Investigating violence against Aboriginal women

In quiet moments, PhD student Robyn Bourgeois sometimes finds herself wondering what might have become of serial killer Robert Pickton’s victims had they escaped the culture of drugs and violence that plagues women in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

These questions have helped motivate Bourgeois in her pursuit of both a higher education and activism in the area of violence against women and girls, with a specific focus on Aboriginal women and girls.

“My PhD dissertation is a critical analysis of the native anti-violence movement that has been addressing violence against Aboriginal women and girls in Canada over the last 30 years,” says Bourgeois, who is Lubicon Cree.

Bourgeois notes that more than 600 Aboriginal women have gone missing or been murdered across Canada in the last 30 years. Those are the statistics for documented police cases, but she says most experts believe the actual number is much higher.

“The research is disturbing,” says Bourgeois. “Eight out of 10 Aboriginal women will experience violence in their lifetimes. Seventy-five per cent of Aboriginal girls under the age of 18 have been sexually abused. To say that Aboriginal women are being targeted in Canada is really an understatement.”

Bourgeois says her research not only examines this culture of violence in Canada, but aims to recognize and celebrate the fact that Aboriginal women have been spearheading the anti-violence movement from the beginning.

Bourgeois cites the example an Aboriginal grandmother who, with her own resources, created the website—a comprehensive database of missing and murdered Aboriginal women across Canada.

“These individuals, along with groups like the Native Women’s Association and Aboriginal Women’s Action Network, have kept this movement alive. Now with social media they has been able to reach audiences like never before,” she says.

Bourgeois has spent six years immersed in activist organizations all over Canada in order to get a 360-degree view of the Aboriginal women anti-violence movement—how it took shape, who was involved and how it has evolved. She also spoke to many family members related to missing or murdered Aboriginal women and girls, and analyzed key legal cases of missing and murdered Canadian Aboriginal women that were central to her research—including the Missing Women case in the Downtown Eastside and Robert Pickton’s related arrest, trial and conviction.

In addition to studying activism, Bourgeois focuses strongly on examining what role the state plays as perpetuators of violence against Aboriginal women and girls.

“We live in a system that really has normalized violence against Aboriginal women. My research shows that the history of colonialism in Canada is entrenched in violence against Aboriginal women,” she says.

“And although my focus is on Aboriginal women, I am trying to reinforce that the entire system—this same system that allows native women to be killed—is the exact same system that allows other marginalized people to be killed with relative impunity.”

Bourgeois argues that the state could drastically reduce violence against women if it sent a message that it wouldn’t be tolerated.

“If we stepped up as Canadians, and the state stepped up and said violence against women is intolerable and we’re going to penalize it, we could drastically cut the rates of violence—but we don’t,” she says. “In fact, my research shows we have a system that is very lenient towards violence against women, especially Aboriginal women.” she says.

Bourgeois’ doctoral thesis includes a section with recommendations to policy-makers on how to reduce this violence.