missing women

International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women 2015

By Jessica Mank

The United Nations has designated November 25 as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. The day recognizes women around the world who are subject to rape, domestic abuse, and other forms of violence. [1] This day also marks the start of the White Ribbon Campaign (men against violence against women) in Canada. In addition to raising awareness, one of the goals of this day is to highlight that violence against women and girls is not inevitable; prevention is possible and essential.

On the international stage, Canada has supported resolutions calling for the elimination of violence and women. For instance, Canada’s work at the United Nations has supported the development of the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women and the mandate for a UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, its Causes and Consequences. At home, the Government of Canada advances a plan of action with undertakings in prevention, protection and prosecution. To read more about the Government of Canada’s general strategy to eliminate violence against women, click here.

With the recent culmination of this year’s federal election, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is now faced with the challenge of implementing the reforms he pledged during his campaign, including those for the prevention of domestic violence and sexual assault. Prime Minister Trudeau has announced the launch of a national public inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada by summer 2016. Other policies promised in the Prime Minister’s electoral platform include developing a federal gender violence action plan, increasing investments in growing and maintaining Canada’s network of shelters and transition houses, and establishing a tougher stance on intimate partner violence. [2] The new government has also spoken out against Bill C-36. [3]

Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women

Nearly 1,200 Indigenous women were murdered or went missing between 1980 and 2012, according to an RCMP report issued in May 2014. A 2015 update has since been released including statistics and analysis on new cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women that have occurred since then. The update also addresses the initiatives and preventative developments the RCMP has taken in meeting the “Next Steps” outlined in the 2014 Overview.

The previous government did not undertake a federal inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women. Part of the action taken by the previous government was extending the Canadian Human Rights Act to cover Indigenous peoples on reserves, launching an RCMP database of missing persons and unidentified remains intended to help police services across the country investigate unsolved disappearances and suspected homicides, and toughening laws related to violent crime. [6]

Craig Benjamin, campaigner for the human rights of Indigenous peoples at Amnesty International Canada, says its time to move past “simplistic explanations,” such as attributing the phenomenon to crime. “We have to get to the point of understanding the violence is far more pervasive, that it has multiple causes and that it does in fact have deep roots in our society and the relationships between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people.” [7]

At this point, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett has announced that Prime Minister Trudeau expects to launch pre-inquiry consultations with families, civil society groups and other stakeholders in the next few weeks regarding the national inquiry on missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada. The government plans to make an announcement on its findings in early December 2015. [8]

Domestic Abuse

In January 2007, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution that called for National Action Plans to end violence against women. The resolution provides that all states should adopt National Action Plans in order to address gaps in current policies, programs and services, to involve various women’s organizations in identifying the necessary solutions, and to ensure accountability in delivery. [9]

Trudeau has pledged to develop and implement a comprehensive federal gender violence strategy and action plan, though it is not yet clear what this plan will look like. His government has also pledged to increase investments in growing and maintaining Canada’s network of shelters and transition houses as part of a broader investment in social infrastructure, and to amend the Criminal Code to reverse onus on bail for those with previous convictions of intimate partner violence. [10]

The UN resolution recognizes that violence against women is rooted in historically unequal power relations between men and women and urges states to take action to eliminate all forms of violence against women by means of a more “systemic, comprehensive, multisectoral and sustained approach, adequately supported and facilitated by strong institutional mechanisms and financing.” [11]

In its 2013 report, the Canadian Network of Women’s Shelters and Transition Houses made the case for a Canadian National Action Plan in Violence Against Women, noting:

  • The federal government does not currently identify women as an at-risk population in terms of partner violence or sexual assault.
  • Focus at the federal level is on gender-neutral victims of crime and family violence.
  • Federal initiatives offering support and services to victims of violence against women maintain gender neutrality
  • There are many needs that remain unmet by the traditional justice system, social services, and health care system. [12]

The report states that some of the most pressing issues for victims of domestic violence include the financial impact of crime and violence:

  • Many women living with abuse cannot afford to escape the violence and, for economic reasons, may be forced to remain in homes with violent partners.
  • Women’s shelters often suffer from inadequate funding to meet the demand in communities for women and their children.
  • There a is a lack of safe, affordable community housing for those fleeing violence. [13]
  • Victims who require mental health support to deal with the trauma they have suffered must often seek help at their own expense.

