500 missing native women

Aboriginal Canadians take fight for justice for 'invisible' victims to U.N.

Toronto Star
November 30, 2002



GUELPH—It's like stepping into Storyland at dinnertime.

Grace is sung — dum-da-da-dum — to the theme from Superman, Jazzie the parrot pecks at your toes under the table and it almost feels as if nothing horrible could ever happen to this family.

Dinner is a child's delight, spaghetti and meatballs, apple pie and ice cream. You don't have to eat what you don't want, and there are animals everywhere — dogs, parrots, Snuggle Bunny Rabbit, Spooky Cat and Frank the cat with blue eyes who likes to sing. This is a home that glows and glistens with life.


A photo of slain Sarah deVries is pinned to the bulletin board in her mother's Guelph home. DeVries DNA was found on accused serial killer Robert Pickton's farm in Port Coquitlam, B.C.  

There's Grandma Pat deVries and Great-Auntie Jean Little, famous for her children's books, and Ben, 6, home from judo, and Jeanie, who whooshed in from school, hair flying, face flushed, and all the energy of her 11 years focused on racing out to her trampoline in the backyard.

It's magical here — and so it must be.

For the littlest souls, the most vulnerable, Ben and Jeanie, have lived through enough sorrow to last a thousand lifetimes. So, too, has their grandmother, who adopted their mother as a baby and now, at 65, is raising her orphaned grandchildren as her own.

Their mother, Sarah deVries, is among an estimated 500 aboriginal women slain or missing in Canada over the past 15 years, according to the Native Women's Association of Canada, as well as other indigenous groups, academic reports and several Web sites dedicated to this crisis.

These are Canada's Vanishing Women, the mothers, sisters and daughters whose bodies are found frozen in the snow, by railway tracks, in fleabag hotels, along the "Highway of Tears'' in British Columbia, or, like Sarah, dead at 28, nothing more than a piece of DNA found on a B.C. pig farm.

Aboriginal women have come to believe that nobody cares, not the politicians, not the police, not the public. They call themselves the "less than'' women.

Elena Assam-Thunderbird, 17, was found beaten to death this year in the shadow of Parliament Hill, and still calls for a national inquiry go unheeded.

The anger is raw.

In London, Darlene Ritchie, executive director of the At^Lohsa Native Family Healing Services, asks: "You know why they number us?'' She rhymes off her Indian Status #1230078102.

"They number us so that when we're all dead and gone, they can go to the World Court and say, `See, we had them all numbered and now there are no more Indians left in Canada.'"

The story of these stolen lives is Canada's dirty secret, say women's advocates. They seek justice on the international stage.

Next week, they take the battle to two fronts:

The United Nations in Geneva at meetings from Dec. 2 to 13 on indigenous rights, and the first-ever Summit of Indigenous Women of the Americas in Oaxaca, Mexico, tomorrow through Wednesday.

They won't be talking about the True North Strong and Free.

"Canada can't be proud,'' says Kukdookaa Terri Brown, president of the Native Women's Association of Canada.

"People in other countries are always surprised. They think of Canada as the promised land, but for native people, and especially our women, Canada is the Third World.''

Her delegation will meet with U.N. officials, including Rodolfo Stavenhagen, special rapporteur for indigenous peoples, whose work usually takes him to Third World nations. They will invite him to Canada to investigate the Vanishing Women crisis, and other conditions of indigenous life.

"How many more of our sisters have to die before it matters? Before they say, `Oh, this is serious. This is not okay.'" says Brown, from the Tahltan Nation in B.C.

Her own sister, Ada Elaine Brown, was found dead in her bed last year in Prince George. When the family saw the body, they didn't recognize her, she was so badly beaten.

"The autopsy report said it was a brain aneurysm. Yeah, because (she was beaten) to a pulp,'' says Brown, whose family is seeking an investigation.

``I guess people think, `Just another dead Indian.' But she was our baby sister. She mattered to us.''

Canada's problems are no different than Mexico's, say members of the Oaxaca delegation.

In Juarez, across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Tex., an estimated 250 women have been slain over a decade, their bodies found in the desert, often mutilated and burned. Victims are mostly indigenous women working in border factories. Many die anonymously, and their deaths have been largely ignored.

And so it is in Canada, where many of the victims are hookers, street people ... nobodies.

``There is no public outrage in Canada. I guess that is our biggest frustration. We are fighting alone,'' says Sherry Lewis, Native Women's Association board member and director of a native women's shelter in Hamilton. She spearheads the delegation report on missing and murdered women.

``There is no such thing as a throwaway woman in Canada. There never should be.''

