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An Olympic Failure

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Issue: 64 Section: Accounts Geography: West British Columbia

February 12, 2010

An Olympic Failure

At least 137 Native women missing and murdered in BC since 1980

by Maya Rolbin-Ghanie

The annual Women's Memorial March in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside pays tribute to missing and murdered women. The 19th march will take place during the 2010 Olympics. Photo: Dawn Paley

MONTREAL—The February 14 Memorial March for Murdered and Missing Women has taken route along Hastings street in Vancouver every year since 1991 to honour Vancouver's murdered women, as well as more than 68 women still missing from the city's Downtown Eastside (DTES). East Hastings St, which runs straight through the DTES, is often referred to as the poorest postal code in Canada, and is notorious for a highly visible level of homelessness, drug use and sex work.

Women drumming at the February 14 Memorial March in 2007. Photo: Dawn Paley

Vancouver's City Hall confirmed its support this fall for the march at the insistence of DTES residents, but previously, the city, along with 2010 Olympic officials and the Vancouver 2010 Integrated Security Unit, attempted to change the procession's route or date to defer to the predicted flow of Olympics-generated traffic on Hastings Street.

The games begin today, February 12, two days prior to the march. Already, the Olympics have led to increased poverty, homelessness, and policing in possibly the poorest neighbourhood in Canada.

The epidemic of missing and murdered women in Canada has not improved since the inaugural march 18 years ago. In fact, it appears to have worsened, particularly for Indigenous women and girls.

Of 521 known cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women across Canada since roughly 1980, half have occurred in the last decade. BC has seen the worst, where, as of 2008, approximately 137 of those cases had occurred.

According to Walk4Justice activists, (a group made up largely of Indigenous women who hold annual walks demanding justice for their missing and murdered friends and loved ones), and the Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC), the actual number of missing and murdered Indigenous women is much higher, and likely in the thousands. Underestimation, they say, is due to insufficient research funding, which is also a phenomenon of the last decade.

Craig Benjamin, a campaigner for Indigenous rights with Amnesty International, estimates that Canadian police only note victims' racial identity about 60 per cent of the time, and the information is often inaccurate when they do. Many officers do not see the relevance of the information in the first place. “If [victims] don't look Aboriginal in their eyes, then they don't record it,” he says.

According to the 2008 Greater Vancouver Homeless Count, almost 3,000 people in the area are homeless, a 22 per cent increase since 2005. Indigenous people make up 32 per cent of this population, though they make up just two per cent of the city's total population.

Front-line Indigenous human rights activist Gladys Radek, of Vancouver, has participated in the Walk4Justice for several years. While the 2008 Walk4Justice route went all-out (Walkers made a three-month trek from Vancouver to Parliament Hill in Ottawa) the month-long 2009 Walk last June saw 17 Indigenous women retracing the stretch of Highway 16 between Prince George and Prince Rupert, dubbed the "Highway of Tears," where so many of their relations had violently passed from this world.

“Once we got past Prince George,” said Radek, “it was really emotional because we were reaching the heart of the Highway of Tears. Lots of the women's spirits were with us as we were walking."

“You could feel there was no work being done for the family members. We were asking family members [up North] about certain organizations, and there were no answers for them up there so it was really disheartening. A real severe lack of support for any type of justice, equality, closure, or accountability. We're hoping to change that.”

Organizations from the grassroots Walk4Justice all the way to the United Nations have called on the Canadian government for a public investigation into the appallingly high number of unresolved, uninvestigated murders and disappearances of Indigenous women.

In November, 2008, the UN gave Canada an ultimatum to report back in a year on the status of more than 500 cases that "have neither been fully investigated nor attracted priority attention, with the perpetrators remaining unpunished."

Canada has not responded.

The problem of missing and murdered Indigenous women is systemic, and an extension of ongoing racist and sexist colonial policies such as the Indian Act. The issue is also country-wide, with the frequency of violence against Indigenous women growing in eastern provinces. BC, though, is still the site of the most alarming level of gendered and racialized violence toward Native women in the country.

