It’s time for an inquiry

Lana Payne
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Loretta Saunders, from all accounts from those who knew her including family, friends and university professors, was an incredibly bright light.

She was a young aboriginal woman from Labrador who was about to make an even bigger mark on the world.

She was a university student, writing and researching a thesis on murdered and missing aboriginal women, with a focus on women from Nova Scotia.

She was about to become a mother.

She was reported missing in mid-February. Her murdered body was found in a ditch, along the roadside two weeks later. Two people subletting her apartment have been charged with her death.

Her murder has sparked a renewed call for a national inquiry into the horrific and tragic reality of aboriginal women in this country. So far, the federal government has been unmoved.

As I write this column, advocates, groups and friends of Loretta are planning a vigil on Parliament Hill.

Another vigil to mourn another dead aboriginal woman. Another vigil to call for action. Another vigil where we ask for deeper reflection on our society — a society where so many indigenous women face such risk, a society where they are five times more likely to be the victim of violence. Five times more likely. Five times.

Loretta “presented all of the vulnerabilities to which indigenous woman are prone, through no fault of her own,” Prof. Darryl Leroux wrote in the Halifax Media Co-op after finding out about her murder. “I reread her thesis proposal last night and was reminded of how deeply she was aware of being a product of a Canadian society intent on destroying and eliminating indigenous peoples.” Leroux teaches sociology and criminology at St. Mary’s University. He was Loretta’s thesis supervisor.

He wrote the word eliminate knowing some would view it as extreme.

But when you consider the facts — many of them documented by the Sisters of Spirit project which found that at least 582 aboriginal women (up to 2010 when their work was halted after the Harper government cut the group’s funding) — the word eliminate doesn’t seem so extreme.

Nearly 600 cases of murdered and missing women form the Native Women Association of Canada’s database; 67 per cent are murder cases and 20 per cent are cases of missing aboriginal girls or women. Aboriginal women make up about three per cent of the

Canadian female population, yet between 2000 and 2008, they made up 10 per cent of murdered women. The vast majority of cases in the database are from the last decade. Only 53 per cent of the murder cases have been solved. Aboriginal women are three times more likely to be killed by a stranger.

Loretta was looking at the root causes of the violence faced by aboriginal women in our country.

Leroux wrote that he would not speculate about Loretta’s death, but “what I do know is that society has discarded indigenous women and girls in much the same manner for generations. These people were playing out a script that we all know intimately, but never acknowledge. It's our doing, which Loretta articulated so clearly in her writing — theft of land base, legalized segregation and racism, residential schools for several generations, continued dispossession equals social chaos. It is a recipe for disaster for indigenous peoples, and especially indigenous women.”

I read his words over and over again. Written to honour Loretta, but also a startling analysis of why so many aboriginal people feel so marginalized in our country. He later noted that the best way to honour Loretta Saunders was to “speak out and organize against the everyday terrors that indigenous women face.”

My friend, an aboriginal woman from Alberta, says it is up to all of us, all of us who care about changing this horrible reality, to make sure that these women and their families get justice. That they are not forever silenced, but that we begin a proper examination of why the lives of aboriginal women are so easily discarded.

Racism. That ugly word that says so much about what is partly at the root of the terror and the violence faced by aboriginal women and girls. Racism is a learned behaviour — a learned behaviour that now permeates so much of our society. Overt and not so overt. Systemic.

The Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) says that addressing the tragedy of murdered and missing indigenous women requires that the factors causing it are correctly identified, and those individuals, processes and policies responsible for maintaining the status quo are remedied.

Perhaps this is what is feared. Once these matters are thoroughly examined, once the ugly underbelly is shown, what will we be left with? Answers and conclusions that will reveal something about all of us that we’d perhaps prefer not to acknowledge.

“An inquiry would be a crucial step in implementing a comprehensive and co-ordinated national action plan to address the scale and severity of violence faced by aboriginal women and girls,” says the NWAC.

I don’t have the answers. I believe an inquiry will help. I believe it will give the victims and families voice. And perhaps this is how the healing can begin. They deserve justice, not to be silenced. What I do know is the violence has to stop. The disregard for the lives of aboriginal girls and women should not be tolerated. It is up to all of us to ensure justice is no longer delayed.

Write your MP. The prime minister. The status of women minister. The premier. Honour Loretta, and the hundreds of aboriginal women and girls who came before her, by speaking out.

 Lana Payne is the Atlantic director for

Unifor. She can be reached by email at

Twitter: @lanampayne

Her column returns March 22.

Organizations: Native Women Association of Canada, Halifax Media Co-op

Geographic location: Labrador, Nova Scotia.She, Mary Alberta Canada

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Recent comments

  • Cashin Delaney
    March 09, 2014 - 14:58

    The rental agreement, money, drugs, lifestyle of the murderers, may have been the most wearing frictions, with victim ethnicity playing a lesser role than implied in press coverage. Yet, maybe past press coverage is somewhat responsible for shaping attitudes toward dismissing the aboriginal position. When you owe money to someone, the imagination can work overtime to justify non-payment. "It is a more extreme subset of the victimization of women as a whole, which in turn is a subset of the violence visited on the marginal elements of society generally." ~M.C I believe it is a form of lingering Fascism we see in Putin's Russia, but are more blind to in our own society. There is an attitude long-developing, and a long browser history of mainstream 'baiting' in media across Canada, that manifests as a jealousy of Aboriginal status, 'get over it' already, you got free money, tax breaks, etc., and ironically, it is the poorer eggshell-skinned beings, with little self-esteem who believe this faithfully. This is the myth I get confronted with regularly by co-workers this past 15 years, and I'm sure others can attest to it as well. They did devalue her, proportional to her pride in her Community, and Education, because of their lower vantage point in a haze of poor drugged out stupidity that hates to see others thrive.

