Warning: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that the following article contains images and voices of deceased persons.
In Canada and Australia Indigenous women are murdered or go missing at staggering rates.
Laura Murphy-Oates investigates.
In 2014 I travelled to the childhood home of my father for the first time – Beemunnel Reserve near the outback NSW town of Warren. When my father was born in 1954, he lived in a ‘humpy’ or shack – with dirt floors and no running water, as Aboriginal people didn’t live in the town proper. At many of the Aboriginal reserves and missions, language and culture was forbidden and people lived in constant fear of the government workers coming to take the children away.
Three years after that trip to the Beemunnel, I’m amazed to be on an Indigenous reserve in the middle of Canada, hearing tales of a similar trauma, played out on the other side of the world.
I’m here to report on the endemic violence against Indigenous women in Canada — a problem they’re facing head on, with a national inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women which is currently underway. The history of the residential schools — where up until the 1990s, Aboriginal kids were forcibly removed to boarding schools, where they experienced widespread physical and sexual abuse — is an important part of this story. The legacy of broken families and communities left behind by these schools feeds into violence against Indigenous women.
The impact of the residential schools on the women of Sagkeeng.
In 2014 a landmark police report revealed that between 1980 and 2012 1,181 Indigenous women had gone missing or been murdered in Canada. Indigenous women make up nearly 16 per cent of all homicides, but only 4.3 per cent of the population. Latest reports state that they’re six times more likely to be victims of homicide.
In Australia, Indigenous women are also victims of homicide at a rate six times more than non-Indigenous women, according to records from 2013/14. According to the figures from the Australian Institute of Criminology, between 1989-2012, Indigenous women made up 16% of all female homicide victims, despite Indigenous people accounting for only 3% of the population. We’re also between 30-35 times more likely to be hospitalised due to family and domestic violence related assaults.
Two women – Lynette Daley in Australia and Tina Fontaine in Canada — have become the human faces to these horrifying statistics. Both these women died in areas known as hotspots for this type of violence. Both women were let down by systems meant to protect them. However the national response to each of these deaths has been starkly different. What will it take for Australia to wake up to the violence against our own Indigenous women?
In order to find out what Australia can learn from Canada’s epidemic of violence against Indigenous women, this year I visited two communities — Lynette Daley’s home in the Clarence Valley of Northern NSW, and Tina Fontaine’s community of Sagkeeng, in Manitoba.
Just outside of Sagkeeng First Nation Reserve, in Pine Falls, Thelma Favel welcomes me into her home. Her living room is covered in family photos — many of them featuring Tina Fontaine, a dark haired First Nations girl with a shy smile.
Tina was raised in this home by her great Aunt Thelma and, at 17 years old, she was a bright, happy girl. She loved maths and science, and playing with her young cousins. She wanted to be a social worker because she had seen so many kids in care that weren’t properly treated or looked after, and she wanted to help them.
“She was an awesome little girl. She was always so happy. Very, very good in school,” says Thelma fondly.
But in 2014 Tina’s life would rapidly change. In June she went on a trip to the city of Winnipeg, to visit her biological mum. Despite her mum’s troubled past, Thelma allowed Tina to go on the trip as a reward for her good grades. But not long after Tina left home, Thelma realised she had made a mistake.
“She was texting her sister showing pictures of her doing drugs, showing her pictures of the black eyes she was getting from her mum,” she says.
A few weeks into her trip, Tina went missing. She was then picked up by the Winnipeg Police in a car with a stranger.
“Her name came up as a red flag that she was missing… and she was intoxicated and they still let her go,” Thelma says. “She didn’t even look to be 15, she looked about 12 years old.”
Later that night Tina was admitted to hospital, after she was discovered passed out in a back alley. Discharged from hospital, she was taken to a hotel by family services. Then, she vanished.
“Do you feel like those services let her down?” I ask Thelma.
“Everybody that night let her down. They had a chance to hold onto her and they didn’t,” she says.
In August, a shocking and grisly discovery — Tina’s body, wrapped in a plastic bag washed up on the shores of Winnipeg’s Red River.
Fifteen months later her alleged killer, Raymond Joseph Cormier, was arrested. He is currently awaiting trial.
“When the police actually started investigating Tina’s murder did you think that they would find who did it?” I ask Thelma.
“No because there are so many Aboriginal women that are still missing, considered murdered, and I thought I was going to be in that group where we would never get the answers,” she replies.
