Every July, more than a million people descend on Calgary, Canada, for Stampede, a 10-day rodeo and festival billed as “The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth.” A prairie city just east of the Rockies, Calgary is inundated with cowboys and denim-clad wannabes looking to eat fried food and watch bull riders. Stampede is also western Canada’s answer to Mardi Gras. Patrons pack shoulder-to-shoulder into neon-lit saloons and cavernous clubs, where female bartenders in crop tops and hot pants wander dance floors bearing trays of shots. Companies with names like “Bust Loose!” deploy hundreds of buses, equipped with booming stereos and dance poles, to carry revelers on hours-long pub crawls.
For Canada’s aboriginal people, Stampede offers another kind of celebration: a chance to showcase their cultures. (Indigenous populations include the country’s 634 First Nations as well as Métis and Inuit citizens.) At Stampede Park, the event’s main grounds in downtown Calgary, native craftspeople show spectators how to raise tipis, carve knives out of stone, and use butchered animals’ stomachs as cooking vessels.
On July 11, 2007, Sandra Manyfeathers, a local educator, dancer, and member of the Blood Tribe, was slated to participate in the festivities. Then 36, Manyfeathers would join other indigenous performers at one of Stampede’s Grandstand Shows, nightly entertainment extravaganzas featuring local talent. She hoped that her older sister, Jacqueline Crazybull, would be watching.
With high, fine cheekbones and long, dark hair, the sisters — two of 12 siblings — looked alike. Crazybull had helped raise Manyfeathers after their mother died when they were young — 20 and 12, respectively. Crazybull went on to have a dozen children of her own. Her life hadn’t been easy; she’d struggled with drug addiction and had sometimes been homeless. Still, she was lighthearted and quick to kindness, with a wide smile and a warm laugh. She often showed up to cheer at Manyfeathers’s dance performances.
But Crazybull never made it. At about 4 a.m. that July 11, she and a cousin, Kirk Steinhauer, were hungry for a snack and popped into a corner store on Calgary’s Red Mile, a strip of restaurants and bars next to Stampede Park. Shortly after the two left the store, a group of young men in a sedan pulled up to the curb, rolled down a window, and asked for directions. Crazybull walked over to help. Steinhauer sat on a bus-stop bench and took his eyes off his cousin for only a moment. Then he heard her scream.
The sedan was peeling away down the street. Crazybull lay crumpled in pain on the pavement. Steinhauer dashed over and saw that she was alive but bleeding profusely from a stab wound to her stomach. Within minutes, Crazybull stopped breathing. She was one of five people attacked that night in Calgary, seemingly at random, by the same men. She was the only aboriginal victim, and the only one who died.
Manyfeathers heard the news that afternoon while in a trailer preparing for the Grandstand Show. She remembers feeling disbelief. It wasn’t the first time heartbreak had touched her family. In 1991, another sister, Yvonne, had been beaten to death by a relative’s boyfriend. Eight years later, a cousin, Gloria Blackplume, had been found in a Calgary alley, kicked to death by two male acquaintances.
Their stories are part of a larger tragedy. According to 2011 data, though Canada’s 718,500 indigenous women make up just 4.3 percent of the country’s female population, they represent around five times as many female homicide victims. Canadian police have found that 4.5 out of every 100,000 indigenous women die by homicide — for women overall, the figure is less than 1 — and that roughly 1,200 have been slain or have gone missing over the past three decades. Nongovernmental research, however, suggests the real number may top 4,000. How many cases have been solved is another point of dispute: The government claims nearly 90 percent, but some indigenous activists say it’s closer to 50.
On the advice of tribal elders, Manyfeathers decided to go ahead with her Stampede performance in her sister’s honor. Dressed in a colorful beaded gown with her hair in two thick braids, she took the stage. Accompanied by a drummer and led by instinct, Manyfeathers executed fast, intricate jumps and steps while twirling a shawl and spinning. She didn’t register the audience. As if in a trance, she moved only for her sister that night.