Sarah deVries' death places her in another morbid category — women whose DNA has been found on Robert Pickton's pig farm in Port Coquitlam, near Vancouver.

So far, Pickton has been charged with the murders of 15 women, not including Sarah. It's the biggest serial killing in Canadian history, and the investigation is far from over.

At least 67 women are missing from Vancouver's downtown east side, a rough area where women work in the sex trade, addicted to drugs, alcohol. More than half are native women, as are half the confirmed slaying victims.

Police only began digging up Pickton's farm in February. First charges were laid Feb. 22.

But, for years, the Native Women's Association, along with sister groups, both native and non-native, pleaded with authorities to investigate the missing women.

Now they want a public inquiry into how police handled the investigation.

"This is what happens to marginalized women in society. They live and die invisible lives. They are disposable,'' says Gloria Alvernaz Mulcahy, psychology professor at the University of Western Ontario and organizer of a Dec. 6 fundraiser in London for Vancouver's missing women.

It's early evening in Toronto and we're driving along Bloor St.'s diamond strip, past Versace, Hermès, Gucci, Louis Vuitton. The lights twinkle; Christmas is in the air.

But not in Alex Cywink's world.

Not tonight.

He's an outreach worker for the Anishnawbe Health centre, and we are following his street patrol van.

He's getting drunks off the street, taking women to shelters, dealing with the rapidly growing numbers of indigenous homeless people.

He takes a break for coffee. He talks about his sister, Sonya. Another statistic, slain in 1994, aged 31.

She was found at a native historical site near London, so badly beaten that police had to reconstruct a model of her face. A friend recognized a sketch on TV with the caption: "Do you know who I am?''

"My brother Carl went down to the morgue to identify her,'' says Alex, 44. "He's never talked about it.''

He resembles his sister — the same long, serious face and studious look. They come from Birch Island, the Whitefish River First Nations Reserve along Highway 17, west of Sudbury.

She was involved with dealers, he thinks, a mule running drugs between Toronto and London. He makes no excuses, but says she never had a chance.

"She was insecure, unsure of herself. She wanted to be accepted and I guess she had a real self-esteem problem,'' he says, and pauses. "She always felt ... less than ...

"She just got beaten down. I think they put a value on human life based on ethnicity and an Indian life isn't worth much. If it was a white woman, there would be tons of people on it, especially a young, rich, white woman. But a native person living on the streets ... Who cares?''

He says the London OPP did what they could.

They were compassionate, but the case has not been solved. There's a $35,000 reward outstanding.

"I hear people talking about Third World countries. I see Doctors Without Borders and other groups working in other countries, and I say, `What about us?'"

Invisible. Disposable. The words ring through every conversation.

Lisa sits talking, silhouetted against a window at the At^Lohsa shelter in London. She's so tiny, seems so fragile. She's 26, looks 16. She describes a life of horrific events, the last an accident in which her little girl suffered brain damage.

Is she proud of herself as a woman of the Chippewa of the Thames, near London? Does she have good self-esteem?

"Well, I can't honestly say I ever did have that,'' she says simply.

Well, maybe as a girl on the reserve, where her grandmother was an elder. But then, she "hit the wall of racism'' in high school.

She remembers. A teacher who mysteriously "lost'' all her English assignments. Another who asked the class: ``What races are above average?''

Chinese, Japanese. British. French. Then Lisa raised her hand. ``Native.''

Gales of laughter.

"Natives will never be above average,'' said the teacher. More laughter.

Most days, that teacher just looked at her and pointed to the door. ``Out,'' he said.

She left school. Then, a white boyfriend.

"You're stupid. You don't know anything,'' he told her. The drumbeat of her life. ``You will never be worth anything.''

And she stayed with him.

``I didn't want my daughter to have the empty feeling I had when she got older. To have no father, to think, `What did I do wrong?'" she says.

A downward spiral, living in the streets. Her "little angel'' injured by a relative. Finally, At^Lohsa, where she's been clean and sober for two years.

"I'm trying to believe I can be as big and outrageous as I like.''

Next day, four women sit around a table at the Anishnawbe Health shelter on Gerrard St. in Toronto. First names only, as they tell their stories.

Bonnie is 40, the oldest, an Ojibwa from Massey in Northern Ontario. She went to a residential school, where they cut her hair, taunted her and called her a "dirty Indian.'' (The last residential school closed in Canada in 1987.)

"I wasn't treated as badly as the others. I was half-white so I was lucky,'' she says.

She's lived on the streets of Toronto since she was 17. She has lost many friends. They used to bury them in unmarked graves, at Jane and Steeles. Hit by trains, beaten up, frozen to death, found with the garbage — buried in a throwaway spot.

