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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Her column returns March 22.