Karina Wolfe turned up at her mother’s Saskatoon apartment in July of 2010 after spending a week at rehab.
The 20-year-old native girl dropped off her belongings before going to the home of a male friend, where she had a shower and a bite to eat. That man drove Ms. Wolfe to a seedy section of the city – a long-time hooker stroll. And then she vanished.
Ms. Wolfe has never contacted her family, she has not picked up her prescription medicine, she has not touched her bank account. And although her mother continues to look for her, it is easy to conclude that she is not coming back.
She is one of 1,180 aboriginal women and girls who, according to an RCMP report released last spring, were murdered or went missing in Canada between 1980 and 2012.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has rebuffed demands for an inquiry on the issue, saying “we have had dozens of reports on this phenomenon” and what’s needed is action, not another study. But First Nations advocates and experts say that an inquiry would help the Conservatives better understand the tragedy, citing recent statements by Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt as an example of the government’s failure to understand the problem.
Mr. Valcourt suggested in an interview that part of the problem lies with reserves themselves. “Obviously, there’s a lack of respect for women and girls on reserves,” Mr. Valcourt told The Ottawa Citizen recently. “So, you know, if the guys grow up believing that women have no rights, that’s how they are treated.”
He went on to say the means for ending the violence would not be found federally. “The solution is at the community level,” he said. “Now, who are the chiefs and councils assembling [in their] communities to address this issue?”
Some First Nations women are murdered on reserves or go missing from their native communities where, in many cases, the precursors to violence exist in abundance – poverty, limited education and substance abuse. But the RCMP report says aboriginal women who are homicide victims are actually less likely to have been killed by their spouse than other female victims. Aboriginal women, the report says, more often fall prey to an “acquaintance,” a category that includes men who pay them for sex.
Those calling for an inquiry say it would shine some light on the underlying social issues that drive so many aboriginal girls from reserves to urban areas and, often, into what police term “risky lifestyles.”
Details of Ms. Wolfe’s assailant, for example, are unknown and she did not go missing from a reserve. Nor did the many aboriginal victims of Robert Pickton who were taken from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Nor did the four native women whose unsolved homicides remain on Edmonton police blotters from the past six years. Nor did the aboriginal women who were among those killed while hitchhiking on British Columbia’s Highway 16 – the so-called Highway of Tears.
Sylvia Maracle, the executive director of the Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres, says there is no reliable data to support the idea that the crimes are largely the work of First Nations men or that the problem can be resolved on reserves.
“What Minister Valcourt should acknowledge,” said Ms. Maracle, “is that more than half of us who are First Nations don’t live in our territories.”
Ms. Maracle’s group has launched an initiative it calls Kanawayhitowin, which aims to raise the level of discussion about assault on First Nations women. Mr. Valcourt’s statements, she said, have “given us one of the reasons why we should be pursuing an inquiry” into missing and murdered indigenous women.
Yvonne Boyer, the Canada research chair in aboriginal health and wellness at Brandon University in Manitoba, points out that it’s not just First Nations women who are being killed – it’s also Métis and Inuit.
Demanding that chiefs solve the problem “goes back to the same old buck-passing and pointing finders at the victims,” Dr. Boyer said.
Perry Bellegarde, the new National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said he welcomed Mr. Valcourt’s interest in missing and murdered women. “But it’s clear we have a lot of work to do to get him to properly understand the issue.”
William Lindsay, the director of the office for aboriginal peoples at Simon Fraser University, says an inquiry would get at the root causes of why aboriginal women are being killed or are disappearing.
Mr. Lindsay, who was raised on a reserve and takes issue with Mr. Valcourt’s suggestion that First Nations men do not respect First Nations women, said: “If there was an inquiry, you would have an avalanche of personal experiences being told so you could form a complete picture through the opinions of many.”
Just as Karina Wolfe’s family continues to look for answers about her disappearance, so too do advocates for indigenous women want answers to the broader questions of the many deaths and disappearances.
Mr. Valcourt’s suggestion that the problem is specific to First Nations communities was “narrow-minded,” said Michèle Audette, the president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada who decided to run for the Liberals after years of being stonewalled on the inquiry by the Conservative government.
“[An] inquiry is going to give direction for different realities,” Ms. Audette said. “It is going to give us different angles on how we have to change the way we do things, whether it’s on the reserve or in the city.”