By Chloe Tejada
Debbie Sloss-Clarke was found dead in her apartment at Gerrard and Sherbourne streets on July 29, 1997.
The police report read: “The victim was a native Indian and is believed to have been born in Northern Ontario… what is known however is that the victim was an alcoholic and crack addict.” Case closed. It is estimated that 500 Native women across Canada have gone missing or been murdered in the past 20 years.
Others, such as Robyn Bourgeois, a worker with the No More Silence Network, believe the number to be in the thousands; most of them remain unsolved and often no police investigation has been conducted.
“The problem is huge,” Bourgeois says. “the missing women are sex workers, drug addicts… Ask yourself, if this was a white, middle-class girl, would the police treat her the same way they treat them?”
Bourgeois is referring to what she sees as a problematic trend in cases of missing women. She believes that serial killers are continuously getting away with raping and murdering Native women, while the police and the judicial system are turning a blind eye.
“(Native people) are constructed as lesser members of Canadian society. Because some of these women are on the wrong side of the law, people rationalize violence and believe that these women get what they deserve, so the cops are inactive,” Bourgeois says.
Meanwhile, while Ryerson’s campus is surrounded by help centres and shelters for Native women, some aboriginal students continue to face racism in the classroom, says Monica McKay, Aboriginal Student Services Coordinator.
“I encourage students who encounter racism in classrooms and with faculty to raise the issue with the office of harassment and discrimination and to bring attention to their program,” McKay says.
However, she won’t go into detail about specific events that students have come to her about. “It’s traumatic enough already for them,” she says.
An avid supporter of women’s rights, Bourgeois, 27, is a PhD student in sociology and equity at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto and is putting what she learns in the class into her passion to fight for Aboriginal rights.
On Feb. 14, she and the No More Silence Network organized a memorial for missing and murdered Aboriginal women at Toronto Police Headquarters on Bay and College streets.
The rally coincided with a memorial taking place in Vancouver’s downtown eastside. Feb. 14 is the date that the community memorializes the more than 60 women who have disappeared or died violent deaths in the Vancouver neighbourhood.
Amber O’Hara doesn’t stand out in the crowd. She is short, with dark hair and glasses. But when she takes the microphone and speaks to the crowd of several dozen supporters, student journalists and a growing police presence, their bright yellow jackets flashing in the background, one can’t ignore her. Her voice is at once loud and fragile when she speaks about her friend, Debbie, who was found murdered in her room and whose case remains, like so many others, unsolved.
“Debbie was so kind, so gentle,” O’Hara says. “I saw her give her last dollar to someone who needed it and she was probably killed for $25. That person is still free, probably killing and raping.”
O’Hara says the three-page police report on Debbie’s death states that she died a sudden death and gives alcohol/drugs as the reason.
However, the toxicology report, dated Sept. 8, 1997, showed no drugs were detected in her system and the small amount of alcohol in her blood was likely a product of the advanced decomposition of her body, she says. O’Hara says Debbie was sober for the last four months of her life. Her status card was on her body but the report referred to her as “Jane Doe.” The police report was not opened again. “She was just an invisible woman to the police, just an alcoholic Indian woman,” she says.
Her site, MissingNativeWomen.org, helps her keep track of as many cases of missing Native women as she can. “I want cases to be treated as equal. It shouldn’t matter if the women are prostitutes, nobody deserves to die like this… There is so much judgment towards them,” she says. O’Hara, who was once a prostitute, knows what it’s like to be treated as less than human. Growing up, she moved from foster home to foster home, and later was taken to a residential school where she was abused. Sixteen years ago, O’Hara was raped by two men in her car. She filed a report with the police who interviewed her. Eight months later she found out that she had AIDS. When she went back to the police, they told her that they didn’t have a file on her.
Const. Kim Turner, an Aboriginal Liaison Officer at Toronto Police Headquarters, says that police do their job regardless of a victim’s education, race, ethnicity or sex. “I have never run into officers that don’t care. The people I have worked with are not like that. It’s stereotyping,” Turner says. Turner says that police do a full investigation into every case that is brought to them, but if leads or evidence don’t come up, then it’s hard for them to do their job. “You want to do the best you can. If people aren’t going to come forward, all we’ve got is what we’ve got, then there’s nothing we can do. If someone is not satisfied with an investigation, there are avenues to facilitate that,” Turner says.
According to McKay, the silencing of Native women has been around since first contact was made with Europeans. “There are writings of men from back then who ridiculed Aboriginal men for allowing Aboriginal women to participate in decision-making… It’s been institutionalized in the majority of all structures.”
McKay says that if students feel they cannot come to her, there are other places around campus that can help, such as The Native Women’s Resource Centre at 191 Gerrard St. E., Anishnawbe Health Toronto at 179 Gerrard St. E., Mary’s Home Emergency Shelter at 70 Gerrard St. E. and Women’s Drop in on 26 Shuter St. O’Hara’s website is one avenue that is giving a voice to the missing Native women and calling for their cases to be re-opened.
She says she gets death threats all the time because of her work. But she is not afraid anymore.
“There’s nothing else they can do to me but kill me,” she says.