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On the front lines of the missing and murdered women tragedy, pain never fades

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The temperature is close to freezing at nightfall in early October, and the drizzle has turned to sleet.

It's miserable. Still, a small group huddled against the cold has gathered behind the Manitoba legislature, once again, for a chance to be seen and heard. Almost all of them are from families of missing and murdered women -- who have gathered for a frigid Sisters in Spirit vigil -- many holding home-made banners with the names of their lost loved ones.

Bernice Catcheway has been here before, every year since her daughter, Jennifer, was last seen near Grand Rapids in June 2008. She's clutching two things: A sign, offering $10,000 for the location of her daughter, and hope.

"She's always in my mind, my heart, my thoughts," Bernice said. "She never goes away. My hope and desire is we find her and bring her home."

On this night, however, it's too cold and wet for any candles to stay lit. And the backup bullhorn is on the fritz, so when Kyle Kematch -- the brother of Amber Guiboche, who went missing eight days after her 19th birthday on Nov. 10, 2010, and hasn't been seen since -- gets his chance to speak, you can see his breath, but you can't hear the words.

People huddle in the rain as drummers play at a vigil for missing and murdered women at the legislative building in early October.

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People huddle in the rain as drummers play at a vigil for missing and murdered women at the legislative building in early October. (TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS ARCHIVES) Photo Store

It's a vivid image that screams out the analogy shared by the vigil-antes. Because after several weeks interviewing those on the front lines of what has been called a Canadian tragedy -- an estimated 570 women missing or murdered women, almost half of them gone since 2000 -- there is a palpable sense of simmering frustration and anger toward the indifferent.

And that includes aboriginal leaders, almost exclusively male, who advocates believe have turned a deaf ear to their decades-long struggle.

Over the past two decades, some 80 aboriginal women have gone missing in Manitoba, according to aboriginal groups.

It's a messy, complicated, blood-stained story of misery. Too often, it begins with poverty, abuse and addiction and ends with police combing a garbage dump for a dead body. Another family grieves and society shrugs.

Why? Perhaps because the women who are never seen alive again are invariably the victims of a perfect storm of hurt: gender inequality, overt racism and social injustice.

Poor. Aboriginal. Women.

Little wonder that Brenda Osborne ends up sitting in a sharing circle in a women's centre in the North End, rolling a healing stone in her hand, wondering if the story of her daughter Claudette, missing for four years and counting, will ever disappear, too.

"It's like screaming from the deepest hole, and no one can hear," Osborne said.

"But how long will it be before somebody rescues us?"

Don't hold your breath. After all, almost every night you can find young women along McKenzie Street, in an alley behind a bingo hall. Or in front of a pizza joint that deals crack on Ellice. Or on Sargent, directly across from a church and a massage parlour.

The predators know where to find them.

The vast majority of the women are aboriginal. Most are addicted to drugs. And they likely have a history of family abuse and violence, or simply no family at all.

"A lot of it comes down to the way a child is made to feel," said Debbie Cumby, an outreach worker at Ndinawae Youth Resource Centre.

"You go out on the street, and you're wanted. You come to think of these people as family. I don't mean in any way to glamorize it, but it's a huge party in the beginning... until you realize the road you're going down. And there's no way out of it."

And then you're gone.

 

Leslie Spillet says the victimization of aboriginal women ‘proves colonization works. It is inextricably linked to our relationship with a dominant culture for centuries. It wasn’t an accident. It was a methodical, strategic plan.’

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Leslie Spillet says the victimization of aboriginal women ‘proves colonization works. It is inextricably linked to our relationship with a dominant culture for centuries. It wasn’t an accident. It was a methodical, strategic plan.’ (RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS) Photo Store

Leslie Spillet can do the historical math. If you want, Spillet can connect the dots from when Jacques Cartier first set foot on the shores of Gaspé Bay in 1534 to the moment a 20-something former ward of Manitoba's Child and Family Services agency set foot on Juno Street last week to offer oral sex for 10 bucks.

