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The abduction, brutal rape and strangulation of a First Nations woman by two white men on December 27 in Thunder Bay, Ontario has stirred fear, anger and urgent calls to catch the perpetrators, who, the victim says, told her they had done this kind of thing before, and would do it again.
The news of the assault on the 36-year-old mother spread quickly after the victim’s family sent word to a local Idle No More event on December 30 to warn the community about the threat the men made against Native women.
“It’s a hate crime against our community,” said Chief Peter Collins of the Fort William First Nation, which is adjacent to Thunder Bay. “This young woman has been through a very trying situation that compels us to do more to stop the violence against our women… We see that racism towards our people is still alive, and we remind our people to be vigilant. We also advise our people not to react violently to these acts… ”
In a telephone interview, Christi Belcourt, representing the victim’s family, elaborated on the police report and a statement issued by the family. She said the attack began at around 9 p.m. on December 27, when the victim was walking to a store in the north end of the city. Two Caucasian men in their mid-30s pulled up alongside her in a green two-door sedan and began yelling at her, allegedly calling her a “dirty squaw” and other racially tinged profanities.
When she ignored them and walked faster, they reportedly began throwing things at her, including trash. She says the passenger then jumped out of the car and grabbed her by her hair—pulling her so violently she lost clumps of hair—and shoved her into back seat, where he sat on her and began beating her.
She tried to fight back, but was unable to escape as she was driven to a nearby wooded area, where she says she was brutally sexually assaulted, strangled and beaten.
During the attack the men allegedly told the victim it wasn’t the first time they had committed this type of crime and “it wouldn’t be the last.” She told police they also told her, “You Indians deserve to lose your treaty rights,” making a reference to the recent Idle No More events in Thunder Bay.
Left for dead in the woods in freezing temperatures, the victim walked for nearly four hours to get back to her home. From there, she was taken by ambulance to the hospital for treatment and forensic tests. “The only thoughts that came to my mind were my children,” the victim later said in a statement. “I thought I would never see them again.
“It’s a cruel world out there and right now,” she added, “with the First Nations trying to fight (Bill C-45), everyone should be looking over their shoulder constantly because there are a lot of racists out there, and we need to be careful.”
Her mother said, “We felt it was important for us to get the word out because we are very concerned about the safety of our women in the community. And as well we want to tell people that even though this happened to my daughter, we are not the violent ones. We want to tell people not to get angry or to be violent. It’s very important that the Idle No More movement remain peaceful.”
The Thunder Bay City Police say they are investigating this incident as a possible hate crime. The victim and her family want to ensure that the police do a thorough investigation, and First Nations leaders want police to know the public is watching. “These cases often are not taken seriously enough and we don’t want this to get swept aside,” said Collins, who noted there have been many cases of missing First Nations women that remain unresolved.
A few days after the attack, Idle No More organizers held a candlelight vigil to pray for women who are lost and living, victims of murder, assault and sexual assault. Local organizer Joyce Hunter said they felt they needed to respond in two ways—showing support for the victim and to let others know to protect themselves. The Native Youth Sexual Health Network issued a statement: “Violence against indigenous women and girls has been, and continues to be used as a weapon of colonialism and a way to undermine the strength of our leadership. NYSHN sees raising our voices together against sexual violence and making change for violence against women to stop as an integral part of any movement.” They called on community members to travel in groups, stay together, and protect each other while not responding with violence.
With no suspects in custody, Chief Collins said he’s in constant communication with Thunder Bay’s police chief to ensure that law enforcement follows up and takes this hate crime very seriously. “We want to see them caught, prosecuted and convicted for what they did,” he said. “This is one example of why our people are uniting and speaking out against the kind of racism and oppression our First Nations are facing. We will not be silent.”