Melanie Morrison, a Mohawk woman from Kahnawake Territory, still struggles to talk about her sister. Maybe she always will. Perhaps it’s the not knowing what happened to Tiffany in the early morning of June 18, 2006.
Maybe it’s the frustration that few people cared at first. Or that police both on and off the territory ignored pleas by the Morrison family to take Tiffany’s disappearance seriously. Or maybe it’s the helplessness Morrison and her family feel at each roadblock looking for what should be simple answers to easy questions.
Morrison is one of four people presenting this evening at Concordia University in Montreal. She sits beside Carrie Deer who works at the Quebec Native Women’s Association (QNWA), but is also a driving force behind Projet Authochtone du Québec (PAQ). Deer describes PAQ as “a place where the Aboriginal homeless come because they can’t get into any of the other shelters.”
Two other people are on the panel. One is Yasmin Jawani, an academic and researcher in communications studies at Concordia University, and the other is Craig Benjamin, who works at Amnesty International (Canada), an NGO in human rights. They provide the intellctual support to the emotional punch provided by the first-hand accounts from these two Mohawk women.
This is, after all, an evening for talk about the “more than 500 missing Aboriginal women across Canada,” according to the introduction to this evening – a point soon corrected by Professor Jawani. “I prefer to call them ‘disappeared,’ because that’s what they are. They aren’t missing. They are disappeared and murdered.”
Morrison lays out her sister’s story in clear, simple words. It’s a story much too familiar to any Indigenous person anywhere in Canada. The point of this evening is that these stories are just as often met with a stifled yawn or preferred ignorance by middle-class Canadians.
“She left a bar in LaSalle (a suburb over the Mercier Bridge) shortly after midnight. She was there with a friend. They shared a taxi back to Kahnawake. He got out first. She stayed in the taxi. Tiffany never made it home.”
Just like that, Tiffany Morrison became less than a statistic. Even the Mohawk Peacekeepers didn’t take the Morrison’s pleas for help seriously, at least not at first, not right after her disappearance. Like police in general, they shared stereotypical prejudices about Indigenous women; that they’re often drunk or on drugs, sexually promiscuous, wandering, less deserving of protection, unworthy in general. So the disappeared bring it on themselves, put themselves into danger, make poor choices that lead to tragedy. Women, in general, experience some or all of these to some extent. But these sterotypes are particularly strong with Indigenous women, making Indigenous woman the preferred targets of violent and abusive men.
Tiffany Morrision had a few drinks with a friend. They took a taxi home. She vanished. The man she was with didn’t remember what the driver looked like, or which of the three LaSalle taxi companies owned the vehicle that he and Tiffany took home that night.
Some taxi drivers go “off the meter” and don’t record their fares. The companies know this. Other drivers, even if they suspect another driver of wrogndoing, don’t want to identify that person to police because they’d be admitting they go “off the clock” as well. Police can’t compel the taxi companies to open their records because they can’t even identify the company, and no judge will issue a search warrant for a “fishing expedition.”
It’s been more than three years since Tiffany Morrison became one of the hundreds, perhaps a thousand or more, Indigenous women who have “disapeared” in Canada in the past 30 years. Under-reporting or no reporting of “disappeared” Indigenous women is commonplace by police forces who “often don’t identify Aboriginal women as Aboriginal,” according to Craig Benjamin of Amnesty International. There is no coordinated effort by police forces to share the records of reported missing or murdered Indigneous women “so no one really knows how many there are,” adds Benjamin.
“In many cases, the police don’t even have a policy or protocols to deal with missing women,” Benjamin continues. He explains that whatever policies or prcedures they may have – if any – are designed for people who meander into wooded areas, or otherwise wander away. “But many or most police forces don’t know how to deal with a family that comes to them because they suspect a family member has disappeared and may be a victim of violence, and they’re looking for help.” It makes the suffering of the family all that much worse.
What to do? They’re advice is commonsense. Talk about this. Raise hell with your politician. Write letters to your municipal council, provincial representative, and federal MP. Talk to the police and ask – not just for Indigenous women but for all women – if they have a policy when there’s a suspected violent disappearance of women? If not, why not? Demand a royal commission or national judicial inquiry.
Demand answers. Refuse put-off replies. Do not accept shrugs. Expect both but keep asking and demanding.
I’d go further: Get municipal governments to revise their taxi licensing procedures to make it mandatory to record and report all fares (I thought this was already done) and enforce it. Also, make it mandatory for taxi companies, as part of the public transportation system, to open their records to police enquiries.
Tomorrow, Sunday, October 4, find a Sisters in Spirit group that will be holding marches and a vigil to raise awareness in your city, town or area. Get out and show you want your governments and police forces to take the safety of women – all women – seriously.