For over a month now, people worldwide have been gripped by the investigation into what happened to 22-year-old Gabby Petito.
The onslaught of interest is credited to the ability of police to find the missing woman’s body in a Wyoming park about a week after she was reported missing.
It’s a level of attention, advocates say, that has never been given to a missing Indigenous woman.
“I feel like if I were to go missing, no one would really know about it,” 18-year-old Willow Francis says.
Francis is known for a video she made last summer for a school project, aimed at bringing attention to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) in Canada.
She says she’s never seen coverage like that dedicated to Petito for any racialized individual.
“When white people go missing it’s always on the news right away and it’s always talked about. Everyone’s trying to help,” says Francis.
“But when an Indigenous person goes missing it kind of gets shut up.”
Francis’ concerns are not unique by any means.
The phenomenon of uneven coverage spurred late American journalist Gwen Ifill to coin the phrase, “missing white woman syndrome,” based on the idea that the amount of news coverage a missing individual gets is tied to the demographic in which they fall.
The University of Wyoming published a study looking at the past decade, during which it says 710 Indigenous people were reported missing and 105 were murdered in the same state where Petito’s body was found.
The study says only 30 per cent of Indigenous homicide victims had their cases covered in the newspaper, while 51 per cent of white homicide victims were reported on.
The statewide report also found Indigenous victims were more likely to be painted in a negative light in the media, with less victim information compared to articles written about white victims.
In Canada, the disappearance and murder of Indigenous women and girls has been referred to as genocide since the tabling of a national MMIWG report in 2019.
“I know Canadians like to pretend we don’t have the same racist issues as the Americans, but we do,” says Michelle Robinson.
Robinson co-chairs Calgary’s MMIWG planning committee.
She also hosts a podcast called Native Calgarian, in which she dives into Indigenous issues in Alberta and beyond.
She says part of the reason she got into the art is a lack of Indigenous voices in the media.
“There’s not a single topic in Canada that shouldn’t have an Indigenous lens and a wider, anti-racism lens and yet we still don’t see that,” Robinson says.
She points to the 2014 murder of Atlantic Canadian Loretta Saunders.
“It was assumed she was a pretty, white blonde, but when people found out she was Inuk, immediately the coverage ended and they didn’t cover it until her body was recovered,” she says.
Saunders’ body was found on Feb. 26, 2014, in a hockey bag on the side of the Trans-Canada Highway near Salisbury, N.B., nearly two weeks after it’s believed she was murdered.
Her family provided testimony on the first day of the MMIWG inquiry — one of some 4,000 victims to be included.
Robinson says the only way to change the status quo and “cure missing white woman syndrome” is education, and recommends reading the report spawned by the MMIWG inquiry and its 231 Calls for Justice.
“People are not going to understand the issue of violence against Indigenous women if they don’t have the contextual ideas of the history of child apprehension — and how that directly attributes to missing and murdered Indigenous women,” Robinson says.
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