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The Contemporary Dilemma: Unpacking ‘Missing White Woman Syndrome’

By Manahil Hassan, November 30 2021—

I used to believe that Canada was a utopia with no pressing issues, because everyone was treated fairly and justly. I learnt quite quickly that this could not be farther from the truth this year, in light of over 1,300 unmarked graves found at the site of residential schools. Now, I am no stranger to the double standards this country has. Canada holds itself up with pride in the international system as a beacon of human rights, while reports show the nation’s true colours. Many argue that “this was simply in the pas,t” and Canada is apparently “doing more for Indigenous peoples,” since the closing of residential schools, but the rising reports of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and 2-Spirit People (MMIWG2S) that go ignored say otherwise. 

The truth is this — there is an epidemic of MMIWG2S in Canada and the US. In a flawed system such as ours, Indigenous women, girls and 2-spirit people experience violence disproportionately more than other communities. They are not only more likely to be victims of violence, but less likely to receive justice at the hands of the judicial system despite only making up 3 per cent of the population in Canada. What is more troublesome, is that when families report their loved ones missing, they are dismissed and rarely get the news coverage white victims receive.  

This systemic bias is referred to as “Missing White Woman Syndrome.” For centuries, it has plagued both Canada and the U.S. and refers to the disparate amount of media attention, conspiracy theories and urban legends that are created surrounding the cases of young, middle class, attractive white women when they go missing. This is in comparison to the hundreds of nameless Indigenous women, girls and 2-spirit people whose cases aren’t given the time of day on the news because, to media and news outlets, their stories don’t catch the attention of viewers. Although the term was first coined by journalist Gwen Ifill, the saying gained a little more traction after it was described on the TV show YOU by one of the show’s characters, Marienne Bellamy — a Black woman. She remarked that the media sensationalizes cases shrouding the stories of white women and ignores everyone who does not fit into the cookie-cutter mold of victimhood.

The media storm behind the tragic case of Gabby Petito sheds light on this blatant discrepancy. During the summer of 2021, Petito and her fiancé Brian Laundrie embarked on a cross-country road trip and was reported missing in early September when her fiancé returned home without her. After a week of frantic searching and rising media pressure, the police found Petito’s remains at a Wyoming national park. 

Petito was a victim of an awful crime, and no parent should have to bury their own child. Having said that, a parallel exists between the news coverage she received and the lack of media attention towards MMIWG2S, whose families are still wondering where they are. 

Petito’s case went viral, with millions of people all over the world sharing and reading her story — a Google search of her name yielded 340 million results. Although it was inspiring to see people all over the world tuning in, Indigenous women, girls and 2-spirit people deserve the same media coverage and attention with over 710 missing Indigenous women from the last decade, in Wyoming alone — 710 families desperately hoping and waiting for some news about their loved ones. 

In an interview with the Gauntlet, president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC), Lorraine Whitman, spoke about this discrepancy in media coverage. Whitman — who is also known as “Grandmother White Sea Turtle,” and is a member of Nova Scotia’s Glooscap First Nation — stated that “it is clear to me that the murder of a young, white girl who is shot while shopping outside the Eaton Centre in downtown Toronto is going to get a lot more coverage that a girl of the same age who is shot on a reserve.”  

This issue of systemic racism proves that race truly does play a factor when one defines victimhood. It tells Indigenous communities that race decides whether your child is found. That race decides how quickly justice is served. For instance, Journalist Adriana Rolston, in her review of the media coverage of the victims that disappeared on the Highway of Tears, found that “the first-time papers really covered the murders on that highway were in 2002, when [Nicole] Hoar, a 25-year-old [white]…woman vanished.” 

Nonetheless, there does exist some hope as we have witnessed a shift in media coverage when it comes to issues affecting the Indigenous community in Canada. 

“The attention given to this issue [the Petito case] is causing more police to pay attention when an Indigenous girl goes missing. But it is still far easier, and far more common, for police to just tell the family of an Indigenous girl that “she has just run off, and she’ll come back when she wants to,” said Whitman. 

As the president of the NWAC, Whitman is dedicated to changing this. 

“The work of groups like NWAC, the Sisters in Spirit campaign and others have forced coverage of the issue, and that has made it impossible to completely ignore. Reporters have written about it, the MMIWG have become an important issue for more and more Canadians. It is hard to ignore what a sizeable section of the population considers important,” she said.

Although there is still a long way to go in breaking this cycle of ignorance and violence towards MMIWG2S, we have an obligation to pay attention to Indigenous voices. We must speak out to prevent the harmful stereotyping of their communities from persistiting and pressure our government officials to act on the 231 Calls for Justice of the National Inquiry. Most importantly, we must push for greater Indigenous representation in newsrooms and news offices. 

“Editors must understand that the problem [is] not solved, and the story was not ended by the Final Report of the National Inquiry [on MMIWG2S]. The National Inquiry was just the beginning of this story.” 

Since 1974, NWAC has been the voice of First Nations, Metis and Inuit women and have fought to bring attention to this crisis. The NWAC website is a useful tool in learning and appreciating the organisation’s efforts and goals to preserve Indigenous culture, improve the well-being of Indigenous women and promote their equality through policy and legislative reforms.

This article is a part of our Voices section.

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