Sex Work and Bill C-36

In December 2013, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down Canada’s prostitution laws. The court held that the provisions violated the Charter by threatening sex workers’ rights to life, liberty and security of the person. Significantly, critics of Bill C-36 argue that the new bill largely recreates the problems in Bedford and actually limits the safe ways for sex-trade work. Trudeau and the Liberal Party voted against Bill C-36, and have spoken to repealing it while in office. [15]

In Bedford the SCC acknowledged that prostitutes in Canada face a high risk of physical violence, and held that ss. 210, 212(1)(j) and 213(1)(c) not only deprived applicants of their liberty in light of the availability of imprisonment as a sanction, but also made any security enhancing actions or methods illegal.

Evidence demonstrated that working in-call is the safest way to sell sex, yet those who attempted to increase their level of safety by working in-call faced criminal sanction. Out-call work may be made less dangerous if a prostitute is allowed to hire a bodyguard, but these business relationships were illegal. The law prohibited street prostitutes, largely the most vulnerable prostitutes, from screening clients at an early stage in the transaction, putting them at an increased risk of violence. [16]

Bill C-36 criminalizes the sale of sexual services in public spaces where persons under the age of 18 could be present. The act also makes it illegal for a person to get a “material benefit” from the sale of sexual services by anyone other than themselves. The enacting federal government maintained that the intention of the bill was to target johns, pimps and traffickers, but critics warn that the bill criminalizes prostitution and its effect will be placing sex workers in jail. [17]

Prior to being elected, Trudeau campaigned on repealing Bill C-36. It is unclear what his government will propose in its place.

Will Trudeau make an impact on the elimination of violence against women?  

Questions remain as to whether Trudeau’s government will be able to deliver on campaign promises to bring reform to the issue of violence against women, and also as to what these reforms will look like. The selection of a gender-equal cabinet signifies a commitment to change and diversity, and holding a majority government will certainly assist the Liberals in implementing reform. However, it also means that expectations for reform remain high. [18]

So far it is clear that the new government is making the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women one of its first priorities. How quickly this inquiry will materialize and whether it will lead to more purposive action on the part of the federal government remains uncertain.

No timelines have yet been given to a National Action Plan to end violence against women, or to addressing Bill C-36. It regard to the former, it is unclear whether such a National Action Plan will respond to the areas identified in the Canadian Network of Women’s Shelters and Transition Houses’ 2013 report on violence against women.

As to Bill C-36, Pivot, a legal group that helped fight for sex workers’ rights at the SCC has recently stated they will launch a Constitutional challenge if the Liberal government does not act immediately to repeal the bill. [19] Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould recently commented that the government would look at possible changes to Bill C-36. She stated, “we’ve had some preliminary discussions around the Bedford decision and how we approach it more broadly, and . . . that is going to involve having substantive discussions with people who are fundamentally impacted by this. And that’s something that we’re definitely going to look into and have further to say on that.”[20]



By |November 25th, 2015|Blog|

Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women and Girls: A Documented Human Rights Issue in Canada

By Lara Koerner Yeo

Aboriginal women and girls are disproportionately impacted by violence in Canada. They are more susceptible to disappearance and homicide than non-Aboriginal women and girls, and some reports indicate that police are less efficient in responding to the crimes that victimize them.[1]

Violence against Aboriginal women and girls, as well as the lack of police action in effectively addressing these issues, is well documented by international human rights bodies. Numerous United Nations treaty bodies, including the Human Rights Committee (HRC),[2] the Committee on the Rights of the Child,[3] the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination,[4] the Committee on the Elimination of Violence against Women (CEDAW),[5] and the Committee Against Torture,[6] have issued reports recommending that Canada improve its response to racialized and sexualized violence against Aboriginal women and girls. In addition to the core human rights treaties monitored by these committees, there are a number of human rights instruments used to reinforce a normative framework, which imposes a positive obligation on Canada to address the issue of violence against women.[7] Canada is thus obliged by international law to “exercise due diligence to prevent, investigate, prosecute, and punish acts of violence against women and girls.”[8] These documents provide further guidance on how to interpret and implement treaty standards to better realize women’s right to security and bodily integrity.

Aboriginal and women’s organizations in Canada, among other human rights and social justice organizations, have been advocating for improved State and police response to violence against Aboriginal women and girls for over a decade. The Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) and the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action (FAFIA) have advocated before UN treaty bodies for seven years on this issue.[9] They have also initiated and participated in two thematic briefings on this issue in 2012 and 2013, at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).[10] As a member of the Organization of American States, Canada has agreed to respect and protect the rights set out in the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man and respond to any rights violations under the Declaration.

