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Art in-depth: Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women

Updated: Feb 19

Young people in the Music for the Spirit & Indigenous Arts program have been working on beautiful creations for the upcoming Grand Expressions art exhibit. Stories depicted by the youths' artwork vary from traditional teachings (e.g., the creation story - Turtle Island) to awareness of current issues (e.g., lack of drinking water on reserve, the global plastics pollution problem). One issue, however, is not as obviously linked to water: the problem of missing and murdered women and girls across Canada.

A youth leader from Music for the Spirit & Indigenous Arts contributes her handprint to the handle of the group's paddle.

While young people at Six Nations of the Grand River were participating in a day-long art camp, hundreds of people gathered in Ottawa to participate in the Stolen Sisters Memorial March - a vigil to commemorate and demand justice for the thousands of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women across Canada in the last 30 years. The Women's Memorial March has been held in Vancouver, BC on Valentine's day for 27 years, while spin-off events like the Stolen Sisters Memorial March in Victoria have added their support over time. A vigil in Montreal stopped traffic for half an hour on Friday (Feb 14) night, raising awareness and demanding action from the Canadian government despite -18 degree Celsius weather.


Prime Minister Trudeau promised early in his election campaign to combat the persecution of Canada's Indigenous Peoples. This promise included addressing the hundreds of short and long-term drinking water advisories on reserves across Canada (progress tracked here), bringing Indigenous communities out of disproportionate poverty (e.g., according to the 2016 census, more than 80% of people living on reserve earned below the poverty line), and launching an inquiry into the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG).


The national inquiry into MMIWG was the Government of Canada’s response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Action #41. The inquiry "conducted in-depth study and analysis between September 2016 to December 2018 on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, including LGBTQ and Two Spirit people, collecting information from community and institutional hearings; past and current research; and forensic analysis of police records. The Inquiry also gathered evidence from over 1,400 witnesses, including survivors of violence, the families of victims, and subject-matter experts and Knowledge Keepers" (source). The final report was presented during a ceremony on June 3, 2019. A CBC article states:

The inquiry report concludes that a genocide driven by the disproportionate level of violence faced by Indigenous women and girls occurred in Canada through "state actions and inactions rooted in colonialism and colonial ideologies." Though there is no exact number due to a lack of official tracking, the Native Women's Association of Canada estimates more than 4,000 Aboriginal women and girls have gone missing or been murdered since 1980, including more than 120 since Justin Trudeau became prime minister.

The final report published by the inquiry can be found on the inquiry website. The 231 calls to action are summarized in this CBC article.


On January 28, 2020, a young girl in the Music for the Spirit & Indigenous Arts program expressed her thoughts on the issue. When asked what she thinks about when she looks at the river (locally, the Grand River - Southern Ontario's largest river system), she shared that she thinks about the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls violence against women in general. Women are sometimes thrown into the river, either to drown them or (more commonly) to hide their bodies after unimaginable violence. This youth felt people don't want to act on this issue - that they hear the news, say 'that's sad' and move on with their lives. She wanted to remind people it does happen, and not just to Indigenous women and girls; it's an issue everyone needs to recognize and act upon. After the youth shared her thoughts, the program coordinator and youth leader decided to initiate an art piece to raise awareness of this issue. A mini canoe paddle would be the canvas, demonstrating the described connection to the river.


At the art camp (February 15, 2020), young men, women, boys and girls contributed their handprints to the paddle in support of families who demand justice for their missing and murdered women and girls. As the room was filled mostly with young Indigenous women and young Indigenous men with female loved ones in their lives, the idea that 'this could be me' is not far from reality. The issue is very real, and very present in communities across the country (both Indigenous and Canadian). We must stop acting as if it were just 'water under the bridge'.



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This research is part of the nationwide Global Water Futures research initiative at University of Waterloo (Lake Futures group).  Global Water Futures is funded by the Canada First Research Excellence Fund in partnership with participating institutions.  The research is also supported by the University of Waterloo.
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