Afterward, she went to a nearby bathroom with another sibling, who at Manyfeathers’s request used a pair of scissors to cut off her braids. In her culture, long hair is a sign of well-being. Shearing it is an act of mourning but also creates room for spiritual growth.
A few days later, Manyfeathers placed the braids, still laced with beads and feathers, on her sister’s casket as it was lowered into the earth. Their First Nation traditions would prove some of Manyfeathers’s only sources of solace as the hunt for her sister’s killers unfolded — and then sputtered to a painful halt.
“You don’t have to feel sorry for me,” Manyfeathers says. “As harsh as things are for First Nation people, we’ve actually developed a skill to be able to get through things.” It’s the middle of April 2016, and she’s sitting across from me over scrambled eggs at a diner not far from Stampede Park. At 45, Manyfeathers continues to dance, and she once again wears her hair long.
A cultural educator by trade, Manyfeathers has the tough disposition of someone who’s spent decades living a national crisis. Among the missing and slain aboriginal women, some have been felled by random crimes. Others have been sex workers strangled by johns, teenage runaways targeted by violent offenders, or victims of abusive boyfriends. Certain regions are more affected than others — a lonely stretch of mountain road in British Columbia is known as the “Highway of Tears” because dozens of women have died or disappeared there — but no location is immune.
What unites the cases are the conditions that make native women vulnerable to violence, rooted in a colonial legacy of neglect and humiliation. Until just a few decades ago, the Canadian government tried to erase aboriginal cultures. Among other policies, the state denied natives voting rights until 1960, unless they agreed to forgo indigenous status. Canada also forced 150,000 aboriginal children into “residential schools” — state-funded boarding institutions where assimilation into white culture was mandatory. Students were beaten if they spoke in their native tongues, and an unknown number of girls was sterilized. The last of the 130 schools didn’t close until 1996.
Today, Canada’s 1.4 million indigenous people suffer economically — 36 percent of indigenous women live in poverty, for instance, versus 17 percent of their non-indigenous counterparts. One-third of indigenous people between the ages of 25 and 54 have less than a high school education. Substance abuse is a rampant concern; in a 2011 national survey of First Nation adults living on reserves and in northern communities, 83 percent cited it as the biggest threat to aboriginal health. Dawn Lavell-Harvard, president of the non-profit Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC), says she once heard domestic abuse in aboriginal households called as normal as keeping “ketchup in the fridge.”
“Canada has done a very good job of making indigenous people invisible,” Lavell-Harvard adds. “Racism against indigenous people is justified, legitimized, accepted, and even ignored.” According to 2016 data from the independent Canadian Institute for Identities and Migration, a quarter of the country holds a negative view of indigenous people. The only populations seen more unfavorably are Muslims (43 percent) and immigrants (28 percent).
This outlook bleeds into law enforcement, with police often misdirecting blame in cases involving missing or slain women. They claim aboriginal victims probably died of overdoses, committed suicide, or ran away from home. In some instances, they fail to follow up on leads. A recent Canadian Broadcasting Corp. (CBC) survey of more than 110 native families who’ve lost female relatives found that the average performance rating for police, on a scale of one to 10, was a mere 2.8. “I feel like the police are not taking interest in anything that has anything to do with the aboriginal people,” Maria Pia Benuen, whose best friend disappeared and has never been found, told the CBC.
As far back as 1991, activists organized a march demanding justice. It would take a full decade and a handful of high-profile killings for the Canadian government to pay even modest attention, in the form of reports and other bureaucratic mechanisms. Little was done, however, to crack existing cases or to prevent future ones. As recently as 2014, then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper rejected calls for a national investigation into the roots of the crisis. “It isn’t really high on our radar, to be honest,” he told a television interviewer.
Faced with inertia, it has fallen to native women to become protesters, scholars, advocates, and even their own protectors. They have searched for the missing when police have stopped. They have organized rallies and memorials. They have published the best data on killings and disappearances. Whether they have collaborated or worked alone, their experiences are the threads of the same story, crosshatched across Canada’s vast territory. They are the catalysts who, this year, spurred a newly elected government to commence a pioneering federal inquiry.
