The number of indigenous women who have disappeared or been killed in Canada may be much larger than previously estimated, officials said this week.
Research from the Native Women’s Association of Canada documented about 3,000 more cases than the Royal Canadian Mounted Police reported in 2014, Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett said on Monday.
Vancouver-based initiative Walk4Justice compiled a list ― which the NWAC acquired ― of 4,232 indigenous women who have been killed or have gone missing since the 1980s. This figure stands in stark contrast to the RCMP’s initial count of 1,181.
“The gulf between 1,200 and pushing 4,000 is huge,” NWAC President Dawn Lavell-Harvard told CBC News. She also stressed the importance of instituting a formal database for information about the cases.
The discrepancy between the RCMP and NWAC’s findings could partly be due to the fact that some disputed cases weren’t properly investigated and were dismissed as suicides or exposure deaths, suggested Patricia Hajdu, Canada’s minister for the status of women.
The RCMP has been accused of treating indigenous people unfairly, and even of abusing some.
Human Rights Watch released a report in 2013 detailing stories from indigenous women who said RCMP officers in British Columbia had beaten, pepper-sprayed, strip-searched and assaulted them.
“I understand that there are racists in my police force,” RCMP commissioner Bob Paulson told a group of First Nations leaders in December.
“I don’t want them to be in my police force,” he added, noting that the RCMP has the authority to discipline its officers.
Lavell-Harvard welcomed this admission, saying, “I think it’s about time.”
Indigenous women and girls comprise 4 percent of the nation's female population, but account for 16 percent of all Canadian women killed between 1980 and 2012, according to the Government of Canada's website.
Shortly after his election, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised an immediate national inquiry into the murders and disappearances of indigenous women.
"For indigenous peoples, life in Canada has not been -- and is not today -- easy, equitable or fair," Trudeau said in December.
During a CBC forum earlier this year, Trudeau answered questions from an indigenous woman whose aunt and cousin had disappeared. He acknowledged that the Canadian government had failed indigenous people for "a long, long time," and said he had a plan to renew the relationship between the government and the indigenous population. When asked about the RCMP's "inaction" on the issue, Trudeau said changes are needed, "institutionally, right across the board."