"It proves colonization works," Spillet offered, bluntly. "It's inextricably linked to our relationship with a dominant culture for centuries. It wasn't an accident. It was a methodical, strategic plan."

Spillet is the executive director of Ka Ni Kanichihk, a community-based services centre on McDermot Avenue, which in the last year has developed a support program for families of missing and murdered women in Manitoba. Counsellors at the centre are currently working with 14 families and have room for up to 25.

Spillet has spent most of her life preaching about violence against aboriginal and indigenous women, from Austin Street to Australia. In many ways, she's still searching for the choir.

Perhaps because she offers a clinical, fundamental history lesson, which could take generations to unravel, that deconstructs the victims who have become disposable "pieces of garbage" that -- and here's the bitter irony -- end up being found in or near a city's landfill site.

It's straightforward anthropology: Many aboriginal cultures were matriarchal. Women had power. In some indigenous tribes, they could choose or oust male chiefs. They were the caregivers and the conscience; the men were the warriors and hunters.

The European settlers, meanwhile, considered women lesser-than. Almost immediately, aboriginal women were characterized as "dirty squaws." It stuck. The dehumanization began in earnest. Laws were enacted specifically designed to separate native women -- and their offspring -- from their aboriginal roots. Or at the very least, their treaty rights.

Fast-forward through generations of reserves, relocation and residential schools, and go figure that nobody cares if another dirty squaw goes missing. She was probably just another whore looking for crack.

Too harsh? You can look it up.

Nahanni Fontaine, special adviser on the file of missing and murdered women for the provincial government: ‘If you have... all this rage, who better to take it out on than someone who’s considered dispensable?’

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Nahanni Fontaine, special adviser on the file of missing and murdered women for the provincial government: ‘If you have... all this rage, who better to take it out on than someone who’s considered dispensable?’ (RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS ARCHIVES) Photo Store

"If native women are constructed as 'easy squaws' and are locked into this imagery through the behaviour of individuals, they will continue to be rendered worthless in public institutions such as courtrooms or hospitals," wrote aboriginal author and researcher Kim Anderson, in A Recognition of Being: Reconstructing Native Womanhood.

"If we treat native women as easy or drunken squaws in the court system, we feed negative stereotypes that will further enable individuals to abuse native females, and so on. Native female images are part of a vicious cycle that deeply influences the lives of contemporary native women. We need to get rid of the images, the systems that support them and the abusive practices carried out by individuals."

In another dissertation, Pathways of Resistance: The Politics of Addressing Violence Against Aboriginal Women and Girls in Canada (1980-2010), University of Toronto PhD candidate Robyn Bourgeois wrote: "The myth of the deviant aboriginal woman continues to plague us, reinforced by dominant cases that coalesce prostitution and aboriginal women into a single entity. Contemporary Canadian society dismisses violence against aboriginal women and girls today on the basis of these perceived deviances (addicted, sexually available). We are not even treated as human beings. Human beings have the right to a life free from violence, yet we have to convince the Canadian state to step up and protect us."

Shannon Buck, the program co-ordinator for Red Road to Healing at the West Central Women's Resource Centre, noted: "It's a huge part of it, seeing that big picture of history to where women are now. The concept of the squaw is alive and well in North America, and all the ugliness of that word."

The dehumanizing can start early on the streets of Winnipeg, with preteen girls (and boys) propositioned on the way to grade school in the North End.

Or as Spillet would say, "We know that every morning, a man in south Winnipeg wakes up and drives to the North End to rape children."

Years ago, Chickadee Richard, a longtime activist and outreach community worker at the Stella Mission, was walking her then-10-year-old daughter to school when a car pulled up on Balmoral Avenue. The man offered her $10 for oral sex.

"That traumatized me," Richard recalled. "What right do you have? I don't drink. I don't smoke. Because I'm native and walking down the street you have the right to do that? When is it going to end? You've been beaten down so much you don't want to get up. You lose faith in humanity."

 

Elissa Gabriel (centre) and Mary Catcheway (right) at a candlelight vigil for Jennifer Catcheway and other murdered and missing women last fall. Men usually make up a tiny minority at vigils.

