt was just too much,” Smith said. “She’d gone back to the drugs, back to the street.”

That night, Osborne called another sister, Tina, telling her she was with a truck driver and felt unsafe.

It was the last they heard from her. The family later discovered she had been at a hotel, but investigators didn’t go there until 10 days after she disappeared. By then, Smith said, the hotel’s video surveillance tape had been written over.

“The evidence was gone,” she said.

Smith still wonders whether quicker action could have helped solve the case.

Cases involving aboriginal women, particularly those with a history of drugs and prostitution, don’t get the same attention, she said.

Despite that, Smith isn’t among those calling for an inquiry. She’s skeptical it would solve the problem.

She recalled the inquiry into the serial killer Robert Pickton in British Columbia. It examined why police were so slow to respond to the disappearance of women — many of them aboriginal — in that area.

“Really not much has come of it and they’ve spent millions of dollars,” she said. “It could be better used.”

On the wall of the Catcheways’ home, surrounded by a collage of photos of their other children, is a portrait of Jennifer alongside the words: “Forever missed but not forgotten.”

While the RCMP say the case remains open, the Catcheways continue their own search. They devote all their free time and money toward the search for their daughter, including the profits from their annual fundraiser.

“I’m getting close to finding her, with or without the police,” said Wilfred, Jennifer’s father.  

Wilfred has a plastic bin full of newspaper clippings tracing developments since his daughter’s disappearance, and a stack of documents he said offer clues.

“He’s been collecting evidence,” said Bernice, a Pentecostal minister. “He has his theory.”

She holds out hope she and her husband will achieve closure by at least finding their daughter’s remains.

“If anybody is going to bring her home, it’s going to be her family,” Bernice said.

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