In March, the Conservative government nixed the call for a federal inquiry into the disproportionate number of missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada, but a second-year University of Victoria law student, whose close childhood friend’s murdered body was found in late February, isn’t willing to give up.
Elizabeth Zarpa organized a rally in Victoria in late March to draw media attention to the more than 800 indigenous women who have disappeared or been murdered over the past 30 years. She has been in the forefront of a University of Victoria Law Students’ Society call for a federal inquiry after the body of her friend, 26-year-old Loretta Saunders, a Nova Scotia student, was found by a New Brunswick freeway in February.
“Our mothers were best friends and she was two months older than me. We grew up together as children and went to the same elementary school and high school,” said Zarpa, a 2015 JD candidate.
Both were Inuk friends growing up in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, N.L., with Saunders continuing at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax to write her honours thesis on missing and murdered Indigenous women in Nova Scotia, while Zarpa went to the University of Victoria to study law.
Two flatmates that roomed with Saunders have since been apprehended and charged with Saunders’ murder.
Affected by the loss of her childhood friend, Zarpa met with the president of UVic’s LSS and its executive later decided to lend its voice to the public demand for a federal inquiry into missing or murdered indigenous women. Saunders’ murder had led all parties in the Nova Scotia legislature to put forward a motion asking for a federal inquiry, while Newfoundland and Labrador provincial legislature have also followed suit.
Zarpa said the number of missing or murdered indigenous women is large enough to be able to carry out research to find out why there is a “disproportionately higher rate compared to the rest of the population.”
Factors affecting indigenous women’s vulnerability to violence include “displacement, residential schools, and the paternalistic policies of the Indian Act,” she said.
“I would like to find some answers and some reasons so we can make some recommendations, find solutions, and prevent it from happening in the future.”
Aboriginal women are three times more likely to become the target of violence than non-aboriginal women, Statistics Canada data has shown.
The UVic’s LSS has called for an in-depth inquiry funded by the federal government and administered through the national indigenous organizations, such as Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, Native Women’s Association of Canada, Assembly of First Nations, and the Metis National Council. The group wants to ensure there is a deeper understanding as to what contributes to this reality, and how this pattern can be stopped.
The society executive unanimously passed a motion to send a letter to the prime minister calling for a federal inquiry.
“This proactive step sets precedent for other law schools and post-secondary institutions throughout the nation to follow suit. Over 800 missing and murdered Indigenous women in 30 years are too much. Will we need to get in the 1,000s before an inquiry is called? Whose daughter, sister, aunt, mother, or colleague will be next before something is done?” said Zarpa.
Other law students’ societies across the country have also called for an inquiry, including the students’ society at Dalhousie’s Schulich Law School.
Zarpa has received national recognition for her contributions to the Canadian Inuit community. She was one of three youth award recipients in the 2013 Indspire Awards, previously called the National Aboriginal Achievement Awards.