At the prompting of Joni Murphy, I recently read Alice Driver’s essay “Femicide in Juárez is Not a Myth.” Murphy has just published her debut novel, Double Teenage, and I was hosting her as part of No Reading After the Internet. The idea, in part, was to triangulate between Driver’s essay, Murphy’s book and the crowd that gathered to read aloud together. It’s been a couple of weeks, but I can’t shake a question that was raised that afternoon: why do we not use the word “femicide” to describe the shameful plight of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada? As Driver’s essay points out, femicide frames the murder of women—usually Indigenous, and usually involving sexual violence—as systemic, and not a collection of isolated incidents of domestic abuse.
In Murphy’s novel, one of her central protagonists leaves Las Cruces, New Mexico, where the specific border context around Juárez, Mexico plays out in its American counterpart, eventually ending up in Vancouver, BC. As she prepares the leave one country for another, her American friends proclaim the civilized nature of Canada, so magical, so prosperous, the citizens so polite. But what she is greeted with instead is the almost incomprehensible violence “of a serial killer who targeted women on the margins, women who traversed prostitution and drug scenes, the hyper-visible yet willfully overlooked. This bad man tugged the frayed edges of the urban cloth, slipping in and out of the holes. For a long time he could get away with it” (67).
The specificity of femicide in Juárez cannot be reduced to the violence of any singular man, but it would be a willful ignorance to think that what happened in Canada could be either. A serial killer operated for nearly 20 years and this is because there was a social infrastructure that supported him. In Driver’s essay, she quotes Jean Friednam-Rudovsky, a journalist who has worked extensively on describing the social context of femicide: “These crimes are different than other crimes both in how they are committed as well as in the response given to them by government, law enforcement and civil society.” There is no doubt that the willful blindness of the Vancouver Police Department at the RCMP played a significant role in allowing for the serial-killer murders to continue for as long as they did and the The Missing Women Commission of Inquiry details much of this complicity. But, to be sure, the systemic complicity extends beyond the borders of the Downtown East Side. The murders of so many Indigenous women across this country need to be understood as enabled by that very same systemic complicity. So why do we not use the term “femicide” in Canada? Why is there such resistance here (as there has been in the US and Mexico) to understand the roles we play in enabling such violence? What other way could there be to stop it?