Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Disability Justice

There are at least 824 documented cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada and likely many more.1

Thousands of people have protested against and come together in memory of missing and murdered Indigenous women in the past few months alone. In Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, protestors blocked the rail lines demanding the federal government launch an inquiry about missing and murdered Indigenous women. Sadly, trains running on time are more important than Indigenous women’s lives so the police arrested protestors and didn’t launch an inquiry.

The arrest and trial of serial killer Robert Pickton brought what many Indigenous people have decried as the loss of their loved ones and the disregard by police to the national stage.2 But the issue of missing and murdered women was not news to Indigenous communities – it is a daily reality. And it is a reality, I would argue, that Canada has been complicit in maintaining because Indigenous people, particularly Indigenous women, simply don’t count.

From early on in the colonial project until today, Indigenous people have been targeted for elimination. This is manifest through the stealing of Indigenous children from their families in order to assimilate them in residential schools or white families chosen by CAS,3 the intentional deprivation of food from Indigenous communities,4 the imposition of White systems of governance through the Band Council system,5 the legal control of definitions of “Indian” to systematically rob Indigenous people of Indian status,6 the targeting of Indigenous people in eugenic sterilization programs,7 and, of course, murder.

What does this have to do with disability?

Because oppressions are interlocked, we can’t separate disability out from Indigenous or settler identities and pretend it is somehow a discrete category.

If you live inside the borders of Canada, you are profoundly impacted by Canada’s colonial past and present – even if you fail to acknowledge it. I am a settler – that means me and my ancestors are not indigenous to this land. It means that I am implicated in the violence of colonialism and it means that I benefit from the theft of Indigenous lands, resources, cultures and knowledges. All that I have is built on genocide and colonialism. While I am disabled and marginalized in this society, I also have a great deal of privilege and, like all disabled and non-disabled settlers, need to work to rectify these injustices.

Disproportionate Rates of Disability

Further, Indigenous people are nearly twice as likely to be labelled as disabled within Canadian borders as non-Indigenous people.8

Eugenic logic casts Indigenous people as inherently unfit. The program of sterilization of the ‘unfit’ in Alberta was found to have disproportionately targeted Indigenous women. Indigenous people were also much more likely to be diagnosed as being “mentally defective.” This meant that only 17% of Indigenous people’s consent was required for serialization while about 40-50% of Europeans were able to consent.9 Near the end of Alberta’s eugenic sterilization program, about a quarter of all sterilizations conducted were on Indigenous people.10 Indigenous people, particularly women, were viewed as disabled (mentally defective) because of their Indigeneity.

If we look at disability from a radical perspective, disability and disabled people are not bad – we aren’t a negative that should be eliminated. However, harm to people is bad. The disproportionate rates of disability among Indigenous people are undoubtedly the result of preventable harm and this is an injustice. A few of the causes of high rates of disablement in Indigenous communities are disproportionate levels of: crime victimization,11 poverty,12 inadequate housing,13 lack of clean and safe water,14 pollution and environmental deregulation,15 incarceration16 police violence17 and the legacy of the residential schools.18

Indigenous women in particular are viewed as disposable and this means that they are at an incredibly high risk of disablement, in addition to being much more likely to experience violence and to be murdered.19

If we are concerned about disability issues and disability justice, we have to work to eliminate these injustices and end ongoing colonial practices. This means supporting the Idle No More movement and groups like the protesters in Tyendinaga. It also means working to educate ourselves and our communities and demanding that our governments not only order an inquiry but also work to end all colonial violence – including violence against Indigenous women.


1. New list of missing, murdered aboriginal women gives families hope by CBC News (2014).

2. Forsaken: The report of the missing women commission of inquiry.(2012) British Columbia. I should note that, according to a friend of mine who supported women through this inquiry process, many of the families left the process because they felt that it was fundamentally flawed.

3. Interview with John Beaucage on Aboriginal foster care and the “millennium scoop” by Aaron Lakoff (2011), Montreal: CKUT Radio; Administering colonial science: Nutrition research and human biomedical experimentation in aboriginal communities and residential schools, 1942–1952 by Ian Mosby (2013); Stolen sisters, second class citizens, poor health: The legacy of colonization in Canada by Wendee Kubik, Carrie Bourassa and Mary Hampton, Humanity & Society, 33(1/2), 18-34.

4. Mosby, 2013 at note 3.

5. Stolen continents: The Americas through Indian eyes since 1492 by Ronald Wright (1992), New York: Houghton Mifflin.

6. The truth about stories: A native narrative by Thomas King (2003), Toronto: House of Anansi Press; Kubik, Bourassa and Hampton (2009) at note 3.

7. War against the weak: Eugenics and America’s campaign to create a master race by Edwin Black (2003) New York: Four Walls Eight Windows.

8. Advancing the Inclusion of People with Disabilities 2007 by Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (2007).

9. Sterilizing the “Feeble-minded”: Eugenics in Alberta, Canada, 1929–1972 by Jana Grekul, Arvey Krahn and Dave Odynak, Journal of Historical Sociology, 17(4), 358-384.

10. Black (2003) at note 7.

11. Indigenous people are seven times as likely to be murdered and twice as likely to be violently assaulted,  Aboriginal People as Victims of Crime by the Government of Canada – National Victims of Crime Awareness Week (2013).

12. Aboriginal homelessness in Canada: A literature review by Caryl Patrick, Toronto: Canadian Homeless Research Network Press.

13. Ibid.

14. In April, 2012, the Federal Government listed 122 First Nations communities that did not have tap water that was safe to drink! Canada: The Right to Water in First Nations Communities by Amnesty International.

15. “A slow industrial genocide”: oil sands and the Indigenous Peoples of Northern Alberta by J. Huseman and D. Short (2012), International Journal of Human Rights 16 (1) 216–237; Shelter in place: a First Nation community in Canada’s Chemical Valley by Deborah Davis Jackson (2010) Interdisciplinary Environmental Review 11 (4) 249-262.

16. It is estimated that Indigenous people are imprisoned at 10 times the rate of non-Indigenous people.  Aboriginal Offenders – A Critical Situation by the Office of the Correctional Investigator (2013).

17. Braidwood Commission on Conducted Energy Use. (2009). Restoring public confidence: Restricting the use of conducted energy weapons in British Columbia. ( No. Phase I). Victoria: Government of British Columbia.(Commissioner: Thomas R. Braidwood, Q.C.)

18.  Historicizing Health Inequities: Healing the vestiges of residential schooling by Sara Mohammed (2010) Indigenous Policy Journal 21.3, 1-11).

19. Kubik, Bourassa and Hampton (2009) at note 3.