Thelma Favel talks about the impact of Tina’s death.
The brutal death of Tina Fontaine shocked the nation. In response to her murder, and after years of pressure from families of other murdered and missing girls, the Canadian Human Rights Commission requested a full inquiry into the number of Missing and Murdered Indigenous women in Canada. In 2015 newly elected Prime Minister Trudeau committed to a national inquiry, which is now underway, hearing testimony from Indigenous families around the nation.
In her home community of Sagkeeng, Tina is one of many women and girls they’ve lost. Sagkeeng is a self-governing Indigenous community, an hour and a half north of Manitoba’s capital Winnipeg. I drive there on a warm summer day. A quiet rural community sitting at the mouth of the Winnipeg River, on the surface it seems tranquil.
However according to local media, out of more than 600 First Nation groups across Canada, Sagkeeng First Nation also has the highest number of unsolved cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women — with six cases overall. The province of Manitoba has the highest homicide rate for Aboriginal people in the country.
I’ve been invited to meet with the community at Turtle Lodge, a healing centre, and hear their stories of the murdered and the missing.
The stories of the murdered and missing women of Sagkeeng.
On November 8th, on the other side of the world, Gordon and Thelma Davis are waiting nervously in the NSW Supreme Court, in the northern coastal town of Coffs Harbour. Soon a statement will be read out, detailing all the ways the loss of their daughter and stepdaughter has impacted their daily life — their hope is that it will change the sentence of the two men responsible, with another final hearing taking place in December.
Gordon and Thelma talk about their love for Lynette (credit — Deb Novak).
In 2011, Lynette bled to death after being sexually assaulted by Adrian Attwater and Paul Maris. She was on an Australia Day camping trip on Ten Mile Beach, just north of the Daley’s home in Yamba.
Despite a thorough police investigation in 2011 and coronial findings in 2014 which strongly recommended charges be laid, the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) did not prosecute the men. For six years they walked free.
It wasn’t until enormous public pressure, ignited by an ABC Four Corner’s investigation, that the case was finally brought to court. In September 2017 a jury took just half an hour to find Attwater guilty of manslaughter, Maris guilty of burning a blood-soaked mattress to hide evidence, and both men guilty of sexual assault.
The jury’s swift conviction prompted the NSW Attorney General Mark Speakman to immediately demand the DPP to explain their actions in not pursuing charges in the first place, with Mr Speakman seeking an “urgent brief on the circumstances surrounding the case”. That brief, and the DPP’s full reasons behind the decision have not been made public.
But many in the Indigenous community, including Lynette’s parents, believe the reason is all too clear.
"If it was two Indigenous people who'd done it to a white girl," her stepfather Gordon Davis says bluntly, "they'd be in jail."
Over the past two decades, the Clarence Valley region has seen a spate of high profile missing and murdered Indigenous women cases- including Lynette Daley, 19-year-old missing Grafton woman Jasmine Morris, and Lois Roberts, the sister of prominent artistic director Rhoda Roberts. Whilst NSW police told SBS they could not comment on open cases, according to the calculations of local Indigenous woman Rachael Cavanagh, a woman has gone missing or been murdered in the area once every two years.
In response to this violence Rachael has banded together with other Indigenous women to form ‘The Djinders’ — a support and advocacy group trying to stop violence against Indigenous women in the area. The word, in Gumbayngirr language, means ‘sisters’.
Rachael says their key focus is domestic violence — a big problem in the area. In over a decade, domestic assaults in the Clarence Valley have grown year on year by an average of 4.6%. According to local media, last year the Coffs Clarence district recorded the second highest number of applications for an AVO related to domestic violence in the state.
“Every Aboriginal woman that I engage with here has had an experience with family violence, 100%,” says Rachael.
The women of the Clarence Valley tell their stories of violence.
In both Canada and Australia, Indigenous communities claim that discriminatory behaviour by police and the justice system has allowed violence against Indigenous women to flourish. In both Sagkeeng and the Clarence Valley, the stories follow a similar pattern.
“I don’t think they search as hard as they could,” says Earl Morrisseau. “I think they’re lazy about it like we don’t matter, the girls don’t matter, our people don’t matter in general.
“The day that Fonessa went missing we went to the police and we asked for a number and they told us we couldn’t have one. They told us she just run away,” says Janet Bruyere. The body of her 17-year-old granddaughter, Fonessa Bruyere was found in a field outside of Winnipeg in 2007 and her case is still unsolved.