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Elissa Gabriel (centre) and Mary Catcheway (right) at a candlelight vigil for Jennifer Catcheway and other murdered and missing women last fall. Men usually make up a tiny minority at vigils. (JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS ARCHIVES) Photo Store

But back to the "drunken sluts" who are their own worst enemies, who by choice expose themselves to the deadly risks of the unforgiving street. Without question, that is a prevailing attitude that has for so long muted the voices of the families of murdered and missing women -- at least to the ears of the general public, police and legislators.

In reality, the vast majority of the young women who end up peddling themselves in back alleys for crack are the children of addiction and abuse, veterans of CFS, some with symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome. Most have little, if any, self-worth or realistic options. The most vulnerable of the vulnerable.

In fact, Spillet readily agrees with U.S. feminist activist Andrea Lee Smith, co-founder of INCITE: Women of Colour Against Violence, who has long argued the role of native women was to literally "absorb the violence of the colonial project."

"That has followed us to this day," concurred Nahanni Fontaine, a longtime activist who is now a special adviser on the file of missing and murdered women for the provincial government. "If you have somebody that has all this rage, who better to take it out on than someone who's considered dispensable or less-than?"

Worse, considered worthless or less-than even by themselves and the justice system.

On April 18, 1995, two young white men in their early 20s beat a 28-year-old aboriginal prostitute named Pamela George to death just outside Regina. Although originally charged with first-degree murder, the two men -- one the son of a former Saskatchewan cabinet minister, the other the son of a university professor -- were convicted of manslaughter. The two men were sentenced to 61/2 years in prison.

The judge ruled alcohol played more of a factor in the murder than race. Clearly, that ruling was from the defendant's perception, not the victim's circumstances, critics of the decision argued.

In a seminal study of the case, published in 2002, scholar Sherene Razack noted that "in contemporary Canadian society, violence against aboriginal women has become normalized, and that the circumstances of aboriginal women tend to be presented outside of any historical context, absolving any responsibility or accountability to the people who perpetrate the violence and marginalization."

Brenda Osborne doesn't require an academic treatise. Her lessons have been etched in personal tragedy, including the murder of her cousin, Helen Betty Osborne, in The Pas in 1971 -- a case that became infamous for the conspiracy of silence, in which police didn't solve the crime for 15 years because witnesses refused to talk. The story of the Osborne case was later told in the book Conspiracy of Silence.

Another cousin, Felicia Solomon, was 16 years old when she disappeared in 2003 during a lunch break at school. Three months later, Felicia's arm and leg were found in the Red River. Nothing else was ever found, including the killer.

Brenda Osborne's daughter, Claudette, vanished after leaving the Lincoln Hotel on McPhillips Street in July 2008.

In telling the stories, one after the other, Osborne seems resigned to what a professor might call "historical context." She would call it her life.

"My mother told me a long time ago that we (aboriginal women) are nothing better than the dirt white people walk on," Osborne said. "That hasn't changed. If you're at a certain place, they see you as easy pickings."

A place where Sally finds herself. Sally is not her real name, but she is a 43-year-old woman sitting in an office at the Ndinawae Youth Resources Centre on Selkirk Avenue. Sally has been working in the sex trade in Winnipeg's North End for more than 15 years, and describes herself "as a connoisseur of the pills, the alcohol, the crack."

"A lot of us have disappeared," she explained. "I have no clue what's going on. These are my sisters who are missing, who are dead. It scares me, but I work because of my drug problem. I'm still at rock bottom. It's a bad, bad life, to say the least."

Then she smiled, or tried to.

"But," Sally said, "I enjoy my drugs."

Aboriginal women used to have power. They used to be protected. They used to have a voice.

Sometimes, history lessons reek of alcohol in the middle of an afternoon.

When Nahanni Fontaine recalls the day she first met Shawn Lamb, she still shudders.

