Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Dr. Jerry Flores, an associate professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto Mississauga, has recently co-authored a paper that looked at patterns of police behaviour that demonstrate how they dismiss and justify violence against Indigenous women in Canada.
“It was one of the biggest themes that emerged right away,” said Flores about the research conducted with co-author and graduate student Andrea Román Alfaro.
“One of the central questions that I ask is ‘tell me your life story’. Every single one of these life stories had negative interactions with the police.”
Flores moved to Toronto in late 2016 after an appointment at the University of Washington. The Los Angeles native investigates how institutions like schools, detention centres and the police come together to shape the lives of at-risk Latinas and Indigenous women and girls in North America.
“My ancestors are P’urhépecha Indigenous peoples from central Mexico. I grew up as a part of the P’urhépecha diaspora, segregated Mexican working-class community in Los Angeles,” Flores explained.
“When I was a graduate student at University of California Santa Barbara, I was thinking about what it was like for the lives of young women placed at risk, particularly the ones in my community who are almost all of Indigenous descent but mostly identify as Mexican or Mexican-American.
“And what I realized when I got [to Canada] is that the stories of the Latinx women that I interviewed behind bars were almost cut and paste the same stories of Indigenous women going missing here in Canada or being murdered. The only exception is the girls back in Los Angeles would be incarcerated. The ones here just disappear or are found murdered.”
In Canada, Indigenous women are 400 per cent more likely to go missing than other Canadians and the government has admitted they do not have a number on how many are missing or have been murdered. Estimates suggest about 4,000 Indigenous women and girls, and 600 men and boys have gone missing or been murdered between 1956 to 2016.
This research paper is one of the only studies to look at how police work actively against Indigenous women.
Flores and Román Alfaro used information from 48 interviews they conducted with women in Toronto (some of whom had lived in other Canadian cities), as well as the 219 testimonies gathered in the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG).
They found that police use three frames to make sense of the violence against Indigenous women: Assume the women are detached from their families, broken or sick.
“Canadian police repeatedly use labels and narratives or storylines when responding to reported cases of violence against Indigenous women and girls, labelling them runaways, drunks, drug addicts or prostitutes.”
The research also found that police use three strategies to dismiss the violence: Open indifference, callousness and a lack of information given to the friends and families.
“When a woman has gone missing, police have refused to file a missing person report, refused to help even with miniscule support like providing copies of flyers for family members to pass out. Or in some of the more extreme cases that I cited in the paper, police were laughing after they found out that a loved one is missing or has been found murdered.”
Flores said these things have been happening for 150 years in Canada and 500 years across the Americas since Europeans arrived here and uprooted matriarchal, traditional, land-based ways of being.
“Now it’s becoming more high profile. It’s being documented. But these things happen on a daily basis. I hate to say this, but it’s nothing new. These things have been happening for a long time. And it’s happening to Indigenous women across Turtle Island.”
Flores said police responses are so repetitive that “they seem like scripts across Canada.”
It’s easier to blame women and families individually about what’s happening instead of actually acknowledging that there is a systemic-wide issue.
“We have corrupt police and women’s shelters. We have a nation that is not providing clean drinking water, three meals a day, quality education and quality housing for Indigenous people.
“I think that police departments, as a whole across North America, are such a complex case because a lot of police officers want to do good, but I think there are a group of individuals who don’t care or maybe became a part of these police forces for self-interest. Unfortunately, these organizations protect them and allow them to behave with impunity.”
Flores said what is needed is a complete overhaul. All police officers should be wearing body cameras. There should be full transparency of the police where the public can access all public records. And we should be instituting independent oversight committees that are able to hold the police accountable.
“I think police departments need to hear this and come to grips with the fact that they need to do something about the bad apples. We need to be more open and transparent about what police do on a regular basis.”
But for Indigenous women themselves, before they become another MMIWG statistic, Flores is advocating for positive change.
“I think the biggest risk for women and girls is a lack of access to safe housing. If you can give a woman safe housing, three meals a day, access to education and employment, she would be happy. She would be safe. But we’re not doing that right now. Not in Canada and not in most places.”
When it comes to responding to the issues contributing to the widespread occurrences of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, the time for symbolic gestures has passed, said Flores.
“We read land acknowledgements, we provide funding for research, we go to press conferences and say that this is an issue, but then that’s it,” Flores explained. “Sometimes they do just feel like symbolic gestures, and I think it’s time we move past that. Funding for research is important, of course, but so is providing safe and affordable housing for women.”
Read the research: Building the Settler Colonial Order: Police (In)Actions in Response to Violence Against Indigenous Women in “Canada”.