Manyfeathers is one of these women. She shares her story not so “I can have a pity party,” she says, as her coffee cools in a thick-rimmed mug on the Formica table between us. “I do this so there is awareness.”
Crazybull’s killers were reckless. There were people at the scene of the crime, including her cousin, and four stabbing victims who survived. (Steinhauer did not respond to an interview request sent via his Facebook page.) Witnesses said the sedan was a light color and that three or four young black men were inside, but no one could identify them.
Four months later, in November 2007, police released surveillance footage from Mac’s Convenience Store, situated across the street from where Crazybull was killed. It showed three young black men shopping just before the stabbing spree. Police stopped short of calling the trio suspects but said they might have more information about the crimes. Still, no one came forward. Nine years later, no one ever has. Manyfeathers says she hasn’t heard an update from law enforcement since 2008.
Inspector Don Coleman of Calgary’s major crimes section tells me that authorities interviewed witnesses and believe they know the perpetrators’ identities. Yet they don’t have sufficient evidence to make arrests. “There are reasons why we can’t move the file forward at this point,” Coleman says, declining to elaborate. He admits that the police could be in closer touch with Crazybull’s relatives: “We probably don’t do as good a job as families or we would like.”
Far bigger cases have stagnated despite far worse evidence. The December after Crazybull’s death, Robert Pickton, a pig farmer in British Columbia, was convicted of murdering six women, five of whom were aboriginal. Police believed that he was probably responsible for as many as 49 homicides between the early 1980s and late 2001, and that about half of his victims were indigenous sex workers. Pickton’s crimes, however, might have been solved much sooner. When prostitutes began disappearing from Vancouver in the 1990s, Lorimer Shenher, a detective, received an anonymous tip suggesting that police investigate Pickton. His superiors were dismissive. “There were so many biases against these women from police,” Shenher says, “an attitude of ‘You get what you paid for.’”
Pickton was charged with attempted murder in 1997. The woman, a sex worker, had been handcuffed and stabbed multiple times before fighting him off and running away. Pickton suffered knife wounds and was treated at the same hospital as the woman; in his pocket, doctors found the key to the cuffs still dangling from her arm. Yet Pickton claimed self-defense, and charges were dismissed on the grounds that the woman, who had a history of petty crime and drug addiction, was not sufficiently credible. Police collected Pickton’s clothing but stashed it in a storage locker for more than seven years. When they were examined in 2004, after the killer’s other crimes had been exposed, police found the DNA of two missing women.
Failed opportunities mounted. In a book published last year, Shenher recounts how police twice interviewed a woman who told a friend that she’d helped Pickton lure a sex worker and later saw him skinning her body on a meat hook in his barn. Shenher says officers were biased and unprepared in the questioning. As a result, they got no actionable information — and Pickton wasn’t arrested for three more years. “If you were in any other job you’d be fired for the kind of incompetence that I encountered in this investigation every day,” Shenher tells me. “Nobody cared. Literally.”
Watching the news of Pickton’s trial on television in Ottawa, Maryanne Pearce, then 35, was infuriated. “It was just so horrific,” the part-Mohawk woman recalls. “It was one of those ‘I have to do something’ moments.”
Pearce enrolled in a doctoral program in law to research missing and murdered women but soon found that “there was nothing available to the public in terms of data” because police had never published national statistics. So she began a project that would become her thesis. “I decided I [would] just do a database,” she says, “not having any idea of what I was getting myself into.”
Building an archive of media clippings about reported deaths and disappearances dating back as far as she could find, Pearce categorized women according to several factors, including whether they were mothers, worked in the sex trade, and had attended residential schools. The files grew so vast that the boxes holding them spilled from Pearce’s small home office into her dining room.