Ironically, when deciding where to hold the 2010 Olympics, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) faced a choice between Pyeongchang, South Korea, and Vancouver. While South Korea pitched itself as the "peace" candidate, Vancouver sold itself as the "safety and security" candidate. The provincial government presented BC as a place where everybody gets along: rich and poor, rural and urban, Native and non-Native.

Increased Susceptibility to Homelessness, Trafficking

A June 2007 report by the Geneva-based Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE) found two million people worldwide have been forcibly displaced in the last 20 years to clear space for the Olympics. Vancouver has been no exception. The DTES has seen mass closure of social housing and low-income hotels, triggered by an effort to create more space for tourists and corporate investors.

Indigenous women have been at the receiving end of the city's clear priority of Games over homes: 45 per cent of homeless women identified as Aboriginal in the 2008 Greater Vancouver Homeless Count.

The precariousness of their living situation also leads to more Native women than the rest of the homeless population stating that they are involved in "illegal activities" for income. Most of these women said said they were involved in sex work.

This is reflected in other studies: Gang expert Michael Chettleburgh has found that 90 per cent of underage, urban sex workers in Canada are Aboriginal.

Canada is not ordinarily associated with violations like sex trafficking, but it was not even illegal here until 2001. The Olympics, however, have a long tradition of arriving hand-in-hand with a massive influx of prostitution and the pseudo-legalization of the sex industry for the benefit of businessmen and elite athletes. Again, Vancouver is no exception.

Former NWAC president Beverly Jacobs has stated that the organization has reason to believe that trafficking is playing a significant role in the continually high level of missing Indigenous women and girls, but the only body with adequate resources for an investigation of that caliber is the Canadian government, which has proven to be the least likely to implicate itself.

In Vancouver, trafficking has been historically associated with Asian and Indigenous women, beginning in the mid- to late-1800s as European colonization began. Today, both groups are still targeted much more than other population sectors.

“Vancouver is considered to be a hub for Pacific human trafficking... Traffickers will view the 2010 Olympics as the biggest opportunity for them in decades. Any time you have an influx of foreign tourists and money, you’ll see a huge demand for the sex trade," says Vancouver journalist Magda Ibrahim.

According to a report by Calgary-based Future Group, titled, Faster, Higher, Stronger: Preventing Human Trafficking at the 2010 Olympics, “There is a real risk that traffickers will seek to profit from the 2010 Olympics... This event could create an increased demand for prostitution, and also give an easy cover story for victims to be presented as ‘visitors’ by traffickers.”

Although the scale of trafficking within Canada is difficult to measure, it is likely much higher than RCMP estimates of six to eight hundred women per year.

Ottawa-based researcher Anupriya Sethi has identified trafficking triangles through which Aboriginal victims are moved: Saskatoon-Edmonton-Calgary-Saskatoon; Saskatoon-Regina-Winnipeg-Saskatoon.

"I don't know if there are international linkages," she says. "Once you're in Vancouver, where are you taken? Once you're in Toronto, are you taken to New York or do you go to Los Angeles? I don't know. It hasn't been explored."

“There’s a total myth that Aboriginal women either consent to or are born into the sex trade,” said Jo-Ann Daniels, interim executive director for the Metis Settlements General Council in Edmonton. “The average age of Aboriginal girls who are human trafficked is between seven and 12 years old.”

"Basically, their handlers start them in Vancouver," said Chantal Tie, a lawyer with the National Association of Women and The Law.

"They work for them there for a while, then they're sold to someone in Winnipeg and then to someone in Toronto, and so on down the line as they get moved around the country."

The RCMP's National Aboriginal Policing Service has expressed a desire to explore the issue further, but says it lacks the funding and human resources to do so.

Considering the extremely poor record of police investigations into violence against sex trade workers and Indigenous women in Canada, it is unlikely that any real attempt to check these practices during 2010 will take place.

Maya Rolbin-Ghanie is a writer active with the Missing Justice campaign in Montreal.

For up-to-the-minute Olympics resistance coverage, check out the Vancouver Media Co-op, and the 2010 Convergence website. Follow the VMC on twitter!

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