Thursday, April 22, 2010
Missing and murdered women in Manitoba largely Aboriginal; Aboriginal suicides take toll on family members
Another eight aboriginal women have been added to a list of the missing and murdered in Manitoba, and their families say the ongoing violence stems from racism.
Last year, the Native Women's Association of Canada counted 520 missing and murdered women, based on an exhaustive search of court, police and media reports. On Wednesday, NWAC released an updated study that analyzed its database of victims and added another 62 names to the list, raising the total to 582 dating back more than 40 years.
In Manitoba, the number of women has increased from 71 last year to 79 now, including women like Hillary Angel Wilson and Cherisse Houle, both of whom were found dead on the outskirts of town last summer.
Jordan Houle, Cherisse's 21-year-old brother, says aboriginal women -- particularly those who live hardened lifestyles -- are considered worthless by some people.
"There's a lot of people out there who disregard native women and disrespect them a lot," said Houle, who still expects to run into his sister on the street. "I think there's a lot of discrimination against young native women who take that lifestyle and go down that path."
Cherisse struggled with addiction from a young age and was the mother of an infant son. Her body turned up in a Rural Municipality of Rosser field last July, and Mounties have made no arrests in what they call a suspicious death.
According to NWAC's report, Manitoba police are mediocre at solving the cases of missing and murdered women. Only 52 per cent of the cases have been cleared with criminal charges. The Canadian average is 53 per cent. Saskatchewan has laid charges in 78 per cent of its cases.
Deputy Premier Eric Robinson, who doubles as the province's aboriginal affairs minister, called Manitoba's "solve rate" quite troubling.
"This is disgraceful that this can occur in a country like Canada and we have to put our minds together and try ways to find solutions to address it," he said.
The epidemic of missing and murdered women has garnered intense public attention in recent years and spurred the creation of several provincial task forces to solve outstanding cases, including a task force in Manitoba.
Despite that, 27 more women have disappeared or been murdered across Canada since January of last year.
"It shows this is an ongoing issue that needs immediate attention," said Kate Rexe, the director of NWAC's Sisters in Spirit project.
Last August, in the wake of Houle's death, Winnipeg police and RCMP announced a joint task force with seven investigators and two civilian analysts who are examining 84 cases dating back to 1926. The province also announced an action group dedicated to protecting vulnerable women and girls, and it now has a newly appointed co-ordinator.
RCMP D Division spokeswoman Sgt. Line Karpish said the Mounties didn't contribute to the report and don't know how NWAC came up with its figures.
"Sometimes, some of these numbers are unclear to us as where exactly who they're talking about and the origin," said Karpish, adding NWAC should source its figures.
Karpish said the Mounties provide "bias-free policing" that's "regardless of sex, ethnicity, background or lifestyle."
582 MISSING AND MURDERED ABORIGINAL WOMEN
They left at least 440 children motherless
55 per cent are under 31 years of age
They live in cities
Most went missing or were murdered in urban areas
They're not prostitutes
Of the 582 cases, there's information connecting only 75 to the sex trade.
They're three times as likely to be killed by a stranger
In cases where charges were laid, 16.5% of women where killed by a stranger. Only 6% of non-aboriginal women are killed by strangers
The crimes are unsolved
Charges have been laid in about 53% of cases. In Canada overall, 84% of all homicides are solved.
Many are still missing
There are 115 women who have vanished
-- Source: What Their Stories Tell Us: Research Findings From the Sisters in Spirit Initiative
With Manitoba expecting to reach an all-time high for the number of suicide deaths last year, the loved ones left behind are rallying to help each other cope.
Aboriginal survivors of suicide are gathering at Thunderbird House today to share their stories of sadness and life after the death of someone close.
The Manitoba Medical Examiner's office says 2003 had the highest number of suicides with 180, and 2009 has already surpassed that with more cases as yet unconfirmed.
Many of those deaths -- five to six times more than the Canadian average -- involve aboriginal youth.
Steve Courchene knows the stats and the suffering behind them.
"My son took his life on Aug. 25, 2005," he said.
Donovan Courchene was 21, depressed and addicted to crack cocaine.
"He hung himself in his mother's clothes closet," said his dad.
Courchene said he helped organize the gathering, which began Wednesday, to bring together people who know what that's like so they could support each other.
"There's no place for suicide survivors... Another survivor will know what you're going through."
Death is hard for people to talk about, he said. The stigma of suicide makes it even tougher.
Well-meaning people who have never lost a loved one to suicide can do more harm than good, he said.
"People say 'get on with it.' We want people to understand it's hard for us."
Courchene said he's just had a grandson and he feels like he should be happy but the pain of losing his son lingers. "I'm wracked with guilt, self-hate and a lot of blame."
A family member blamed him for his son's death, and at times he wanted to die.
"I'd be sitting in the closet holding the rope trying to connect with my boy or for a way of just getting off this Earth."
The day his son died, he had locked himself inside the house. The family called the police, who discovered Donovan's body and secured the scene.
An investigator with the medical examiner's office prepared Courchene and his wife for what they'd see.
"She said 'prepare yourself. His tongue is hanging out and it's black. There's the smell of death.'" His son's body had been hanging for two days.
Courchene said it would've been worse if not for the medical examiner.
"She wasn't cold and informal. I remember the compassion in her voice...She meets people at that initial time of grief and shock."
That woman is Hedie Epp, who in 15 years with the medical examiner's office attended to hundreds of suicides.
Epp, who's been a nurse for more than 40 years, said the suicide death of a friend led her to the job.
Over the years, dealing with suicide never got easier, she said.
"I realized every case I dealt with would be difficult," said Epp.
"I've read so many notes and letters saying 'my children would be better off without me'... No child would be better off."
She said she coped on the job by not blocking the pain.
"You let it pass through you. You let it come in, feel the sadness, and let it go through you."
Dealing with the loved ones left behind at the scene was an honour, she said.
"To walk into a house in what must be the most traumatic time of their life is a privilege. It gave me all the strength to do that job."
Epp retired from her job with the province three weeks ago and started her own grief consulting service.