Over the past 30 years, more than 1,200 indigenous women have disappeared in Canada. The aboriginal community estimates that some 43 of them have been plucked off what is known as the Highway of Tears, a 500-mile stretch of road that runs through the wilds of British Columbia. It may not sound like a whole lot, but consider 43 families not knowing what happened to their daughters or why. The majority have not even had their losses acknowledged by the police, who only count 18 missing.
Though they make up just four percent of Canada's population, indigenous women represent between 12 and 16 percent of violent crime victims and disappearances. When their decomposing bodies inexplicably turn up, their cases are less likely to be solved than those of white women.
When a white girl goes missing, you'll know about it, and you know you'll know about it. Missing White Woman Syndrome is well-documented, a phenomenon that accounts for why, for instance, you heard more about Laci Peterson's disappearance than LaToyia Figueroa's. There will be posters and news reports and police will canvass entire counties. Sometimes, as in the case of Amber Hagerman, legislation will follow to prevent yet more white girls from going missing.
Concern for the missing is, of course, the reaction you should expect from any society worth living in. But to be searched for and worried about by strangers is a luxury usually reserved for the porcelain-skinned and the fair-eyed. When brown women don't come home from work or when they vanish on their way to school, the burden to find out what happened to them rests squarely on their friends and family.
The last thing Norma George said to her little sister C.J. before disappearing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside in 1992 was "Go home, baby girl." The phrase was immortalized as the title of a 2006 CBC documentary that traced the George family's reckoning with the unidentified body, found in a dumpster in an industrial neighborhood, that police insisted was Norma's. "I'm doing this because a lot of us have the same pain, the same sadness, the same story," said C.J., choking on a decade worth of grief and trauma.
In America, racialized women make up some 40 percent of all missing people, but receive only 20 percent of the coverage. In Canada, when indigenous women vanish in the night, their disappearances are met with one-sixth as much media attention as those of white women.
But knowing a fact doesn't make it easier to stomach. In a 2004 report, Amnesty International said "the link between racial discrimination and violence against Indigenous women has not yet been adequately acknowledged or addressed, and…the victims of this violence are all too often forgotten." The UN described it as a "disturbing phenomenon" and earlier this month urged the Canadian government to submit to the years-long call for a national inquiry into the issue.
The epidemic has led to regular demonstrations, walks, and vigils across the country, from Vancouver to Belleville, Ontario, where some of the largest crowds have assembled. They gather in front of Parliament, in front of police stations, on train tracks connecting Toronto to Montreal. Indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians see in the crisis parallels with the colonial premises on which the country was founded: Racialized people, and those with indigenous heritage especially, don't matter much to a society that has made up its mind about their worth. That much became plain when, in 2010, the government quietly defunded a program that tracked the missing and the murdered.
I was 17 when I moved to Canada from Tunisia, a college freshman with two suitcases full of clothes and a vague belief in my new home's PR policy of multiculturalism. But every day since has been an exercise in confirming that, in fact, it ain't all good. The staggering reality of the indigenous condition makes it difficult to absorb: in some parts of the country, two-thirds of indigenous children live below the poverty line, their access to healthcare and education stunted by government policy. On some reserves, communities live with mold, asbestos, and no running water, in conditions consistently described as worse than some parts of the developing world. The message is clear: Canada doesn't care about indigenous people even before they disappear.
It is an inelegant question, but why don't we care as much about Canada's missing? The truth is complicated and clumsy.
Meanwhile, in northern Nigeria, Boko Haram abducted more than 200 schoolgirls in one fell swoop. The group has terrorized a wide swathe of the West African country for years, its stronghold growing with every village razed and schoolhouse torched. It was not the first instance of kidnapping by the group, which is thought to be responsible for the disappearance of an untold number of women and girls. This time, the extraordinary nature of the case—200 girls stolen at once in the name of Islam!—quickly prompted a movement in Nigeria, which then metastasized globally on the back of the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag. Regional and international governments stepped in: the United States offered military assistance and expertise, a group of West African leaders held a summit with France's François Hollande, and Canada's government confirmed it had "put boots on the ground" to rescue the girls.
It is an inelegant question, but why don't we care as much about Canada's missing? Admittedly, the very public abduction of 200 young girls is an arrow to the throat, unlike the dull ache of the gradual disappearances that have become status quo here. What's more, the rescue attempt is not merely about the safe return of the girls but about defeating Boko Haram, a perceivable win for the so-called war on terror. Vanquishing an identifiable and identifiably foreign bad guy advances an existing agenda: It is easier to claim moral superiority over savages in a savage land than savages in one's own backyard.
Most strikingly, there is a cultural assumption that indigenous women deserve their sordid fates. In her study "'Newsworthy' Victims? Exploring differences in Canadian local press coverage of missing/murdered Aboriginal and White Women," Kristen Gilchrist explains that even when factors like drugs and sex work are eliminated, missing white women are treated with significantly more empathy than indigenous women. A social and cultural contract has already made them invisible, their miserable plight understood to be inherent to their existence.
"In stark contrast to the compassionate and in-depth coverage of the White women, the Aboriginal women were not seen to be 'eminently newsworthy' and were mostly 'ﬁltered out' of the press, reinforcing the belief that White lives are more valuable…The lack of coverage to missing/murdered Aboriginal women appears to suggest that their stories are not dramatic or worthy enough to tell, that Aboriginal women's victimization is too routine or ordinary, and/or irrelevant to (White) readers. The common news adage 'if it bleeds it leads' is not an accurate one as 'it really depends on who is bleeding'…The systematic exclusion, trivialization, and marginalization of missing/murdered Aboriginal women can be described as symbolic annihilation. This symbolic annihilation contributes to Aboriginal women's unequal treatment in other societal domains, further entrenching their marginalization in Canadian society."
A recent study looking into the construct of racial empathy found it to affect people's perception of others' suffering. Researchers at the University of Milano-Bicocca found that white people reacted more acutely to the pain of other white people than to that of black people. Describing it in Slate, Jason Silverstein wrote, "It turns out assumptions about what it means to be black—in terms of social status and hardship—may be behind the bias. In additional experiments, the researchers studied participants' assumptions about adversity and privilege. The more privilege assumed of the target, the more pain the participants perceived. Conversely, the more hardship assumed, the less pain perceived. The researchers concluded that 'the present work finds that people assume that, relative to whites, blacks feel less pain because they have faced more hardship.'"
One can reasonably apply those conclusions to the disappearances of brown women. Those committing crimes against indigenous women are empowered by the knowledge that police will likely be sloppy, media will be slow to act, no one will care. The rash of disappearances "may be motivated by racism, or may be carried out in the expectation that societal indifference to the welfare and safety of Indigenous women will allow the perpetrators to escape justice," explained Amnesty International. Judicial impunity is the norm, reflecting a grim collective cultural ritual in which some people are granted personhood and humanity while others are denied it in plain view.
To paraphrase Zadie Smith, it is unbelievable that the streets are not burning.
Rawiya Kameir is a writer and editor living in Toronto.
[Image by Jim Cooke, photo via Getty]