Heart of Darkness: the RCMP, our Stolen Sisters and the morality of statistics

Last week, the New York based Human Rights Watch issued a report entitled Those Who Take Us Away: Abusive Policing and Failures in Protection of Indigenous Women and Girls in Northern British Columbia, Canada. This report detailed various abuses of Indigenous women at the hands of the BC policing forces, including instances of physical and sexual assault. This report surprised far more people than it should have, given that it is the latest report in a series of more longstanding efforts to document the colonial violence endured by Indigenous women in Canada. In 2004, for example, Amnesty International put out at report titled Stolen Sisters that detailed the various structural inequalities that have produced not only alarming rates of violence against Aboriginal women but hundreds of cases of missing and murdered Aboriginal women as well. Following this report, in 2005 the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) embarked on a research initiative entitled Sisters in Spirit.

The Sisters in Spirit initiative included a number of stages. The first stage included a diligent attempt to document the high rates of violence committed against Aboriginal women. In doing so, NWAC created a database that detailed nearly 600 cases of missing and murdered Aboriginal women, a number that, although growing, cannot be documented, since with their typical wisdom and compassion the federal government cut funding to the program in 2010. Nonetheless, this number has since become the symbol around which NWAC and their allies have attempted to demonstrate the brutal impact of colonialism on Aboriginal nations and our women.

It is probably fair to say, then, that NWAC and likely many others were caught off guard by a recent CBC interview in which RCMP spokesperson Sgt. Julie Gagnon suggested that the RCMP database on missing and murdered Aboriginal women could confirm only 64 of the nearly 600 names in the NWAC database. That’s roughly 10 per cent. Caught off guard, indeed. Current NWAC president Michéle Audette responded, stating in a recent NWAC media release, that

“it is incredible that the RCMP is publicly doubting the number of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls that has been documented in the Native Women’s Association of Canada’s Database! The high number of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls that has been documented was based on accurate secondary source information that in many instances came directly from police reports that had further been corroborated by NWAC researchers with various police agencies”[1].

Adding insult to injury, the RCMP appeared to point the finger at NWAC, explaining that at least part of the problem stemmed from NWAC’s refusal to provide information from their database to the RCMP. In an email to the CBC Sgt. Gagnon wrote that “The RCMP is concerned with the over 500 possible victims from the Sisters in Spirit database that have not been shared”[2]. As I explain below, good reasons exist for this “failure to share” that relate directly to the long and often dark relationship between the RCMP and Aboriginal communities in Canada.

At one level we should probably defend against claims that the RCMP was effectively dismissing 90% of the cases of missing and murdered Aboriginal women. In fact, they were merely suggesting that they lacked sufficient evidence of their existence. For example, of the 118 cases that NWAC had shared with them, only 64 appeared on their own database. But surely that’s the point. Though it may sound strange, statistics are not, and have never been, primarily about the numbers they produce. Whatever the numbers eventually arrived at, they should instead be understood as effects of more or less complex sets of actors making various kinds of interpretive decisions at various points in a usually agreed upon process. As sociologist Bruce Curtis once dryly remarked, statistics do not already exist “out there” like mushrooms waiting to be picked. The decisions we make about the categories we use to collect information – what we ask, who we ask, when we ask and how we ask – directly impact the numbers we end up with, whatever those numbers end up being.

So we might ask: how is it possible that the RCMP and NWAC could arrive at such different sets of numbers? Unfortunately, this is not a situation in which we can simply agree to disagree about who are among the missing and who are not: grieving communities and families – brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, cousins, aunties, uncles, kokums and mushums – continue to endure the nearly unbearable weight of these women’s absence, whether they make the statistical grade or not. Likewise, the statistical differences between the datasets tell us little because they are so far apart as to defy logic. Certainly, part of the difference results from the fact that the RCMP does not collate data from provincial and municipal policing agencies and so would not count such cases. But this cannot account for all or even most of the discrepancy, since many of the cases would fall within their policing mandate.

NWAC has been quite open about the methods they used to collect their data on missing and murdered Aboriginal women[3]. First, their researchers engaged in extensive secondary research that included compiling scholarly research, government reports, media sources and yes, even co-creating, with the RCMP, an information pamphlet titled Toolkit: Navigating the Missing Persons Process[4]. Second, over a number of years they engaged in equally extensive primary research with the families and communities of the missing and murdered women. Conversely, the RCMP database is – can only be, in fact – based on longstanding investigative methods which have been proven, time and again, detrimental (if not hostile) to the interests of Aboriginal communities and families in Canada. NWAC president Audette states as much when she says that “It appears now that the RCMP has chosen aggressive bullying tactics to re-direct public attention away from its own internal issues”.