 

---

It was when Fontaine worked as an advocate for the Southern Chiefs Organization a few years ago, and she was asked to go to the Winnipeg Remand Centre to meet with two inmates claiming to have aboriginal roots who were reaching out for representation. The first inmate told Fontaine he was raped when he was four years old.

"Then in walks Shawn Lamb," Fontaine recalled.

Lamb proceeded to describe a life that was -- according to court documents -- like Oliver Twist on crack. Literally.

Adopted by a white family off an Ontario reserve as a toddler. Sexually and physically abused in childhood. Drinking at age nine. Using heroin at age 16.

Fontaine quickly came to the conclusion that the the Southern Chiefs Organization could help neither Lamb nor his fellow inmate. But instead of returning to her office, a shaken Fontaine drove straight home. Why?

"I just wanted to pick up my (two) sons from school," she explained. "I just wanted to be with my children."

In June, Shawn Cameron Lamb, a 52-year-old drifter, was charged with second-degree murder in the cases of three aboriginal women -- Tanya Nepinak, 31, Carolyn Sinclair, 25, and Lorna Blacksmith, 18. The bodies of Sinclair, who was pregnant when she died, and Blacksmith were reportedly wrapped in plastic and dumped near inner-city garbage bins. Nepinak's body has not been found.

The Free Press reported in June that Lamb has 99 convictions, according to court documents, dating back to 1976 in four provinces and 11 different cities, including a four-year sentence for sexual assault in Peace River, Alta., in 1992.

Lamb had most recently been charged with sexual assault, sexual interference and procuring the sexual services of someone under the age of 18, the offences dating to an incident on Oct. 23, 2011. Lamb was charged and released on a promise to appear.

The Free Press learned the girl at the centre of that case is 14 years old. She met a man behind the Portage Place mall and asked him for a cigarette. He asked if she wanted some crack, then they left the mall to go to his house.

The meeting of eerie happenstance occurred just one month after the disappearance of Tanya Nepinak.

According to the girl's mother, the man eventually left the house to "get a friend." The girl, who has a history of substance abuse, left before either man returned.

The mother was aware of the charge, but wasn't notified Lamb was the accused until almost a year later, when he was arrested on murder charges.

"I was in total shock," the mother said.

 

---

The number of killings of missing women does not seem to be a deterrent to the most vulnerable women themselves. Cumby, the outreach worker on Ellice, walks the streets to hand out "harm reduction" kits to girls and women in the North and West ends: everything from 50 cents for a phone call to hand sanitizers to mittens to nutrition bars. ("Not the peanut butter ones. They don't like those.")

The mission statement, she said, is getting the women "off the street and into safety." It's a tough slog against addiction, easy money and few options. She knows women who have shared drugs with Lamb and asks them, "Doesn't that scare the shit out of you? After getting high with (an alleged) serial killer? Aren't you afraid to be working?

"They just try not to think about it. Some girls won't even read the bad date sheets because they don't want to be scared thinking, 'Is this him?' If they focus on that, how are they going to do what they need to do?"

Indeed, Lamb's arrest undoubtedly raised the profile of missing and murdered women in Manitoba. It also exposed the often unspoken reality that violence perpetrated on aboriginal women is not confined, and never has been, to the affluent men of the suburbs -- the stereotypical everyman -- who cruise the North End streets for sex. ("These girls from the north are like candy to these pigs," one longtime women's advocate spat.)

"Yeah, we have First Nations girls on the street," one former sex-trade worker said. "But there's a lot of First Nations people picking them up, too. They (the aboriginal community) don't want to believe their men do it as well."

The former prostitute said one of her regular clients, about 40 per cent of whom were aboriginal, was a prominent native leader who would drive by her on the street and throw a crumpled $20 bill out the window to get her attention.

"It would take him 45 minutes to drive to the hotel," she said. "He would be going up and down all these streets. He was scared someone might see because he was a politician and all."

At the same time, there exists a pronounced frustration echoed among women in the aboriginal community about being heard by their own leaders.

Just attend the vigils. Witness the sharing circles. Men are a tiny minority, if they attend at all.