“They told me that she was stabbed 17 times and I never got any word after that, the detectives never told me anything,” says Janet.
Sagkeeng’s local pastor Nancy Bruyere lost her 32-year-old niece Crystal Lynn Dorie in 2015, when she was found dead in a hotel in Winnipeg.
“I feel like there’s so much unanswered questions that the police could of did more they should of did more to let us know you know what really happened to her, because her fingernails were broken, she had some bruises and yet they said that she died by suicide.”
The Winnipeg Police say they’re aware of these types of allegations. “I certainly hear stories of it. I wouldn’t say that it has never happened,” says Winnipeg Chief of Police Danny Smyth.
“I think racism and bias plays a role in all our cities, do I think Winnipeg is worse than any other city? I don’t,” he says.
Chief Smyth says they’re working hard to combat racism in the force and he’s confident that right now, Indigenous women’s cases are treated just as seriously as other cases.
“Aside from the impartial police training… we are making steps to ensure that things like colonisation, information of the intergenerational trauma that’s gone on with many of our indigenous communities, is well known,” he says.
The Winnipeg and Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) for Manitoba have also set up a joint taskforce, called Project Devote, to investigate some of these long-running unsolved cases. Just one of these cases has been solved so far. However the 2014 RCMP report noted that Aboriginal cases for murdered and missing women are solved at a similar rate to non-Aboriginal cases.
For the Djinders the initial failure of the justice system to prosecute in the Lynette Daley case brought the group together. “It shocked everybody,” says Rachael. “For the Djinders in particular that was one of those things when we just went, we need to do something,” she says.
Along with other women in the community, they organised a candlelight vigil in Yamba, and a protest in Grafton. But on top of the injustice of the Daley case, the group is desperate to highlight what they claim is a pattern of dismissive and lacklustre police responses to domestic violence in the area.
“If you look at historically the way that women have been treated in the Valley is horrifying,” says Rachael Cavanagh. “The reason why DV [domestic violence] is so bad in the community is because of the police, there isn’t enough support. I rang the police on my neighbours and they would say ‘oh yeah we know’ and they would not turn up.”
The NSW Police declined to be interviewed about these allegations, but they gave this statement.
“Domestic and family violence does not discriminate and has a lasting impact on everyone in the community.”
“NSW Police are committed to making perpetrators accountable and targeting repeat offenders, while ensuring every victim is supported.”
“Police respond to all domestic and family violence incidents when reported and any indication officers do not attend are incredibly concerning. If members of the community have concerns, we strongly urge them to come forward.”
According to the RCMP report, between 1980 and 2012 62% of all homicides of Indigenous women in Canada were caused by family violence. However family violence is a problem across society. In fact, family violence related deaths for non-Indigenous women were actually higher.
The report showed that the most common perpetrator in homicides of Indigenous women were acquaintances (30%) closely followed by a spouse (29%). Many believe that’s because large portions of Indigenous women are either moving to the city from remote areas, or are born into abject poverty in the city, making them a target for violent men.
When it comes to perpetrators there are some stark differences between Australia and Canada. According to homicide records spanning 1989-2012, intimate partner violence far outstripped any other cause for homicide of Indigenous females at 64.5%.
Also unlike Canada, family violence is a bigger problem for Indigenous women than non-Indigenous women — with more than three in four (78%) of Indigenous female homicides caused by family violence, compared to 64% for non-Indigenous women.
The chances of an Indigenous woman dying at the hands of a stranger (3%) or an acquaintance (10%) were relatively unlikely.
The history of Canada and Australia’s treatment of Indigenous people has eerie parallels with generations of child removals and control by the government.
The residential schools (Canada’s version of the Stolen Generation) saw Indigenous kids forcibly taken away from their parents and placed in boarding schools, where physical and sexual abuse was rife. The last schools only closed in the 1990s.
Regional Manitoba Chief, Kevin Hart, believes a big factor driving the high homicide rate is the social dysfunction and poverty on the reserves, left behind from the residential schools.
Just under half of all First Nation people in Canada with registered Indian status live on First Nation reserves (which are Indigenous communities, often self-governing and frequently built on traditional homelands). A report last year showed that 60% of First Nation children on reserves live in poverty, with the worst child poverty rates in the country found on Manitoba’s reserves.
