Indigenous women disappearances lack attention
Allowing media outlets to fall for the ‘missing white woman syndrome’ is preventing Indigenous justice

Gabby Petito’s disappearance might have captivated the international community and brought awareness to the existing threats women face in the 21st century, but the unparalleled media attention it attracted demonstrated the bias and systemic racism in policing and news coverage. Indigenous women and girls face those threats at a disproportionately larger scale. Nonetheless, their cases don’t receive half as much attention and are treated less diligently by officials. This negligence calls into question whether opening an investigation is enough to provide justice for mourning Indigenous families and create enduring reconciliation.

Petito, an aspiring vlogger who documented her van journey, was reported missing in Wyoming Sept. 11 following continuous confrontations with her fiancé. Her story controlled U.S. and foreign media for numerous days with her family eager to find resolution. After an extensive search, Petito’s remains were found and the police are currently searching for her fiancé as a person of interest.

Despite mourning the death of all women lost to violence, it is undeniable that Petito’s case came to show the systemic racism that is inherent in media outlets and policing. In Wyoming alone, at least 710 Indigenous people went missing between 2011 and 2020, yet almost none made it to the headlines. And the story in Canada is not far from the same.

After his 2015 election victory, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau launched the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) which sought to reveal the persistent and deliberate violations against the rights of Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people. Despite significant findings, and over 200 recommendations provided, Canada still faces challenges battling the recurring violence against Indigenous women.

Due to an absence of support and the historical and contemporary effects of genocidal racism, once Indigenous peoples — especially women — leave their communities and move to the cities, they become highly susceptible to poverty which can lead to violence enacted upon them. This vulnerability has contributed to the murders and kidnapping of Indigenous women in metropolitan areas like Winnipeg. Nonetheless, this high rise in crimes hasn’t been accompanied by congruent police action. Indigenous families, desperate for answers regarding the state of their loved ones, seeking help at local police stations are often slammed with racial bias and lack of action. This leaves many Indigenous communities to rely on each other to find their well-deserved answers.

Local organizations like the Bear Clan Patrol have acted as first responders in high-risk metropolitan areas where there are concentrations of Indigenous residents who could be at risk. Likewise, mourning families have gathered volunteers to look for the remains of their missing family members. Despite these grassroots efforts, mainstream media has acted oblivious to them.

The historic lack of action and reporting has done nothing but propel the problem as Indigenous women are seen as easy targets for all kinds of aggressions. In the last decade, Manitoba has become a hotspot for violence against Indigenous women with 18 active cases of MMIWG. Though steps have been taken to battle the growing problem in Winnipeg by creating a special police unit, an estimated 90 to 95 per cent of the reported missing people are still Indigenous women or girls.

The political hiatus on the discussion of MMIWG was so notable that it became a topic for the federal leaders’ debate earlier this year. What could have been a great opportunity to acknowledge the wrongdoings of the past and promote viable solutions for the current surge in violent crimes against Indigenous women and girls became nothing but a partisan politics discussion. Prime Minister Trudeau took the opportunity to promote his MMIWG action plan, which has been described by the Native Women’s Association of Canada as “toxic and dysfunctional.”

In such a historic moment when reconciliation is more crucial than ever before and media coverage is increasingly influential, the lack of reporting of MMIWG must pick up pace. By letting media outlets off the hook, we are only propelling the collateral damage of colonialism.

As disheartening as Petito’s death is, we must also mourn and demand answers for all the Indigenous women and girls that have had the same fate. We must say their names and let their stories be told.