"Write that we don't hear from our leaders," Brenda Osborne insisted. "Write that down. Come and sit with us and share our pain. They're the ones who are in power. They're supposed to be our voices. We're not taken seriously. And we don't want our leaders to be behind us. We want our leaders to be beside us or in front of us."

Make no mistake. These women, such as Osborne, are distrustful of police. They see the justice system as ineffectual, at best. And they loath the men who continue to cruise their neighbourhoods to buy sex.

But they also are disillusioned by their leaders, who have not in the past reinforced the families' attempts to raise awareness for their collective plight.

There is a caveat to that disappointment, however.

Said Richard: "Our families are devastated by history. Nobody knows their responsibilities."

"No one wants to talk about the uncomfortable things," Buck added. "In our community, sexual abuse, violence and addiction are huge. Our leadership in a lot of ways is unhealthy. Part of it is that men don't know how to help. They've lost their role as protectors and providers. They've lost a part of themselves.

"And there's a lot of angry women who won't let them get involved. They shut them out. They still view all men as predators. They're not able to allow men to come beside them."

In a recent interview, Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Derek Nepinak was asked about aboriginal women who felt "let down" by their own leaders, and he replied: "I think we've all been let down."

"People ask where our leaders are," Nepinak said. "I'm a leader who is committed to finding an answer. Are we truly living up to that responsibility? We have to awake the warrior spirit in our people. The men have to take that role once again."

Buck described the relationship between men and women of the aboriginal community -- in regard to the issue of missing and murdered women -- as "very complicated and sad," which only serves to undermine the ultimate goal. "It can't just be one group of people doing it (pressing the issue)," she reasoned.

For Spillet, the dysfunction is only more proof that colonialism works: the human toll of residential school abuse, systemic racism and the weight of poverty. Go figure the male leadership role in the aboriginal community has been eroded.

Besides, Spillet noted, that unfortunate -- she would say calculated -- reality only distracts from the obvious: "The freaking army would be digging up every inch of that garbage dump" -- the Brady landfill site believed to contain Tanya Nepinak's body -- "to find a white child. We know it. We see it. It just tells us who we are.

"Do you think if a bunch of kids from River Heights started killing themselves or each other that something wouldn't be done?"

Spillet doesn't wait for an answer. The question was rhetorical.

 

---

It's Saturday afternoon, and Kyle Kematch and his brother Faron Girouard are walking up and down Main Street, a stone's throw from the Winnipeg police headquarters, putting up posters and a brave front.

It's the second anniversary of the disappearance of their sister, Amber Guiboche, then 20, who was last seen Nov. 10, 2010, getting into a red pickup truck in a William Street back alley.

The brothers -- Girouard in property management, Kematch in the drywall business -- are no strangers to loss. Their older sister, Crystal, died of an overdose at age 19, just over 20 years ago. Within a week of that death, their mother -- who also suffered from addiction -- committed suicide by jumping off the Redwood Bridge.

The posters contain a picture of Amber and the details of her disappearance. The brothers have learned, by experience, to put the posters higher up, so they are not so easily torn down, and to concentrate them at bus stops and intersections.

"We've been all over Manitoba putting these up," said Kyle, 29. As far away as Dauphin and northern Ontario.

"We may be beating the pavement for nothing," added Faron, 36, "but we have to do it."

Such is the mantra of the families who gather at the vigils, join searches for bodies of the missing or march at the rallies to raise awareness for their lost loved ones.

For them, it's a sometimes dreary, sometimes terrifying, sometimes humiliating journey.

There are days when the phone rings and the cell reads "Private number," which Faron instantly recognizes as the police.

Always, the initial anticipation is bad news.

"My heart just drops," he said.

Or dealing with the perception that every missing or murdered woman is involved in "a high-risk lifestyle."

"The onus always seems to be on the family to prove their daughter was worth mourning, and that they didn't do anything to get what they deserve," offered Shawna Ferris, an assistant professor in women's and gender studies at the University of Manitoba.