In 2013, IACHR Commissioners, and the CEDAW Committee, both visited Canada to investigate the issue of violence against Aboriginal women and girls. The IACHR released a groundbreaking report on January 12, 2015, which was the first report by an expert human rights body to address the issue of missing and murdered Aboriginal women.[11] The report pointed “to Canada’s history of colonization, long standing inequality, and economic and social marginalization as the root causes of violence against Indigenous women.”[12] The CEDAW report is forthcoming.

Canada will be reviewed by the HRC, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and CEDAW in 2015 through 2017. The reviews will focus on years 2006 to 2014. The upcoming reports and concluding observations flowing from these reviews are expected to be instructive and include the issue of violence against Aboriginal women and girls.

What do domestic stakeholders say?

There is an overwhelming call for a national public inquiry into the violence against Aboriginal women and girls. Many public stakeholders — such as Premiers, the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime, the Canadian Human Rights Commission, National Aboriginal Organizations, and other social justice and human rights organizations— have called for a national inquiry. Domestic stakeholders are in agreement with the former UN Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples, James Anaya, who also called on Canada to conduct an inquiry.

Many organizations have also advanced the need for a national action plan to complement the findings and recommendations of an inquiry. The creation of National Action Plans on Violence Against Women by UN member states by 2015 is one of the five key goals of the UN Secretary General’s UNiTE to End Violence against Women campaign. While the Canadian government has recently established an Action Plan to Address Family Violence and Violent Crimes Against Aboriginal Women, this plan does not serve as a comprehensive national-level plan.[13] The IACHR report echoes the call of advocates by strongly supporting the creation of a national-level action plan or inquiry.[14]

What is the government response?

The federal government stands by its 2014 Action Plan, and other related initiatives, such as: the special parliamentary report on the issue; the spring 2014 Royal Canadian Mounted Police report; and the on-going Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP public interest investigation into allegations of police abuse in northern British Columbia.

Stakeholders hope that the February national roundtable on the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women will initiate a national dialogue; however, given the federal government’s current position, it is unclear whether or not this meeting, or subsequent ones, will result in substantial policy change. Time will tell.

Lara Koerner Yeo is a first year student at the University of Toronto, Faculty of Law. She was a research assistant in the women’s rights division of Human Rights Watch and worked on the report, “Those Who Take Us Away: Abusive Policing and Failures in Protection of Indigenous Women and Girls in Northern British Columbia, Canada.” She currently works with the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action.

For more information see:

-The Native Women’s Association of Canada Sister’s in Spirit initiative: http://www.nwac.ca/programs/sis-research.

-The Human Rights Watch report, “Those Who Take Us Away: Abusive Policing and Failures in Protection of Indigenous Women and Girls in Northern British Columbia, Canada,” for a comprehensive discussion on Canada’s human rights obligations to respond to violence against women: http://www.hrw.org/reports/2013/02/13/those-who-take-us-away (see section V. Canada’s Obligations Under International Law at 77).

-Amnesty International Canada’s Stolen Sisters report and advocacy: http://www.amnesty.ca/our-work/issues/indigenous-peoples/no-more-stolen-sisters.

-The Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action’s Campaign of Solidarity for Aboriginal Women, for information on the NWAC and FAFIA IACHR submissions: http://www.fafia-afai.org/en/solidarity-campaign/.

-The Canadian Network of Women’s Shelters & Transition Houses report on the need for a national action plan on violence against women in Canada: http://endvaw.ca/NAPonVAW.

-The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives report, “Progress on Women’s Rights: Missing in Action,” https://www.policyalternatives.ca/publications/reports/progress-women%E2%80%99s-rights-missing-action (see the section on Violence Against Aboriginal Women and Girls, p 43).

To follow this issue on social media, popular hashtags include: #mmiw, #mmaw, #AmINext, #ImNotNext, #HwyofTears, #itstartswithus.


[1]                      Vivian O’Donnell and Susan Wallace, “First Nations, Métis and Inuit Women,” Women in Canada: A Gender-based Statistical Report, Statistics Canada Catalogue no 89-503-X, July 2011, at 42-3, online: <http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/89-503-x/2010001/article/11442-eng.htm>; Royal Canadian Mounted Police, “Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women: A National Operational Overview,” Catalogue no PS64-115/2014E-PDF, 2014, at 3, online: <http://www.rcmp-grc.gc.ca/pubs/mmaw-faapd-eng.pdf>; and, Human Rights Watch, Those Who Take Us Away: Abusive Policing and Failures in Protection of Indigenous Women and Girls in Northern British Columbia, Canada (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2013), at 78, online: Human Rights Watch <http://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/canada0213webwcover_0.pdf> [Human Rights Watch].