“Right now we have a 174 thousand home-shortage across Canada with the 634 First Nations… you can go into any home and there’s 15, 20 people living in a house,” says Chief Hart.
“You don’t have to go too far from here where you have people living in homes that are condemned,” he says.
Chief Hart says these conditions drive First Nations women away from their homes and into danger.
“In a lot of these remote communities the men and women have to go outside and go to urban centres such as Winnipeg (Manitoba’s capital) to go to school,” says Chief Hart. “And you know they get caught up in social problems that are out there, they get caught up in gangs.”
“But more importantly they’re being victimised out there by those other people out there and we’re seeing how our women and men are going missing because of that.”
Up until the 60s and 70s, across Australia many Indigenous people were forced to live on church-run missions, state run reserves or stations, away from the cities and towns, where they could be monitored and controlled. For example in NSW, in order to work or move freely about the towns, one had to apply to the Aboriginal Welfare Board for an exemption certificate. These places were also where the government workers would come looking for the children, to take them away — either to other missions and reserves, to boarding schools, or to be adopted out to non-Indigenous families.
“I know that women don't report (violence), because of the fear of losing their children,” says Rachael Cavanagh.
When asked what the root cause is of the high rates of domestic violence for Indigenous women, 49-year-old Djinders member Rachael Williams doesn’t hesitate.
“The trauma,” she says. “Decades of trauma when it comes to Aboriginal people… we’ve had decades of white fellas coming telling us how to live, what to do, how we should bring our kids up. And they haven't done a good job.”
Indigenous women in both Canada and Australia are victims of homicide at a rate six times that of non-Indigenous women. It’s a shocking statistic, but one which is rarely highlighted in Australia. Why hasn’t Australia connected the dots in the same way Canada has?
For one, right now there simply isn’t enough focus or public interest. Since 2015, Arrente activist and writer Celeste Liddle has been counting the number of Indigenous women murdered each year in her blog ‘Counting dead Aboriginal women’. She says there are many barriers to collecting this data, one of them being that the full names and cultural backgrounds of homicide victims aren’t always given out by police.
However the biggest problem, she says, is just lack of interest. “These women have not been reported on and police media have not released statements,” she says. “I make the argument that there is little follow up because there is little media and social interest and indeed, the death of Aboriginal women is expected.”
Too often the blame for this violence is placed at the feet of Aboriginal people. When discussing violence against Indigenous women, Celeste sees a trend of the media demonising “black men as being violent, rather than recognising this issue as a gendered problem”. This violence is painted as an issue with Aboriginal people, intrinsic to our culture, rather than an issue Indigenous people deal with, often as a direct result of generations of trauma.
“I definitely think that systemic racism, no trust, judgement, intergenerational trauma, all of these things play a massive role on why violence is so predominant in our communities,” said Rachael Cavanagh. “That’s one thing that we as Djinders try to push out to our wider community, is that violence (towards women) was never in our culture, it was never acceptable. So we're just trying to break down those stereotypes and really put those facts out there.”
In Canada, First Nation women’s campaigner and Manitoban politician Nahanni Fontaine highlights a similar pattern in the past of blaming Indigenous women for the violence inflicted upon them.
“In July of 2003 at the exact, or almost the exact same place and area where the body of Tina Fontaine was found, the body parts of Felicia Solomon Osborne washed ashore in the Red River, so there was an arm and a leg that washed ashore,” she says.
“Felicia was 16, she was a high school student, she was loved by her family... the next day the Winnipeg Free Press reports it as ‘Prostitute with gang ties murdered’.”
“Why do you do that?” she asks. “You do that because it justifies and it intrinsically says to all of Manitobans and to all of Canadians, well she deserved it, she brought it on herself.”
Now, the conversation has shifted. The terms of reference for the inquiry in Canada include examining “underlying social, economic, cultural, institutional and historical causes” as well as “institutional policies and practice”. These terms and this inquiry signals that the conversation in Canada, that once blamed Aboriginal people for their own violence, is now looking deeper and further abroad.
Whether we have an inquiry or not, it’s high time Australia did the same.
If you or someone you know is at risk of violence, there are organisations that provide support to people and families.
1800RESPECT — Phone: 1800 737 732
National Missing Persons Coordination Centre
Social and Emotional Wellbeing and Mental Health Services in Aboriginal Australia
Crime Stoppers Australia — Phone: 1800 333 000