The brothers agree. Amber Guiboche wasn't known to be in the sex trade. But here's a little secret: Being a 20-year-old woman out drinking with friends on any given volatile night in the North End is a "high-risk lifestyle."

After all, what's considered a "high-risk lifestyle" when 12-year-old girls walking to elementary school are routinely propositioned by brazen grown men? The same men who will even proposition social workers?

"Even when we're out there with 'Outreach' written on the back of our jackets, they will be trying to pick us up," Cumby said. "How stupid is that?"

"It's not just happening to sex-trade workers," added Christie Paul, neighbourhood resource co-ordinator with the North Point Douglas Women's Centre.

"It's sisters. It's daughters. Some of these girls are 14 years old. You can't tell me they're choosing this life. They live in a high-risk environment, but that high risk is poverty."

Or some psychopath. Or a taste for meth. Or just getting into the wrong red pickup truck at midnight in November.

"Who is attacking these women? It's not just these lone, monster, serial guys," said Ferris. "They get all the media attention. It's males, mostly white, relatively educated and young."

The exact demographic is difficult to determine, Ferris added, "because there are a lot of people that don't get caught. Often it isn't any direct motive. It just happens: 'She pissed me off so I hit her.'"

Hence another distinction: Missing and murdered women might be considered an aboriginal issue, but the root causes are not just racial, Ferris suggested. They're gender-based across the ethnic board. For example, she said, "What if we addressed the problem from birth onwards? What if we actually acknowledged that the reason women get hit is because there's an assumption they should submit? And if they don't submit, it's a problem."

Poor. Aboriginal. Women.

 

---

So where is the progress? It's hard to find at the vigil in early October, where one frustrated family member yelled into the bullhorn: "How many other women could be in that (Brady) landfill? You never know. They're not going to do anything. If you want action, you have to do it yourself. When are you guys going to wake up?"

The two brothers, Kyle and Faron, feel that same helplessness, but they nonetheless have taped up more than 1,000 posters of their lost sister.

Bernice Catcheway will continue coming back to the vigils, holding a picture of her daughter.

"As long as there's breath in me, I have hope," she said. "Without hope, there's nothing. We'll keep searching. We'll keep hoping."

In fact, that indelible image of Kyle Kematch standing in sleet in the backyard of the legislative building, speaking into a bullhorn that didn't work, could be symbolic of a lost cause.

Or perhaps the mirror image: refusing to stop speaking even if you can't be heard.

"It was so cold, but we were there," Buck noted of the vigil. "Even if there's one person standing in the wind and the rain holding a candle... If that ever stops happening, we're in trouble.

"I get pessimistic and become cynical. But I believe ultimately we can change it. It's going to be a very, very long process of reversing things. But we will go anywhere. We will do anything to bring our daughters home. All we want as mothers is someone to listen to us, someone who will agree with us that our children matter."

Fontaine points to progress: the raised awareness -- such as the recent National Aboriginal Women's Summit on missing and murdered women in Winnipeg -- and the advances in posting media advisories for women "at risk."

"Where we are today is nowhere near where we were four or five years ago," she said. "I've literally seen change. If nothing's changed, that means all of this work for 20 years has meant nothing. It's taken 400 years to get where we are. I have to have faith that things will get better. Not as fast as we want, obviously, but things will change.

"I'm always amazed by the resilience and strength of our people," Fontaine concluded. "I am in awe of the mothers who continue to go to the vigils, continue to speak out. It's the courage of our women and our girls that is the beautiful piece of this story. Not that we're less-than, not that we're savages. We're not whores, we're not prostitutes. Our bodies are there to absorb every bit of violence. We're there to shed the light."

And what did Kematch say into that broken bullhorn, anyway?

"I thanked everybody for their help and support," the brother of Amber Guiboche said, trudging down Main Street, with a backpack full of posters. "Even though we're not getting much, I still said 'Thank you.'"

randy.turner@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 17, 2012 0

History

Updated on Saturday, November 17, 2012 at 9:36 AM CST: adds photos

2:06 PM: Corrects that Pamela George was killed just outside Regina

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