Between 1980 and 2012, more than 1,100 Aboriginal women in Canada were murdered, and in 2013 there were 164 Aboriginal women who had been missing for more than 30 days. Those numbers come into shocking relief when the small population of Aboriginal—also known as First Nations—women is compared with the total number of missing and murdered women in the country: At just 4.3 percent of Canada’s population, First Nations women represent more than 16 percent of women murdered and over 11 percent of missing women.
First Nations artist Tracey-Mae Chambers took on this crisis in a series of 1,181 powerful photos—one for each of the murdered and missing women.
Using encaustic wax—beeswax mixed with pigment, to “create the illusion of flesh,” she says—Chambers created items of clothing designed to look like they’d been worn by female homicide victims. She then placed them at politically significant sites, or places where “a body may be found,” and photographed them for her series entitled, “Mine is but a tear in a river.” A small number of the photos were recently shown at an exhibition in Toronto, while the remainder are on display at the Ojibwe Cultural Foundation at M’Chigeeng First Nation on Manitoulin Island.
Chambers told the CBC that she was motivated to start the project when a close friend dehumanized the missing and murdered women by saying, “‘Oh, I thought these women were drug addicts and prostitutes, so really what does it matter?'” Chambers recounted. She added, “I’ve never felt so angry in my life.”
In a statement about the project, Chambers says she knows some may find her images uncomfortable to view. But, she says, “Sometimes a little discomfort is required. Flesh is a messy business after all.”
I don’t want to talk calmly and quietly anymore. I feel no need to justify my work or my opinion concerning how easily Aboriginal women are discarded. It is as though they were never really there in the first place.
Chambers explained to the Ms. Blog that she used clothing donated by friends and family, or purchased at a thrift store, to create the pieces. “It was a heart-wrenching process,” she says. “I had to look up what these wounds might look like and figure out how to paint them. It was not only laborious but emotionally demanding.”
Aboriginal women continue to go missing or be murdered in disproportionate numbers. The RCMP, Canada’s national police force, released a report earlier this year showing that more First Nations women had been added to its missing/murdered list since the 2014 report cited at the opening of this piece.
The U.N. has condemned the Canadian government for failing to take action on the crisis, saying officials should conduct a national inquiry.
But, said U.N. special rapporteur Victoria Tauli-Corpuz in an interview with The Guardian, “The government looks at it as not really something that’s related to racism,” which activists say is absurd. “[The indigenous groups’] claim is that the police are so discriminatory against indigenous women, and so [the police] don’t believe that there are these kinds of things happening. … They really blame it on racism, number one.”
A federal election is coming up in Canada, on Oct. 19, and some politicians have taken up the deaths and disappearances of First Nations women as a campaign issue.
Recognizing the systemic nature of the crisis, leader of the left-wing New Democratic Party, Tom Mulcair, said he would call for an inquiry into the widespread violence against Aboriginal women in the first 100 days of taking office; Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau has also supported a public inquiry.
Meanwhile, Conservative leader and current prime minister, Stephen Harper, has actively resisted an inquiry. He has argued that the violence is not a “sociological phenomenon” but simply a crime, and should be treated by law enforcement as any other crime. “It is crime, against innocent people, and it needs to be addressed as such,” he said in response to the death of 15-year-old First Nations girl Tina Fontaine. “We brought in laws across this country that I think are having more effect, in terms of crimes of violence against not just Aboriginal women, but women and persons more generally.”
But as Craig Benjamin, campaigner for indigenous peoples’s human rights at Amnesty International Canada, said to CTV News, “We have to get to the point of understanding the violence is far more pervasive, that it has multiple causes and that it does in fact have deep roots in our society and the relationships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.”
Artist Chambers echoes those sentiments. “Because [this violence] is happening in a community that is largely unseen by Canadians,” she says, “they seem unaware and even more striking, uninterested or sympathetic to the issues facing these women. Out of site out of mind. Hence the reason I refer to [the women] as ‘disposable’ in the eyes of Canadians.”
She adds, “We must reach the Canadian public in order to raise awareness about more than just the statistics. I believe that this terribly visceral representation of the realities of the issue will help to do this.”
All photos courtesy of Tracey-Mae Chambers