A new documentary by a team of Los Angeles-based filmmakers – including Avatar star Zoe Saldana – is hoping to shed light on the disappearance and murders of as many as 4,000 indigenous women across Canada, reported The Guardian.
“If this exact same story were being told in a country in Africa, I think we would be paying attention to it and we would be donating money to it,” said Leslie Owen, the American producer-director behind Gone Missing. “But because it’s in Canada, a first world nation, we don’t want to see it in our own backyard.”
She began researching the story in 2015, after stumbling across a news story highlighting 1,200 cases of murdered and missing women that had been compiled by police bodies from across the country. “I was like, what does that mean?”
Recent months have seen the number revised upwards, with one government minister estimating the number of missing and murdered indigenous women could be as high as 4,000 women.
As the project got underway, Cinestar Pictures, the production company run by Saldana and her two sisters, came onboard. “One of the things that they’re very interested in is women’s rights and women’s issues … This was just a project that fit right into the things they were looking for,” said Owen.
Owen has since made several trips to Winnipeg, working closely with the city’s indigenous community to tell the story. “As I started getting into it and peeling back the layers, I just realised that the story was much bigger than I thought,” she said. “That environment of racism and sexism and classism and colonialism, how was that fostered? And how does it continue to endure?”
Despite making up just 4% of the population, Canada’s indigenous community grapples with poverty, incarceration and suicide rates that are much higher than non-indigenous Canadians.
Many in indigenous communities continue to reel from the effects of Canada’s state-sponsored, church-run residential school system – described as a tool of cultural genocide by a truth commission last year – while some First Nations communities struggle with living conditions marred by inadequate, overcrowded housing and boil water advisories.
Aboriginal women are four times more likely to go missing or be murdered than other Canadian women, according to the Royal Canadian mounted police. Some warn the statistic is compounded by a readiness among police to dismiss cases involving indigenous women – an assertion echoed in a recent investigation by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that documented dozens of cases where authorities ruled there was no evidence of foul play, despite unexplained injuries, suspicious circumstances and a failure to interview key witnesses.
In recent years, calls have grown for a national inquiry into the issue. For years, the demand was met with silence; Stephen Harper, the country’s former prime minister, argued the tragic events should be viewed as isolated crimes rather than any kind of “sociological phenomenon”.
After taking power last year, his successor, Justin Trudeau, vowed to move ahead with the long awaited inquiry. Pre-inquiry consultations began earlier this year and the next phase of the inquiry is expected to be announced in the coming weeks.
Owen’s film weaves together the story of three families affected by the issue, including the family of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine, whose body was found in a Winnipeg river in 2014.