Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women in Canada: Expropriation as Allocation

Written by Shaun Sellers

Over the last 35 years in Canada, as many as 4000 Indigenous women and girls have been murdered or have gone missing [1]. These staggering numbers reflect a homicide rate seven times that of non-indigenous Canadian women [2]. Organizations like the UN Human Rights Council, Amnesty International, the Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG), and multiple domestic NGOs have all pointed to economic factors which contribute to the increased rates of violence that Indigenous women face. That the roots of this crisis are systemic and socio-economic is generally agreed upon [3], but how this crisis is tied to broad economic mechanisms is rarely explored in detail.

It may seem from the data that the socio-economic factors involved reveal distributional issues, as Indigenous women are disproportionately affected by poverty, unemployment, negative health outcomes, and the toxic effects of environmental degradation [4,5,6,7]. However, framing MMIWG as a distributional issue obscures its true origins in Settler Colonialism and the forcible re-allocation of land. Economists quantifying the effects of colonization have concluded that at least 1/3 of current income inequality in the world can be attributed to the impacts of European colonialism [8]. But how does this work?

Settler colonialism in Canada involved large populations of Europeans expropriating Indigenous lands [9]. Initially, a strong relationship with the Indigenous population was favoured  because of economic and military alliances, and Settlers pursued Indigenous land through trade [10]. The allocation of land at this time might be seen as somewhat efficient, as it was allocated through a pricing mechanism. However, one of the great divides between Indigenous and Settler understandings of land is in conceptualizing its productive value. Settlers viewed the Indigenous as unproductive with their land, yet increasingly could not re-allocate land through pricing (trade or treaties), as the Indigenous did not measure the value of land in terms of financial capital, instead having a dynamic understanding of social and natural capital [11]. Within this framework, the use-value of essential resources like water or land are infinite, but the marginal value is almost zero, making ‘efficient’ allocation of resources like water or land using price mechanisms (trade) as tall an order today as it was in the nineteenth century [12]. Faced with Indigenous refusals to trade away their land, Settlers often decided that the benefits of stealing land was greater than the costs, as the need for military alliances were diminishing by the mid 1800s [13]. With the justification that land must be put to productive use [14], Indigenous land was expropriated and forcibly re-allocated to alternate uses, like subsidizing the growing resource economy, which continues today [15].

What followed was years of state-sponsored suffering and direct violence through targeted economic and social policies. Formal and informal Settler institutions controlled the allocation of rights within Canadian society from the 19th to late 20th century, aiming policies at the Indigenous population which limited freedom of movement, freedom of commerce, access to social capital (the freedom to engage in cultural activities), access to gender equity (through specific political disenfranchisement of women), property rights, parenting rights, access to judicial process, access to police protection, and access to education [16,17,18]. The outcome of these policies left Indigenous people, women in particular, with high rates of poverty, PTSD, victimization, and homicide [19]. Research shows that these vulnerabilities, and the lack of allocation of police resources, lead some men to target Indigenous women and girls specifically [20].

In assessing the current crisis of MMIWG, the Canadian government concluded that it was ‘a history of trauma’ that led to victimization rates [21], a politically convenient, non-specific verdict. This treats MMIWG as a ‘distribution of trauma’ problem without addressing the cause of trauma, a distinction noted by many Indigenous who seek to address the origins of trauma in the history of land expropriation. “Land. If you understand nothing else about the history of Indians in North America, you need to understand that the question that really matters is the question of land” [22, np]. The expropriation of land and the continually withheld allocation of rights prevented Indigenous people from engaging in economic, social, and land-based activities, while forcing them to also incur the full loss of value of their land, in social and natural capital terms. Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls are the visible cost of settler colonialism.

An important step in addressing the staggering MMIWG statistics is in reframing the conversation from the distribution of trauma to the allocation of resources. The ‘socio-economic factors’ of today must be explicitly understood as a path-dependent outcome of Settler colonial land re-allocation. The Canadian economy was, and continues to be, effectively subsidized by ‘inefficient’ resource allocation (expropriation). Without acknowledging this, how can we expect a better future for our sisters or ourselves?

