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Election 2015

'Stolen Sisters' Invites National Reckoning on Missing Women

Quebec author recounts how Canada failed two indigenous teens.

Katie Hyslop 30 Sep

Katie Hyslop reports on the 2015 federal election for The Tyee. Follow her on Twitter @kehyslop.

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When Emmanuelle Walter moved to Canada from France five years ago, she thought she was moving to one of the human rights capitals of the world. That vision was soon shattered.

"I came across an article about the United Nations [wanting] to do an investigation about missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada, and I was shocked," Walter said in a phone interview with The Tyee from her home in Montreal. "After that I became obsessed with the topic, and at the end I decided to write the book."

The book is Stolen Sisters: The Story of Two Missing Girls, Their Families, and How Canada Has Failed Indigenous Women. Published last year in Quebec and France, the English version is available in the rest of Canada this week.

The book comes out 20 days before a federal election will decide whether Canada will have a national inquiry into nearly 1,200 cases, possibly more, of missing and murdered indigenous women.

Current Prime Minister Stephen Harper maintains we've had enough reports on the issue, and what's needed instead is his Conservative Party's tough-on-crime policy. New Democrats, Greens and Liberals, however, have all promised a national inquiry as a top priority should they form government.

Stolen Sisters is a book for the unconvinced. Walter acknowledges these murders are crimes, and also more than crimes: they form a pattern -- one we ignore at Canada's peril.

The book started as a way to tell the people of Quebec, who Walter found were under-informed about the political and human rights mess unfolding around them. Now translated, it's a direct message to the Stephen Harpers of the country who refuse to see how colonial legacy plays into the tragedy.

"What I think we have here in Canada, [and] everywhere that used to be colonial countries -- in France it's the same thing -- we have a colonial unconscious," Walter said. "We don't even realize we're the product of this colonial way of thinking."

Teenage portrait

Walter tells the stories of Maisy Odjick, 16, and Shannon Alexander, 17, who disappeared without a trace from Kitigan Zibi-Maniwaki, Quebec in 2008.

Anyone who's ever interacted with a teenage girl -- or been one themselves -- can recognize Odjick and Alexander.

Pushing away from their parents on their path to adulthood, both media and police labelled the girls as troubled: they smoked pot, drank and had trouble with school. Odjick left her mother's home to live with a boyfriend, and then with her grandmother. Alexander's mother had a drug problem and left her partner to raise their daughter alone.

But Walter makes sure we know more than that: she recounts Alexander's acceptance into nursing school and Odjick's pursuit of a high school diploma. We also learn of their passions -- Alexander's for horseback riding, Odjick, an amateur seamstress, for fashion.

She conveys the girls' fierce devotion to their families, and the love they received in return.

The young women were last seen on Sept. 6, 2008. Alexander's dad left them alone in the apartment for one night while he travelled to Ottawa. Somewhere in the next 12 hours they vanished without taking their wallets, clothing or ID. Alexander's brand new laptop and school supplies lay untouched in her room.

After 20 years working as a journalist in France, it wasn't the first time Walter dealt with horror, violence or racism. But "here [in Canada], what was very specific was the silence," she said.

In Quebec, Walter found no one outside of the indigenous communities knew that missing and murdered women are a problem in the province.

"People here, they think it's a western Canada issue," she said.

Indigenous women are three times more likely to be murdered than non-indigenous women in Quebec, too, and Walter illustrates this trend by naming all 46 missing or murdered since 1980.

Walter uses herself as a central character, reporting in first-person as part of a conscious effort to lay her own biases and ignorance in the open. "I don't want to talk for indigenous women," she said.

Institutional misogyny

Only one reporter, Brendan Kennedy, then an intern at the Ottawa Citizen, cared enough to follow Alexander and Odjick's story beyond the initial disappearance. Meanwhile, white 15-year-old Brandon Crisp made international news after he ran away when his parents took away his Xbox.

And police, both local and provincial, assumed the girls had just run away, despite their families' protests to the contrary.

Police inaction, poor investigative procedure, and lack of empathy has been well documented in the investigation of serial killers Robert "Willy" Pickton and John Martin Crawford, who both preyed predominantly on indigenous women, as well as the mystery of the murdered and missing women along B.C.'s Highway 16 a.k.a. the Highway of Tears.

There's been little political sympathy from government, too, which Walter says fails to see the pattern of institutional misogyny directed against indigenous women. She cites laws that take away their "Indian status" if they married outside approved bloodlines and make it difficult to own land or hold chief status.

Walter doesn't spare the previous Liberal governments, who ignored a critical report from Amnesty International in 2004 about the missing and murdered women crisis unfolding in front of them.

But she saves her sharpest criticism for the reigning Conservatives, citing Prime Minister Stephen Harper's infamous "We should not view this as a sociological phenomenon, we should view this as a crime" statement after the death of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine, pulled from Winnipeg's Red River on August 14, 2014, her tiny frame wrapped in plastic.

Harper's response is "really typical," Walter said in our interview. "It's like 'I don't see it as a social problem, and I don't want to see it as a social problem, because it's too hard for me to realize I am still in a colonial way of thinking,'" she said.

To fight it, Canadians must "rewrite the relationship [with] indigenous people and communities and culture."

'Little by little'

The good news is Walter thinks we're already on our way to changing the reality for indigenous women.

Fontaine's death tipped the scales, she believes, citing the police press conference after her death where the Winnipeg Police Sgt. John O'Donovan spoke about Fontaine with tears in his eyes, and the national mourning period that followed.

She also points to the troubled but groundbreaking Missing Women Commission of Inquiry in B.C., and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police report into missing and murdered indigenous women that acknowledged both 1,181 cases on file as positive signs that "little by little" we're moving in the right direction.

Personally speaking, Walter says the experience of writing Stolen Sisters, despite opening her eyes to the horrors Canada has tried desperately to ignore, helped her feel more Canadian.

"I feel like I have touched something very, very important," she said. "That's strange, but it helped me to feel close to this country, to the history of this country."  [Tyee]

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