  • DontWastemyMoney
    March 08, 2014 - 21:10

    By's I know this was a tragic and very ironic murder but a public inquiry?? Really?? Somebody please explain how having a bunch of people parade in front of some high profile judge for months at the expense of hundreds of thousands of dollars or more of taxpayer dollars all so in a year or two said judge can make a handful of recommendations that never ever get followed and will not do anything to help anyone. Tell me one good thing that has EVER come out of a public inquiry. If you ask me they would be better off putting that money into some program that raises awareness about these issues that she dedicated her life to. Then she would have a proud legacy and be remembered instead of wasting time and money in an inquiry

  • StopWastingMyMoney
    March 08, 2014 - 20:41

    I know this is a tragic event. I feel for all those who are feeling lost but a public inquiry will solve nothing. Some high profile judge hears endless testimony for months at the taxpayer expense all so it can wrap up with a few recommendations that will never be followed. The Public Inquiry system is a joke. The money would be much better off spent in some program that raises awareness about these issues that Loretta dedicated her life to fixing. Please No Public Inquiry!!!!

  • Maggy Carter
    March 08, 2014 - 17:15

    There is an element of truth in the comment from Elizabeth. Unquestionably there existed at one time "a Canadian society intent on destroying and eliminating indigenous peoples". History attests to the success of just such a pogrom here in this province with the elimination of the Beotuck. But Leroux is engaging in unhelpful histrionics when he implies that is any way a prevailing attitude among contemporary Canadians. Yes, our native peoples suffer from racism, although its intensity is greatly diminished and the sentiment driving it is more often one of resentment at the special economic transfers to native groups. To be fair, the latter complaint is less with the transfers themselves and than with the frustration of having what at times seems so little to show for them. And yet, paradoxically, there is still widespread public acceptance of government support for native peoples - just that it should be accompanied by a greater requirement for accountability. That many natives should be living in squalor while their leaders pull down outrageous salaries and spend band council monies like drunken sailors is especially galling to us. We seem to miss the irony that - in demanding for generations that natives live more like the rest of us - one proof that this is happening is that their populations are often exploited, abused and disappointed by their leaders in the same manner as the rest of us. All that said, the plight of native women is real. It is a more extreme subset of the victimization of women as a whole, which in turn is a subset of the violence visited on the marginal elements of society generally. Based on the limited information we have at this point, it is not obvious that Ms. Saunders was the target of a premeditated homicide based on her ethnicity. It is not even clear that her ethnicity placed her in a position of particular risk which element is so often present in the violent deaths of other aboriginal women. I certainly don't oppose the call from Ms. Payne and others for an inquiry regarding the plight of aboriginal women, but nor do I expect that a commissioner's report will somehow - magically - redress a pernicious complex problem centuries in the making. It might help if there were more positive role models for aboriginal people. And increasingly there are with people like environment minister Leona Aglukkaq. But as we can see from the experience of people like Patrick Brazeau and Peter Penashue, native leaders are perhaps more - not less - vulnerable to the traps of money and power we see in Canadian society in general. The loss of any innocent person to murder is always sad, but especially so in the case of Loretta Saunders because she appeared to possess all the leadership qualities so badly needed among first nations people in this country. Perhaps she will achieve some semblance of that if her life and death lead to a change in public attitude and, more especially, if it inspires other young native women to follow in her footsteps.

  • Elizabeth
    March 08, 2014 - 13:08

    Firstly, it is a travesty that Ms. Saunders and her unborn child were murdered. There is no excuse for this and those responsible should be charged with two counts of first degree murder and never permitted outside the prison walls again. Secondly, I believe that Mr. Leroux and you are both exaggerating the facts. We know that hundreds of years ago our Aboriginal people were treated shamefully but it can no longer be used as a whipping stick to make others responsible for years of bad behaviour towards each other. Adequate financial support, education, and support groups headed by other Aboriginal women who have overcome the odds of family violence and substance abuse are what we, as fellow citizens, are responsible to make available to those who are suffering. An Angus Reid report states, after much research, that most of the violence is cultural, most of the substance abuse and low self esteem, feelings of subservience are all a result of years of dominance by their husbands, fathers and yes something that has been passed down through hundreds of years because of the way we took control of their lives but at some point women must stand up for themselves. Governments must provide a safe, educational retreat for all abused women, to empower them to take charge of their lives. Even one person of any descent who is missing or murdered is too many. Without detracting from the seriousness of the Saunders case, we have many other nationality men and women missing or murdered. We need to try to make this a safe place for all people.