Sisters in Spirit

Sisters In Spirit

What Happened

In 2010, the Sisters in Spirit database project was cut by the federal government, and new initiatives were announced, including another database on missing persons run by the RCMP. Native groups, human rights organizations and other critics called the policy change misleading and counterproductive, noting that the new missing persons database would no longer focus on Aboriginal women.

In response to mounting evidence that hundreds of Aboriginal women in Canada were going missing or had been murdered, there were calls from many quarters for comprehensive action to investigate the violence and its causes. In 2004, Amnesty International released a report entitled Stolen Sisters, documenting the violence.

In 2005, the Canadian government announced $10 million to fund a national database on missing and murdered Aboriginal women. About half of those funds would go to a project called Sisters in Spirit, run by the Native Women’s Association of Canada.

In 2006, the Conservative government was elected.

In 2007, Canada became one of only four countries in the world to vote against the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. A year later, Aboriginal organizations, citizens’ groups and rights groups brought their concerns to the United Nations and the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. The Committee called on Canada as follows:

32. State party to examine the reasons for the failure to investigate the cases of missing or murdered Aboriginal women and to take the necessary steps to remedy the deficiencies in the system. The Committee calls upon [Canada] to urgently carry out thorough investigations of the cases … [and] to carry out an analysis of those cases in order to determine whether there is a racialized pattern to the disappearances and take measures to address the problem[.]

Over the next several years, Sisters in Spirit developed a database showing that 582 Aboriginal women had gone missing or had been murdered in Canada. The research results were published in March 2010, with the NWAC report What Their Stories Tell Us.”

Sisters in Spirit defunded

In October 2010, Canada’s Minister for Status of Women, Rona Ambrose, announced several changes that would affect how the government would address the crisis of missing and murdered Aboriginal women. The funding for the Sisters in Spirit database was terminated and funds were substantially redirected to government departments.

According to one activist, NWAC would have to meet new criteria to receive further government funding, including a requirement that it quit working on their internationally acclaimed database, stop using government funds for research and policy, and change their name to “Evidence to Action.” NWAC would receive a significantly diminished amount, $500,000, for the new “Evidence to Action” initiative.

According to reports, NWAC President, Jeanette Corbiere-Lavell, wrote a letter to the government, recalling that the government had acknowledged that Sisters in Spirit had been successful. However, the government said it was time to move on to a more concrete focus. Four million dollars would go to a national missing persons database, managed by the RCMP, as well as a national tip web site for missing persons and a list of best practices to help communities, law enforcement and justice partners.

Native groups dismayed

The government’s announcement of the cuts to Sisters in Spirit provoked an outcry among indigenous groups and critics, who argued that the government’s policy changes were misleading and counterproductive.

The government’s new national database is “not in any way specific to native women,” said Mayab Rolbin-Ghanie, a member of the Native women’s organization Missing Justice.

The former President of the Quebec Native Women’s Association, Ellen Gabriel, decried the allocation of responsibility for investigating the crisis of violence against native women to the RCMP. “The RCMP are the ones, the culprits, who have, through their apathy, done nothing to improve this situation,” said Gabriel.

“It was a duplicitous announcement,” said Anita Neville, Liberal MP and Official Opposition Critic for Status of Women. “Ambrose framed it as ten million going towards Aboriginal women but a good deal is going to their own justice systems, not Aboriginal women. Sisters in Spirit was told to shut down, told not to collect stats or advocate, but still they were used as a poster program. It’s all smoke and mirrors and it’s disrespectful. Ambrose should be ashamed at playing with women’s lives this way.”

Crisis unresolved

In December 2010, the Conservative government responded to critics by signing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. On February 25, 2011, the government also announced that NWAC would receive a $1,89 million over three years for ”Evidence to Action II,” a new government plan to help communities understand, prevent and respond to violence against Aboriginal women and girls. It was to include training for police officers, educators, justice officials, frontline healthcare workers, social service providers and community leaders across Canada.   

In December 2011, however, the House of Commons Standing Committee on the Status of Women tabled a report acknowledging the concerns about inadequate police response to reports of missing women, the under-funding of services for Indigenous women and the need to support families of missing and murdered women. However, Amnesty International has noted that the report contains “few concrete recommendations and does not set forward any new vision for responding to the crisis.”

Aboriginal women in Canada continue to face a disproportionate risk of murder and disappearance. A Commission of Inquiry set up to address what happened to many of the missing and murdered women in BC is embroiled in controversy. On December 16, 2011, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women announced that it would be launching an inquiry into Aboriginal missing and murdered women in Canada.

In 2012, a broader pattern of defunding Aboriginal-focused knowledge institutions emerged following the federal budget. According to an article entitled “Death by a thousand cuts,”  the hit list of organizations now also includes the First Nations Statistical Institute, the National Aboriginal Health Organization, and the National Centre for First Nations Governance. The authors reported that the Assembly of First Nations, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and the Native Women’s Association of Canada have also been scaled back, although exact details are not yet public.


Relevant Dates:

  • 2005: The federal government gives Sisters in Spirit $5 million for 5 years to develop a database on missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada.
  • September 2007:  The Federal government is one of four nations to refuse to sign the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
  • November 2008:  The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women criticizes Canada’s failure to investigate violence and address against Aboriginal women.
  • October 29, 2010: The Department of Justice announces phase II of the project, with a total of $10 million in funding to different initiatives, $4 million was to be directed back to the federal government itself. Sisters In Spirit can no longer work on the database and the project has to change its name to “Evidence to Action” if it is to receive further funding.
  • October 2010 - December 2010: There is a public outcry against the decision to allocate funding back to the federal government and its justice initiatives.   
  • November 12, 2010. Canada signs the  UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. February 25, 2011: The Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC) receives $1,89 million over three years for ”Evidence to Action II.”
  • 2012: Wider cutbacks are revealed against Aboriginal groups and organizations, including cutbacks in the 2012 budget. 


Role or Position

Sisters in Spirit (SIS) was an initiative of the Native Women’s Association (NWAC) that had created a database on missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls in Canada in response to alarmingly high rates of violence. Through SIS, the NWAC provided evidence of almost 600 missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada. It also supported families, engaged communities and worked with service providers. SIS was also key in organizing Montreal Sisters in Spirit Memorial March and Vigil annually until funding was cut in 2010. 


Implications and Consequences

  • Transparency: The significantly diminished funding of the Sisters in Spirit project is part of a larger pattern of defunding knowledge initiatives in relation to Aboriginal data, health and women’s organizations. Lack of data and diminished engagement of Aboriginal involvement in these initiatives undermine the ability of Canadians to hold their government to account on related issues.
  • Democracy: Though the public outcry over the defunding of Sisters in Spirit resulted in a partial reversal of trends towards defunding organizations working on Aboriginal issues, the broader outlook for progress on establishing the knowledge necessary for informed and intelligent policy on Aboriginal issues remains bleak.

Published: 12 June 2012