Unbeknownst to Manyfeathers, her sister’s story was included in those boxes. Back in Calgary, Manyfeathers was determined to keep Crazybull’s memory alive. In October 2008, the month of her sister’s birthday and just over a year after her slaying, Manyfeathers organized Justice for Jackie, a march that would become an annual ritual. She gathered Crazybull’s children, family members, and friends at the city’s Rouleauville Square and walked 10 blocks to the corner where her sister had died. They carried a banner with Crazybull’s picture. Some sang traditional songs. Others prayed out loud for the killers to be caught.
Around that time, a new case emerged just over 800 miles east in Manitoba, Canada’s geographic heartland. Claudette Osborne, a 21-year-old mother of four, disappeared from Winnipeg on July 24, 2008. She had a history of sex work and substance abuse. Social services had taken her youngest child, born 15 days before Osborne went missing, and had told her to seek drug treatment. Her last contact with her family was a phone message she left with a sibling saying that she was at Winnipeg’s Lincoln Motor Hotel with a man who made her feel unsafe.
Osborne’s sister, Bernadette Smith, became the lost woman’s staunchest advocate. Smith says police were slow to respond. “She was reported missing, but it was 10 days before her case was even looked at,” Smith testified before Canada’s Parliament several years later. The Winnipeg Police Department’s policy on missing persons is flexible: A “risk assessment” is conducted, examining factors such as age and lifestyle. Then, “if the assessment dictates, a uniform car will be dispatched to begin the investigation.” Osborne’s background seemingly would have placed her at high risk. Yet Smith claims police took the case less seriously because of it. “[They] told us that they weren’t going to do anything right now, that she’d turn up,” Smith testified. When they did start looking, security-camera footage from the Lincoln Motor Hotel on the day Osborne vanished had already been taped over.
Smith wasn’t a stranger to shoddy police work. It had taken 15 years for authorities to make arrests in the 1971 slaying of her cousin, Helen Betty Osborne, despite informants providing the names of three of the four men involved. (One suspect was later convicted, another was acquitted, and one received immunity for testifying. The fourth was never charged.) In 2003, another 16-year-old relative’s severed arm and leg turned up in Winnipeg’s Red River; that killing was never solved. Frustrated by another case going nowhere fast, Smith organized a concert and candlelight vigil on the first anniversary of her sister’s disappearance, honoring missing and slain women across Manitoba. Relatives of victims leaned on one another, Smith later testified, “because there’s not enough support out there.” (She has since developed an online tool kit for victims’ families, including a log to record interactions with police and a customizable missing-persons poster.)
The month of the memorial concert, a Winnipeg construction crew uncovered the body of Cherisse Houle, 17. Just seven weeks later, the corpse of her friend, Hillary Angel Wilson, 18, was found along a dirt path. No suspects were identified. The deaths angered many native women. A friend of Wilson’s told the CBC, “There is a group of us women that are going to get together … and talk about what can we do … as a community, as mothers, as sisters, as aboriginal women here, because not enough is being done.” Smith and other advocates demanded that Manitoba create a police task force to investigate unsolved cases. Less than a week after Wilson was found, in late August 2009, Manitoba acquiesced. After a review of dozens of cold cases, police chose to investigate 27 involving female victims.
To date, Project Devote, as it’s known, has identified just one perpetrator. When Myrna Letandre went missing in 2006, her family told police that she’d mentioned knowing someone named Traigo. Yet authorities didn’t search the rooming house where Letandre, unemployed and receiving government disability checks, and a man named Traigo Andretti had been living. Seven years later, police working for Project Devote found Letandre’s remains in the house’s basement. The same week, Andretti was charged with killing his wife in British Columbia. After being handed a life sentence for that crime, he was convicted of Letandre’s murder. In court, Letandre’s family issued a statement blaming police “for the loss of another life. We did our best to have this man talked to, investigated, but despite our numerous pleas, nothing — absolutely nothing — was done.”
