Indigenous rights advocates in Canada and the United States have renewed longstanding calls for concrete action to stem disproportionate rates of violence against Indigenous women and girls in both countries.
Thursday marks Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Awareness Day in the US, while it is the National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG), otherwise known as Red Dress Day, in Canada.
“The Federal Government has an obligation to ensure that cases of missing or murdered persons are met with swift and effective action,” US President Joe Biden said in a proclamation recognising the day.
“My Administration is fully committed to investigating and resolving these cases through a coordinated law enforcement response, as well as intervention and prevention efforts. We are also dedicated to researching the underlying causes of this violence and to working with Native communities to address them,” Biden said.
Indigenous communities have sounded the alarm for years over the disproportionately high number of women, girls and two-spirit people who have been killed or disappeared in the US and Canada. Two-spirit is a term used by some Indigenous people to describe their gender and spiritual identity.
Advocates also have denounced systemic inaction on the part of government and law enforcement agencies to address the issue.
In 2014, the federal Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) reported that nearly 1,200 Indigenous women had been murdered or gone missing in Canada between 1980 and 2012 – but advocates say the real number was likely much higher.
A National Inquiry on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in 2019 concluded that the violence “amounts to a race-based genocide of Indigenous Peoples” that especially targets women, girls and members of the LGBTQ2S+ community.
“This genocide has been empowered by colonial structures … leading directly to the current increased rates of violence, death, and suicide in Indigenous populations,” it said.
But Indigenous community advocates say too little has been done to address the problem.
“Almost three years after the National Inquiry into #MMIWG released their Final Report, we are still waiting on the concrete actions that must be taken outlined in the Calls for Justice,” Lynne Groulx, CEO of the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC), said on Twitter on Thursday.
In the US, the National Crime Information Center in 2016 documented 5,712 reports of missing American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls, according to a report by the Urban Indian Health Institute (PDF).
“The Center[s] for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that murder is the third-leading cause of death among American Indian and Alaska Native women and that rates of violence on reservations can be up to ten times higher than the national average,” the report also said.
A 2016 study by the National Institute of Justice also found that 84.3 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence in their lifetime, including 56.1 percent who have experienced sexual violence, the US Department of the Interior says on its website.
Observed on May 5 each year, National Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Awareness Day shines light on the epidemic of violence that has disproportionately plagued Indigenous communities. https://t.co/KdG8S80XBW pic.twitter.com/ygx9370WSQ
— US Department of the Interior (@Interior) May 5, 2022
US interior secretary Deb Haaland, the first Indigenous person to head a cabinet agency in the history of the country, will hold an event later on Thursday to recognise National Missing or Murdered Indigenous Persons Awareness Day.
A member of the Laguna Puebo tribe, Haaland is expected to highlight the crisis and stress “the importance of the Not Invisible Act Commission” in efforts to address it.
The US Congress signed the Not Invisible Act into law in October 2020, just months before Biden took office, and the commission aims to increase coordination and implement best practices to fight “the epidemic of missing persons, murder, and trafficking” affecting Indigenous communities.
In Canada, communities are hanging red dresses on Thursday to symbolise the many Indigenous women and girls who have gone missing or been murdered in the past decades.
“I’m wearing red on #RedDressDay to remember all the #MMIWG and to honour their families and communities. I’m wearing red also because I continue to hold a vision of the future where our women and girls are protected and treated with dignity and respect always,” RoseAnne Archibald, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations in Canada, tweeted.
“On May 5, we will see the red dresses suspended from trees, hanging from windows, swaying in the breeze. But we will see much more than that. We will see the people who would have worn those crimson garments,” Lorraine Whitman, president of NWAC, said in a statement this week.
“They were our mothers, our daughters, our sisters, our aunties, our friends … We want to know what happened. How were they taken from us? And why? But mostly, we want to know that other families will be spared this pain.”