[2]                      UN Human Rights Committee, “Consideration of reports submitted by states parties under article 40 of the Covenant Concluding observations of the Human Rights Committee Canada,” CCPR/C/CAN/CO/5, April 20, 2006, at para 23, online: OHCHR <http://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=CCPR/C/CAN/CO/5&Lang=En>.

[3]                      UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, “Consideration of reports submitted by States parties under article 44 of the Convention Concluding Observations Canada,” CRC/C/CAN/CO/3-4, October 5, 2012, at paras 48, 49(b), online: OHCHR http://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=CRC%2fC%2fCAN%2f3-4&Lang=en>.

[4]                      UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, “Consideration of reports submitted by States parties under article 9 of the Convention Concluding observations of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination,” CERD/C/CAN/CO/19-20, March 9, 2012, at para 17(b), online: OHCHR <http://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=CERD/C/CAN/CO/19-20&Lang=En>.

[5]                      UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, “Concluding observation of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women Canada,” CEDAW/C/CAN/CO/7, November 7, 2008, paras 32, 53, online: OHCHR <http://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=CEDAW/C/CAN/CO/7&Lang=En>.

[6]                      UN Committee against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment of Punishment, “Consideration of reports submitted by States parties under article 19 of the Convention Concluding observations of the Committee against Torture Canada,” CAT/C/CAN/CO/6, June 25, 2012, at para 20, online: OHCHR <http://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=CAT/C/CAN/CO/6&Lang=En>.

[7]                      UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, “General Recommendation No. 19: Violence against women,” (Eleventh session, 1992), paras 24(a), (t), online: UN <http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/recommendations/recomm.htm#recom19>; UN Human Rights Committee, “HRC, General Comment 31, The Nature of the General Legal Obligation Imposed on States Parties: general legal obligation on states parties to the Covenant,” U.N. Doc CCPR/C/21/Rev.1/Add 13, (Eightieth session, 2004), at para 8, online: OHCHR <http://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=CCPR%2fC%2f21%2fRev.1%2fAdd.13&Lang=en>; UN Human Rights Council, Report of the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Manfred Nowak, Promotion and Protection of all Human Rights, Civil, Political, Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, including the Right to Development, A/HRC/7/3, January 15, 2008, at paras 30-32, online: UN <http://daccess-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G08/101/61/PDF/G0810161.pdf?OpenElement>; UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, December 20, 1993, GA res 48/104, 48 UN GAOR Supp (No 49) at 217, UN Doc A/48/49 (1993), Art 4(c), online: UN <http://www.un.org/documents/ga/res/48/a48r104.htm>; Fourth World Conference on Women, Report of the Fourth World Conference on Women (“Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action”), Beijing, 4-15 September 1995, A/CONF.177/20, October 17, 1995, at para 124 (b), online: UN <http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/beijing/pdf/BDPfA%20E.pdf>; see Human Rights Watch, supra note 1 at 78.

[8]                      Human Rights Watch, supra note 1 at 78.

[9]                      FAFIA, “Campaign of Solidarity with Aboriginal Women CEDAW Inquiry,” 2014, online: FAFIA <http://www.fafia-afai.org/en/solidarity-campaign/#reports>.

[10]                    FAFIA, “Campaign of Solidarity with Aboriginal Women, The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights,” 2014, online: FAFIA <http://www.fafia-afai.org/en/solidarity-campaign/#the-inter-american-commission-human-rights>.

[11]                    “Murders and disappearances of Indigenous women caused by inequality, marginalization – Canada must act to prevent violence: Inter-American Commission on Human Rights”, PR Newswire (12 January 2015), online: <http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/murders-and-disappearances-of-indigenous-women-caused-by-inequality-marginalization—canada-must-act-to-prevent-violence-inter-american-commission-on-human-rights-288271071.html>.

[12]                    Ibid.

[13]                    Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in British Columbia, Canada, OEA/Ser.L/V/II, Doc 30/14, 21 December 2014, at paras 295-7, online: OAS <http://www.oas.org/en/iachr/reports/pdfs/Indigenous-Women-BC-Canada-en.pdf>.

[14]                    Ibid at para 309.

By |March 5th, 2015|Blog|