Female advocates spurred other limited actions by provincial governments. In March 2010, the NWAC announced that it had identified 582 cases of missing and slain women nationwide dating back to 1944. Several trends stood out: The chances of an aboriginal woman being killed either by a partner or by someone she knew were the same, for instance, while she was almost three times more likely than a non-indigenous woman to be killed by a stranger. The largest concentration of cases, 28 percent, was in British Columbia, a figure that demanded a public reckoning on the heels of Robert Pickton’s shocking trial.
That fall, British Columbia launched a commission of inquiry led by a former attorney general, yet the investigation was dogged by controversy. Its mandate only encompassed cases and police work from 1997 to 2002 — Pickton’s most active years. This left many women’s stories, namely those who weren’t the serial killer’s victims, beyond the scope. The government also declined to pay for legal representation before the commission, which many aboriginal stakeholders couldn’t afford.
One lawyer, Robyn Gervais, was appointed to represent indigenous interests, but she resigned after six months because she thought the inquiry focused too heavily on police testimony. “[G]iven that these hearings are largely about missing and murdered aboriginal women,” Gervais, a Métis woman, told the commission, “I didn’t think I should fight to have their voices heard.” A month later, a former commission staffer, anonymously describing sexism behind the commission’s scenes, told the National Post that a senior colleague once referred to a sex worker as “the fat hooker.”
In late 2012, the embattled commission released a report with more than 60 policy recommendations, including sensitivity training for police and frequent reviews of cold cases. Many of the items, however, were never implemented. Nearly two years on, an op-ed in the Globe and Mail argued that the report, titled “Forsaken,” might as well have been called “Ignored and Forgotten.” In the intervening months, Human Rights Watch (HRW) described how police in British Columbia had “blamed,” “shamed,” and even sexually assaulted some aboriginal women seeking their protection. Law enforcement responded by saying there was little it could do unless HRW’s anonymous sources came forward with accusations.
Meanwhile, indigenous activists found their work under siege nationwide. Harper’s conservative government eliminated funding previously allocated to the NWAC to research violence against aboriginal women, insisting that more “action” was needed. Yet authorities’ next step was downsizing. Over three years, starting in 2012, aboriginal groups suffered a 59 percent cut in government support, as part of the prime minister’s push to balance the national budget. Moreover, Canada’s department of aboriginal affairs withheld $1 billion in promised spending on social services over five years.
An agency representative told the CBC that this was “simply due to timing issues.” Activists saw the situation differently. The cuts were evidence of “a larger government attitude that indigenous women just didn’t matter,” says the NWAC’s Lavell-Harvard, “and indigenous lives didn’t matter.”
Maryanne Pearce wanted to depict the sheer scale of the crisis in a way that couldn’t be ignored. In late 2013, she published her 1,126-page thesis, “An Awkward Silence.” Pearce had found 824 cases of missing and slain indigenous women spanning three decades; her files filled nine crates in her home. She released her data online in a PDF, including a searchable, 54-page index listing victims’ names and demographics.
The thesis made news because its count was so much higher than any previously reported — and because an academic, not the government, had produced it. “Families seeking loved ones hope new database will spark fresh action,” the CBC reported. The day after her thesis became public, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) called Pearce and asked for access to her research materials.
In May 2014, the RCMP released its own findings with the most jarring statistics to date: 1,181 aboriginal women had vanished or had been slain between 1980 and 2012. The government report hit Canada like a cold shock. The media splashed the story across front pages and aired angry critics’ voices. Cameron Alexis, a regional chief with the Assembly of First Nations, lamented “a national shame and a national tragedy.” Carolyn Bennett, a liberal member of Parliament, declared, “This is not an aboriginal issue, it is not a women’s issue, it is an ongoing Canadian tragedy.” The office of the U.N. special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, HRW, and other international organizations joined the outcry. To Lavell-Harvard, the noise was critical. “The more we got the average Canadian understanding,” she says, “the more outraged they were to think this was happening in their backyards.”
The Harper government said it supported improved policing and and more funding for protective measures such as women’s shelters. Yet it dismissed calls for a national inquiry into the origins of the crisis. When two more young women were brutalized in Winnipeg later that summer, that refusal seemed all the more galling.