Hence, in stating that only 10% of the NWAC Missing and Murdered Women database appears in the RCMP’s, RCMP spokesperson Sgt. Julie Gagnon was being technically accurate.  But it was also incomplete. That is, she forgot to add the word because: as in “our database only contains 64 verified cases”

Because the Aboriginal community in Canada does not trust us;

Because we have done little to earn that trust;

Because we acted in ways that created historical enmities between our police force and Aboriginal communities;

Because we continue to act in ways that intensify these enmities;

Because clearly, we don’t care about missing and murdered Aboriginal women.

Numerous reasons exist for the many Aboriginal communities’ lack of trust in the RCMP, reaching back to the force’s late nineteenth century beginnings as the North West Mounted Police and their involving in enforcing the reserve “pass system” following the so-called North West Uprising in 1885, their involvement in enforcing the removal of First Nations children to residential schools and their role in removing women and their families who lost status under sexist provisions of the Indian Act and as such, who were forced to move away from reserve communities. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have detailed the more recent failures of policing agencies more generally to protect Aboriginal women, producing further vulnerability among an already vulnerable population.

The thing is, though, the RCMP knows all of this. They have acknowledged their poor relationship with Aboriginal communities on various occasions and, although minimal, have taken steps to address it[5]. We can thus only imagine what was going through the head of RCMP spokesperson Sgt. Gagnon – or the RCMP more generally – to challenge the NWAC numbers, numbers that were collected in a far more sophisticated manner than those used by the RCMP. Indeed, it takes a special kind of arrogance to express concern over the lack of reciprocity with NWAC over information that the RCMP has, by its own (lack of) words and action, indicated little interest in creating on its own.

The RCMP could have taken this occasion to look into their own organizational heart, to take stock of their past failures and to admit their past mistakes. Instead – and with a depressingly predictable lack of public relations and community building acumen – they shot themselves in the foot with ridiculous statements like that of Sgt. Gagnon. All of which might occasion a simple if bemused headshaking, except for the fact that the numbers of stolen sisters are likely far higher than even those uncovered by NWAC’s diligent work. Aboriginal women are going missing, are being murdered, while the RCMP continues to play a petty and ridiculous blame game.

Ultimately what is needed here is a national public inquiry on missing and murdered Aboriginal women. The RCMP could play a powerful role in such an inquiry, since they sit on the front lines of these events. A public inquiry would not only allow a sober exploration of the structural inequities that has produced this national tragedy, but it could, as many inquiries do, represent a powerful moment of reconciliation and trust-building between Aboriginal nations, communities and families, on the one hand, and policy agencies, various levels of government and the public, on the other. However, this would require a level of introspection and acknowledgement of responsibility that seems permanently beyond the reach of the RCMP, as most policing agencies. And in remaining so, the RCMP continues to reveal its own heart of darkness: not only its inability to protect Aboriginal women from colonialism’s darkest moments, but its inability to admit its own responsibility in producing the events themselves.


[1]  “NWAC shocked with recent RCMP comments on CBC”. http://www.nwac.ca/media/release/17-02-13.

[2] “RCMP questions claim of 600 missing aboriginal women”.

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/story/2013/02/16/rcmp-aboriginal-women.html (Retrieved 19 Feb 2013).

[3] Voices of Our Sisters In Spirit: A Report to Families and Communities, 2nd Edition, March 2009 http://www.nwac.ca/sites/default/files/download/admin/NWAC_VoicesofOurSistersInSpiritII_March2009FINAL.pdf.

[4] Toolkit: Navigating the Missing Persons Process http://www.nwac.ca/sites/default/files/imce/NWAC_2B_Toolkit_e.pdf

[5] Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Persons

http://www.rcmp-grc.gc.ca/aboriginal-autochtone/mmaw-fada-eng.htm

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About BigMmusings

Chris Andersen, Ph.D., Associate Dean-Research, Associate Professor, Faculty of Native Studies University of Alberta
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One Response to Heart of Darkness: the RCMP, our Stolen Sisters and the morality of statistics

  1. Anonymous says:

    Would darkness also be the RCMP suppressing its own internal plans written by FN members supporting self-policing? Then it’s dark.

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