References

[1] Guardian Staff, 2016. Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in Canada could number 4,000. The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/17/missing-and-murdered-indigenous-women-in-canada-could-number-4000

[2] Amnesty International, 2014. Violence Against Indigenous Women and Girls in Canada. Available at: https://www.amnesty.ca/sites/amnesty/files/iwfa_submission_amnesty_international_february_2014_-_final.pdf

[3] Gunn, B., 2017. Engaging a Human Right Based Approach to the Murdered and Missing Indigeous Women and Girls Inquiry. Lakehead Law Journal. Vol 2, 2, 89-116.

[4] Scrim, K., 2008. Aboriginal Victimization in Canada: A Summary of the Literature. Victims of Crime Research Digest. Vol 3. Government of Canada Department of Justice. Available at: http://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/rp-pr/cj-jp/victim/rd3-rr3/p3.html

[5] Gunn, B., 2017. Engaging a Human Right Based Approach to the Murdered and Missing Indigeous Women and Girls Inquiry. Lakehead Law Journal. Vol 2, 2, 89-116.

[6] Fem North Net, 2017. Colonialism and its Impacts. [Fact sheet #3]. The Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women. Available at: fnn.criaw-icref.ca

[7] Amnesty International, 2014. Violence Against Indigenous Women and Girls in Canada. Available at: https://www.amnesty.ca/sites/amnesty/files/iwfa_submission_amnesty_international_february_2014_-_final.pdf

[8] Michalopoulos, S. & Papaioannou, E., 2017. The Long Economic and Political Shadow of History, Vol 1. CEPR Press: London.

[9] Voyles, T., 2015. Wastelanding. University of Minnesota Press: London.

[10] Minister of Supply and Services Canada, 1996. People to people, nation to nation: Highlights from the report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. Available at: http://www.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca/eng/1100100014597/1100100014637

[11] Vecsey, C. &Venables, R (eds)., 1980. American Indian Environments: Ecological Issues in Native American History. Syracuse University Press: Syracuse.

[12] Daly, H., 1992. Allocation, Distribution, and Scale: Towards an Economics that is Efficient, Just, and Sustainable. Ecological Economics. Vol 6, pp 185-193.

[13] Minister of Supply and Services Canada, 1996. People to people, nation to nation: Highlights from the report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. Available at: http://www.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca/eng/1100100014597/1100100014637

[14] Vecsey, C. &Venables, R (eds)., 1980. American Indian Environments: Ecological Issues in Native American History. Syracuse University Press: Syracuse.

[15] Scheiber, H. N., 1973. “Property Law, Expropriation, and Resource Allocation by Government: the United States, 1789–1910,” The Journal of Economic History. Vol 33(1), 232–251.

[16] Gunn, B., 2017. Engaging a Human Right Based Approach to the Murdered and Missing Indigeous Women and Girls Inquiry. Lakehead Law Journal. Vol 2, 2, 89-116.

[17] Scrim, K., 2008. Aboriginal Victimization in Canada: A Summary of the Literature. Victims of Crime Research Digest. Vol 3. Government of Canada Department of Justice. Available at: http://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/rp-pr/cj-jp/victim/rd3-rr3/p3.html

[18] Minister of Supply and Services Canada, 1996. People to people, nation to nation: Highlights from the report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. Available at: http://www.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca/eng/1100100014597/1100100014637

[19] Amnesty International, 2014. Violence Against Indigenous Women and Girls in Canada. Available at: https://www.amnesty.ca/sites/amnesty/files/iwfa_submission_amnesty_international_february_2014_-_final.pdf

[20] Scrim, K., 2008. Aboriginal Victimization in Canada: A Summary of the Literature. Victims of Crime Research Digest. Vol 3. Government of Canada Department of Justice. Available at: http://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/rp-pr/cj-jp/victim/rd3-rr3/p3.html

[21] King, T. In Woroniak, M. & Camfield, D., 2013. First Nations Rights: Confronting Colonialism in Canada. [Web page]. Available at: https://www.globalresearch.ca/first-nations-rights-confronting-colonialism-in-canada/5321197