Bonnie looks pretty bad. Last Friday night, her boyfriend beat her up again in their Roncesvalles rooming house. The third time.

``I don't know, it doesn't bother me much anymore. Getting beat up doesn't affect me,'' she says.

Jenny is 33. She's from Kenora and the Lac Seul Ojibwa.

Her parents were alcoholics. Children's Aid took the six kids. Before she was 8, she'd been in a dozen foster homes. At 10, five of the kids were adopted by the same family.

``I don't want to catch you hanging around Indians,'' her adoptive mother told her. ``They're all drunks.''

"I felt bad,'' Jenny says. "I still do.''

She says they were all sexually abused in their adoptive home. They tried to take action — without success.

At 18, she came to Toronto and life on the streets.

Rose is 26, from Thunder Bay, also Ojibwa, with dyed blonde hair and a big, open face. Sadness comes off her in waves. She's drowning in it. She's trying to get her three kids back, but she can't.

She learned about her culture at a young age.

"You don't have a mother,'' a Grade 1 classmate told her. ``Your mother is a drunken Indian.''

"But I do have a mom,'' she said. The kids just laughed.

"Wagon-burner," they called her. "Squaw.''

Joanne, 25, is a Cree from Moose Factory. She doesn't say much. She has her own problems. She's transsexual, just one more reason to get beaten up in the streets.

Down the hall, Amber O'Hara, author of a Web site on missing/slain women, sits having a smoke.

"Well,'' she begins. "You want to understand the connection between the lives of women on the street and missing and murdered women? You just saw four women, all at very high risk of ending up dead at some point if the cycle of violence doesn't stop.''

O'Hara, an AIDS educator in First Nations communities, sees posters of missing women at nearly every band office. She has never forgotten the case of Helen Betty Osborne, 19, murdered near The Pas, Man., in 1971. It wasn't until 1987 that one of the four men involved was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.

There have been too many infamous cases. In Saskatchewan, Frank Crawford was convicted for the 1992 murders of Shelly Napone, Eva Taysup and Calinda Waterhen. And of course, in B.C., police are not finished with Robert Pickton.

One of the problems, say advocates, is that there are no official statistics. The newly formed National Coalition on Our Stolen Sisters is pressuring the federal government to support their investigations into vanishing women.

The RCMP tracks missing women, but not specifically aboriginal. There are 2,039 missing females in Canada, 1,279 white and 760 non-white.

And Statistics Canada keeps records of murdered women but doesn't break them down further. Over 15 years to 2001, 3,093 females were murdered in Canada.

But nobody disputes that 500 native women are missing and/or murdered. And authorities maintain they're doing the best they can.

"From my perspective, we don't differentiate against any colour. If women are missing we investigate," says RCMP Inspector Conrad Delaronde, head of aboriginal policing services and a member of the Skownan Nation.

In the wake of the B.C. pig farm horror, the Mounties are reviewing their response policies when people go missing.

Women's advocates say authorities really don't care.

"I would disagree with that fundamentally," says Alex Mullin, spokesperson for the federal Indian Affairs department. Criminal investigations are the realm of the RCMP and other police forces, he adds.

In Guelph, dinner winds down, and Pat deVries is talking about her daughter. Ben and Jeanie are in another room, watching TV.

"She was full of joie de vivre, with a great sense of humour and very loyal to her family," she says of Sarah, who was also part Mexican and black. ``The racial thing was hard for her. Who am I? The rest of the family was white, and she was teased at school. She couldn't talk to us about racism. She couldn't seem to air it out at home.

"She started taking off at 12, she got to know other native Canadian girls in the streets. It was tough ... finally, she disappeared for good.''

The news about Sarah's DNA being found on the Pickton farm this summer was almost a relief. Better than not knowing. Pat had already adopted her grandchildren, both born addicted to drugs and having to undergo withdrawal, and brought them to Ontario.

"It makes me sick. It makes me cry,'' she says, of her daughter's slaying.

"But I can't do anything for Sarah now. I have to work for the living.''

The pain will always be there. For all of them. Perhaps her sister, award-winning writer Jean Little, dealt with it best in her children's book, Willow and Twig.

She writes in the dedication:

``This story is for Sarah, who was not Angel,

Jeanie, who is definitely not Willow,

Ben, who was never Twig,

And Pat, who is daily Gram,

with my heart's love.''

Wayne Leng, a close friend of Sarah's was visiting the family from California, and recounted during the interview, her disappearance, the website in her memory and the subsequent arrest of Robert Pickton. Wayne started the website for Vancouver's missing women at 



Missing Women Tip Line: 1-877-687-3377

Updated: August 21, 2016