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The 500: Genesis of a myth

Imagine turning on the TV to watch the supper hour news only to see a reporter refer to the discovery of the Golden Fleece by a team of adventurers.

You might say, "Hey, waitaminit. That's a myth. How did Jason and the Argonauts come to be considered news?"

Well, the same way that the modern mythology of 500 missing and murdered aborginal women has become an unchallenged fact incorporated in newscasts across the country.

This Thursday, 30 vigils were held throughout Canada to bring attention to what Canadian Press calls "an epidemic of violence against aboriginal women." And you can bet every news story about every vigil repeated the figure of 'The 500.' Even an experienced reporter like Winnipeg CTV's Kelly Dehn parroted the figure without question.

Apparently it's bad form (though good journalism) to ask "Where does that number come from?"

There's nothing that spoils a good story quicker than the facts. That's apparently why no reporter actually wants an answer to that question. 500 missing or murdered women from one community is good copy. Reporting on how that figure was pulled from thin air is not.

At The Black Rod we don't care what's politically correct. We follow the truth of a story.

So here's the truth of how the myth of The 500 came to be.

The story starts in December, 1994, when the Globe and Mail reported that RCMP in Saskatoon had compiled a list of 470 aboriginal women who had disappeared across Western Canada over the previous 2 years.

Saskatoon RCMP drew up the list to help identify three bodies discovered outside the city limits in an area where a missing 36-year-old native woman was found dead in October.

But within a day, the RCMP issued a correction. The 470 women on the list were not all aboriginal. 227 were white women and 243 non-white. Of the non-whites, only 102 were aboriginial and another 10 were Metis or Inuit.

RCMP Cpl. Gilles Moreau, media relations officer for headquarters in Ottawa, said that on any given day there was an average of about 100 aboriginal women missing in Western Canada. They had been missing anywhere from a few days to years, and the list included runaways, people who don't want to be found, parental abuctions and, of course, people who disappeared under suspicious circumstances.

The story of almost 500 native women who disappeared across the West was a bust. But it was not dead, although it took another six years to be revived.

2001 saw the publication of a book titled ' Just Another Indian, A Serial Killer and Canada's Indifference ' by Warren Goulding, who covered police and courts for The Saskatoon Star Phoenix in 1994. Reviews of the book mentioned that Goulding wrote of at least 450 aboriginal women who had been reported missing in Western Canada between 1990 and 1994, and police were doing little to find them.

While Just Another Indian is not in the Black Rod library, we suspected Goulding took his information from the initial, and wrong, stories based on the RCMP list.

We found confirmation of our supposition in an article in Reconstruction: Studies in Contemporary Culture which describes itself as "an innovative culture studies journal dedicated to fostering an intellectual community composed of scholars and their audience, granting them all the opportunity and ability to share thoughts and opinions on the most important and influential work in contemporary interdisciplinary studies."

An essay in the journal (Vol. 7, No. 1, 2007) cited Goulding's book where he stated

"whether it was one hundred or five hundred [missing Aboriginal women], it was clear that something like an epidemic was raging virtually undetected in Western Canada".

The book was widely reviewed in native publications and websites, without mention of the RCMP's correction of the stats for missing native women.

Then came the arrest of Robert Picton in B.C. in February, 2002. Pickton was charged with first-degree murder in the deaths of at least 26 women, most of whom were Vancouver prostitutes and many of which were aboriginal.

The arrest resurrected The 500 for good.

This Toronto Star story was typical:

500 missing native women
Aboriginal Canadians take fight for justice for `invisible' victims to U.N.
`How many more of our sisters have to die before this matters??'

Diebel wrote:

"The RCMP tracks missing women, but not specifically aboriginal. There are 2,039 missing females in Canada, 1,279 white and 760 non-white. And Statistics Canada keeps records of murdered women but doesn't break them down further. Over 15 years to 2001, 3,093 females were murdered in Canada. But nobody disputes that 500 native women are missing and/or murdered. And authorities maintain they're doing the best they can."

The Native Women's Association of Canada, an aggregate of organizations representing First Nations and M├ętis women in Canada, seized The 500 as their own, even if they did make the statistic a moving target.

(From various published sources)

April 18, 2003
"Over 15 years we've counted about 500 women who have gone missing," said. Terry Brown, president of the Canadian Native Women's Association

March 2004
March 2004 also marks the beginning of the Sisters in Spirit Campaign by the Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC). The campaign that calls us to reflect and take action on the very serious issue of missing Aboriginal women in Canada. In October 2003, NWAC President Terri Brown spoke of the staggering reality. Over the past 20 years, approximately 500 Aboriginal women have gone missing, disappeared, or been murdered in communities across Canada.

October 16, 2004
Kukdookaa Terri Brown, President of the Native Women's Association of Canada states "We estimate that over the past 30 years approximately 500 Indigenous women have gone missing across Canada."

News reporters rarely tried to bridge the gap between "counted" and "estimated", although the truth sometimes bubbled up in interviews.

No one knows exactly how many women have disappeared or died, according to Beverley Jacobs, Mohawk, president of the Native Women's Association of Canada, in November, 2004.

That figure (500) is an estimate based on preliminary research and anecdotal evidence, she told Canadian Press in July, 2005.

So loosey-goosey anecdotes mixed with newspaper clippings morphed into a figure that conforms to a discredited story from 1994 has now become an iron-clad statistic to be regurgitated by gullible reporters.

But it served one purpose -- and we're not talking here about the laudable goal of raising awareness of violence against native women.

In May, 2004, the Native Women's Association of Canada got a $20,000 grant from the Status of Women minister in Ottawa "to develop a strategic plan for the Sisters in Spirit campaign, an approach that will leverage public and private sector funding to increase public awareness and education levels about violence against Aboriginal women in Canada. In addition, it would document the circumstances around the disappearance of the estimated 500 missing or murdered Aboriginal women, create a national registry and a toll-free hotline."

The leverage sure worked.

In August 2004, NWAC submitted a proposal to Ottawa for $10 million over two years, to fund its Sisters in Spirit campaign.

In February, 2005, Ottawa agreed to half that---$5 million---over five years.

Halfway through the campaign NWAC has spent the money on a staff of 10 who, in their bureaucratic language, are "involved in research and policy development and education and communications the strategy is to gather information to compile a data base with the names of aboriginal women who are missing as well as documented unresolved murder cases and analyze the impact of resolved murder cases involving aboriginal women."

But note that five years after Picton's arrest, The Iconic 500 have neither grown nor shrunk despite all those years of research, travel, vigils, and anecdotes.

Maybe it is the story of the Golden Fleece after all.

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