For years now, people have come to the Red River to search for bodies on the shores where aboriginal (the term for Canada’s indigenous) women have repeatedly been found distraught and lost — or worse, dead.
It’s where detectives found 15-year-old Tina Fontaine, an aboriginal girl with a tattoo of angel wings on her back. By the time she was discovered in August 2014, her corpse had been so ravaged by the river’s elements that it took four hours for officers to determine her gender and approximate age.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau launched on Tuesday an investigation into the hundreds of cases like Tina’s — murdered and missing aboriginal women whose disappearances have gone unexplained in a country where they are killed at disproportionate rates.
“The victims deserve justice, their families an opportunity to heal and to be heard,” Trudeau said during a speech Tuesday, the Associated Press reported. “We must work together to put an end to this ongoing tragedy.”
Between 1908 and 2013, 1,181 aboriginal women went missing or were murdered. Among those, 1,017 were killed.
It is a stark reality that has long been considered a national shame in a country that has grappled with its history of treatment of aboriginal peoples.
Trudeau’s action signals a reversal of his predecessor Stephen Harper’s stance on the issue. Harper declined to authorize a public inquiry on the murders and disappearances even after a United Nations watchdog urged action and an Amnesty International campaign called the murder rate “so high it constitutes nothing less than a national human rights crisis.”
The Assembly of First Nations gave Trudeau a standing ovation after he spoke Tuesday. According to the AP, he is the first prime minister in recent memory to attend the event in Gatineau, Quebec, hosted by an organization representing 900,000 aboriginal people across the country.
The assembly’s national chief, Perry Bellegrade, called the announcement “a long time coming.”
“After years of denial and deflection, it is my hope we can make real strides in achieving justice for families and achieving safety and security for all our people,” Bellegrade said in a written statement to the CBC.
Canadian Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould said at a news conference that the government will consult the families of victims on how to proceed. Wilson-Raybould is the first indigenous person to serve in the position.
The announcement came on the birthday of Tanya Holyk, an aboriginal woman who went missing in 1997 and whose DNA was later found on killer Robert Pickton’s farm.
“I feel so overwhelmed with emotions right now,” Holyk’s cousin Lorelei Williams told the AP. “I’m so grateful and excited that this is actually happening but sad at the same time…She would’ve been 40.”
Williams’s aunt, Belinda Williams, disappeared without a trace in 1977.
As for Tina, she spent a lot of time in foster care and had a history of running away. Her father was killed in a drunken bar fight. She had just been in Winnipeg for a few weeks with her biological mother when she disappeared.
The aboriginal community around the Red River hoped that Tina’s horrific death meant something would finally change. But in the year after her body was found in a bag by the shoreline, four more indigenous women were killed in Winnipeg, and another one outside of the city.
“She’s a child,” homicide investigator Sergeant John O’Donovan told the CBC shortly after Tanya was discovered. “This is a child that has been murdered…Society should be horrified.”