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What does it take to protect Indigenous women from violence?

Tina Fontaine was a young woman who should have had her whole life ahead of her. She was a much loved daughter, niece, sister and friend. She was also a citizen of the Sagkeeng First Nation and member of an Indigenous community with a rich cultural heritage. However, this past summer she also became another number in a shameful statistic: one of over 1,100 Indigenous women and girls to have gone missing or been murdered in Canada since 1980.

Responding to Tina’s death, vigils were held, bringing together Indigenous and non-Indigenous groups in a renewed call for a national commission of inquiry into the appallingly high numbers of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada.

So far, the federal government has rejected these calls, saying now is the time for ‘action’. Rather than further study, and citing the existence of at least 49 reports and inquiries into the issue as justification for its position, the government has funded initiatives to “reduce violence against aboriginal women and girls” over the next five years.

The federal government has insisted that the deaths and disappearances of Indigenous women and girls should be viewed as crimes, and not evidence of a disturbing sociological phenomenon.

Against this backdrop, the Legal Strategy Coalition on Violence Against Indigenous Women (LSC) formed. A network of Indigenous and non-Indigenous legal and advocacy groups and non-government organizations, formed after the murder of Inuk student Loretta Saunders, the LSC is examining closely the accuracy of the federal government’s claims.

We have begun the enormous task of reading, analyzing, and synthesizing the dozens of existing reports. These are our preliminary conclusions:

1. Further study is needed: 

It is true that considerable research has already been undertaken. At least 50 reports, studies and articles have been published and they are easily available to policy makers and the public. However, few studies, and none of the inquiries and commissions undertaken to date, have specifically focused on missing and murdered Indigenous women as a national crisis.

2. This is a sociological phenomenon:

The reports display considerable consensus on the root causes of violence against Indigenous women: poverty, poor housing, little access to and support for education, few employment opportunities, the legacy of the residential school system, colonialism and other discriminatory Canadian policies towards Indigenous peoples. Clearly, this refutes the government’s stance that this is a question of crime and violence.

Many of the reports advance recommendations to address this problem: more funding for community based Indigenous groups treating survivors and victims of violence and their families, more training for police engaging with Indigenous women and communities, more data collection and sharing, more public education and better coordination of services and programs. In other words, to effect change we must recognize social causes as components of violence against Indigenous women, and respond in a holistic way. 

3. We need evidence-based, informed, and coordinated action: 

Here are the things we know. First, there is agreement about both the root causes of violence against Indigenous women, and the measures needed to respond to this issue. Second, the implementation of existing recommendations has been piecemeal, with little coordination of implementation measures between different agencies and jurisdictions. Third, few provinces have committed to action and federal government measures are limited to violence and crime. It is difficult to determine what recommendations have been implemented, and which remain outstanding. 


Any action that is meaningful and aims to resolve the issue must be based on evidence, coordinated across agencies and jurisdictions, and informed by a proper understanding of what has been done to date. Only a response containing these three elements can address the issue of violence against Indigenous women in the holistic way it requires. 

This week at the Assembly of First Nations meeting in Winnipeg, violence against Indigenous women and girls features on the agenda. Chiefs will discuss the need for a national roundtable to coordinate action. Let’s proceed on the basis of understanding what has been done to date and what further action is needed.  Whatever the ultimate process, we cannot resolve this issue without informed, coordinated and evidence-based inquiry and commitment to action to end violence against Indigenous women and girls. 

A summary of the reports can be viewed at: LSC summary of reports reviewed, as at 6 December 2014

For more information about the preliminary conclusions, see: LSC Preliminary research conclusions

The Legal Strategy Coalition on Violence Against Indigenous Women (LSC) is a nation-wide ad hoc coalition of groups and individuals formed in 2014 following the murder of Inuk university student Loretta Saunders, to marshal resources that address violence against Indigenous women.

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