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Canadian Government To Investigate Thousands Of Missing Indigenous Women


There is a strange thing happening in Canada. Research from the country's Native Women's Association estimates that as many as 4,000 native women may have gone missing or been murdered in the last three decades. An earlier study by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police put that figure closer to 1,200. The Canadian government has now begun a formal inquiry into the situation. Carolyn Bennett is the Canadian minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs. And she joins us from New York. Thanks for being with us.

CAROLYN BENNETT: You're very welcome.

MARTIN: Clearly, this is now something that the government thinks is troubling enough to launch its own investigation. What's the theory? Why do you think this is happening - all of these women going missing or being killed?

BENNETT: Well, clearly in Canada the indigenous population, and particularly women, they are way overrepresented in the numbers that are murdered and/or have gone missing. Indigenous women are 4 percent of the population and 24 percent of those that are murdered.

MARTIN: Can you give us a clearer picture of this demographic group? I mean, how well are they assimilated into the mainstream culture? What's their economic status like? What's the relationship to the authorities, to law enforcement?

BENNETT: We have three distinct populations in Canada - First Nations, Inuit and Metis. They are increasingly moving to cities. But it is a huge problem in that we've also got more indigenous children in foster care than at the height of our tragedy of residential schools, when they were ripped from their families and put into boarding schools. So we know that assimilation is a bad idea. We know that children do well when there is a secure personal cultural identity - when they can be a proud Inuit young girl. And when that's taken from them and they no longer feel proud of that, they lose their sense of self, sense of control, and that they actually end up very vulnerable and at risk of terrible problems. We also are dealing with terrible problems in poverty and housing and educational attainment.

MARTIN: Do you have any idea whether or not these alleged crimes - these deaths and disappearances - are happening - are being perpetuated by other members of the native population or outside of that population?

BENNETT: Well, as you know, Rachel, most women die at the hands of someone they've known. In the indigenous population, it's a little bit less than in the non-indigenous population - a little bit more likely to be somebody that wasn't an intimate partner. But nonetheless, we know we've got to deal with child abuse that leads to addictions that leads to incarceration - is a huge issue both for men and women. We have learned through the hearings coast to coast to coast that there's been a very uneven application of justice in our country and that indigenous people are way overrepresented in the prisons. So we've got a lot of things that we have to deal with.

MARTIN: Some of these cases, I understand, go back 30 years.

BENNETT: Oh, indeed, and what we heard in the hearings is so sad because some of the cases were deemed a suicide or deemed an accident. And the investigation just wasn't done properly. And so the indigenous people in Canada felt that there was a completely uneven application of the justice system.

MARTIN: So how is the investigation going to move forward? Will you be looking into cases that have been cold for decades?

BENNETT: That's a deliberation. That's certainly what the families want - I think particularly the families who feel that the death of their loved one was deemed a suicide or an accident when they don't think so. There's a particularly tragic case where two young women - Maisy and Shannon - were deemed to be runaways, but their cell phones and their purses were left on the table. And the families know that there's no teenage girl that would leave their cell phone and their purse on the table if they were indeed about to run away. Another one of the deaths and one of the near-deaths were people - young women who were in the child-welfare system in a hotel in downtown Winnipeg with very little supervision. This is has captured the attention of Canadians. They know there's something really wrong going on, and I am honored that our prime minister has decided we have to get on and deal with it.

MARTIN: Carolyn Bennett is Canada's minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs. Thanks so much for talking with us about this.

BENNETT: You're very welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.