Canada’s Indigenous population has endured 500 years of abuse. Canada is attempting to make amends publically by issuing national apologies and working on various calls to action outlined in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. However, 500 years of abuse cannot be undone by the actions of one generation. The Indigenous peoples of Canada are still struggling to overcome the cultural genocide they survived and navigate institutions that perpetuate injustices. The lack of support for Canadian Indigenous populations is most evident in the female population. The number of Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women, as stated by the Royal Mounted Police (RCMP), is estimated at about 1, 200, while the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) estimates that number to be closer to 4,000. The NWAC also states that Indigenous women are 3.5 times more likely to experience violence compared to Non-Indigenous women. Not only do these statistics confirm the racial, gendered targeting of a minority in Canada, it also illustrates a disconnect between Indigenous communities and the Canadian government.
Canada is a large, diverse country with many different Indigenous groups. The Indigenous peoples need unique solutions that account for their “local wisdom and traditional knowledge”. While community action is effective, government can still play a role by implementing policies and providing vital services. This is an incredible task for federal policymakers because governmental action cannot be pan-action based, which is why few solutions have been implemented. Thus, several social movements began in response to the lack of justice for Indigenous peoples. The social movements outlined in this paper show the strong desire for justice, truth, and respect for Indigenous women and girls. While each movement may vary in its methodology, their struggles are paralleled, allowing them to find solidarity.
To understand why this gendered, racial targeting occurs, it is necessary to understand the history of Indigenous peoples in Canada. Relations with the Indigenous peoples began in the 1500s when European explorers came to Canada and began the fur trade. The fur trade was heavily commercialized with the founding of the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1670. What once began as a mutually beneficial relationship turned into an exploitative endeavor. Europeans introduced alcohol and brought devastating diseases that negatively affected Indigenous populations. In 1876, the Indian Act was passed by the Canadian government to legally enforce assimilation policies and reaffirm the inferiority of the Indigenous peoples in formal legislation. In 1883, the first residential school was opened and the last one would not close until 1996. The schools were government funded and ran by Catholic and Anglican churches that 150,000 Indigenous children would attend. These schools were places of assimilation, cultural genocide, and death. The verbal, emotional, and physical abuse in these schools perpetuated into the next generations creating not only a cultural gap but fractured communities. As a result, Indigenous communities, defined by their physical boundaries of ‘reserves’, have been left to deal with issues such as domestic violence, substance abuse, and poor education.
In “Child Maltreatment and Intimate Partner Violence Among Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Canadians,” by Douglas Brownridge, Tamara Taillieu, Tracie Afifi, Ko Ling Chan, Clifton Emery, Josee Lavoie, and Frank Elgar, they concluded that “Indigenous peoples of Canada face an elevated risk of intimate partner violence (IPV) compared to Non-Indigenous Canadians….largely due to effects of historical trauma from past and continuing colonization.” The study found that Indigenous peoples are 2.5-3.1 times more likely to experience IPV. Colonization theory states that historical traumas endured by generations of Indigenous groups contribute to their susceptibility of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse as well as the internalization of their oppression. These post-traumatic effects are passed between generations, perpetuating colonization and assimilation. Further, the inability to cope with these experiences and the knowledge gap caused by residential schools has left many Indigenous parents unable to parent well, resulting in child maltreatment and intergenerational violence. According to the developmental model, growing up in an abusive environment inhibits a child’s ability to develop healthy relationships of their own, increasing the possibility of continued generational violence. This, coupled with low education, high unemployment, and drug use, increases the likelihood of IPV.
Women are even more at risk of IPV because of their socioeconomic status. According to “The National Inquiry on Murders and Disappearances of Indigenous Women and Girls,” by the Native Women’s Association of Canada, socioeconomic factors include: “Inter-generational poverty; lack of adequate housing; limited food security; inferior educational opportunities; under-employment; a racist child welfare system; over- incarceration; and limited availability of reproductive health services.” Moreover, Indigenous women simultaneously experience racism and sexism. Indigenous women have been sexually stereotyped as ‘disposable savages’. Their inferior status is a direct result of colonization as their original matriarchal societies became patriarchies, resulting in the loss of female leadership and respect. Their exclusion from the patriarchal legal system has left Indigenous women without protection from sexual exploitation and abuse. Further, the ambiguity in the Canadian political system over jurisdiction of Indigenous peoples has contributed to institutional discrimination and violence. Unable to seek justice and economically unable to escape, Indigenous women are forced to stay in their homes or risk migrating to cities. The ruminants of colonialism, socioeconomic inequalities, and continued discrimination all contribute to why Indigenous women go missing and/or are murdered.
Indeed, government officials are beginning to acknowledge the ongoing discrimination within Canadian societies and institutions and, more importantly, they are addressing why it is still happening. The previous Minister of Status of Women in Canada, Patty Hajdu, agreed with the NWAC estimate that there could be nearly 4,000 missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada. However, Hajdu admitted that this estimate cannot be backed-up by hard data which explains why the RCMP’s estimate was so much lower. According to Hajdu, the higher estimate is “more believable because there is a history of police underreporting homicides, or failing to investigate suspicious deaths”. Further, many Indigenous peoples are reluctant to come forward with reports of missing and murdered women for fear of facing their oppressors. The distrust between Indigenous peoples and the government explains the discrepancy in data, especially when an activist group, Walk 4 Justice, was able to enter Indigenous communities and count over 4,232 missing and murdered Indigenous women. This data inconsistency also suggests a failure of the RCMP to properly investigate.
Police gain their legitimacy and power from those they protect. If people do not see the police as legitimate, then the people are less likely to obey the police and attempt to build a trusting relationship. Indigenous peoples have low confidence in the police because they enforced colonization, backed assimilation policies, and disrupted communities. Police officers would forcibly take children to residential schools, creating a relationship of hatred and fear, not confidence and protection. This is a problem in Northern communities especially because police departments are geographically stretched and have a high turnover rate. This system does not allow police departments to foster a relationship with Indigenous communities or to understand their unique cultural and historical circumstances. Moreover, officers’ often have their own biases and stereotypes about ‘squaw’ women and contribute to their abuse. Today, police abuse against Indigenous women defines their relationship. In “Those Who Take Us Away: Abusive Policing and Failures in Protection of Indigenous Women and Girls in Northern British Columbia, Canada” by the Human Rights Watch, countless cases were documented of Indigenous women being detained and enduring inhumane conditions in jail cells, including sexual abuse and rape. The lack of trust that Indigenous women have for police enforcement has led to violations going unreported and a lack of responsiveness to IPV and missing women. Further, women do not want to call the police for help because they fear being blamed for the abuse or judged. It is difficult to file a complaint against the RCMP with the Commission of Public Complaints because the process is lengthy. The other option, the Independent Investigations Office, does not handle all complaints, such as rape and sexual abuse. Bridging the gap between law enforcement and Indigenous communities is complicated by negative memories and inconsistent, discriminatory police enforcement.
There have been many complaints of inadequate investigations, poor quality of searches, and the general inconsistent application of justice in Canada for murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls. Families and activists are asking the RCMP to reopen cases while some families are still waiting for an investigation to be launched. One example is Tina Fontaine who was reported missing before her body was found in the Winnipeg Red River. The instance of police misconduct in this case was neglect; Fontaine was reported missing, the police found her, but she was not taken into custody. Her body was discovered one week later. The RCMP called it a systematic failure. Fontaine’s death inspired the creation of the organization Drag the Red. Concerned community members frequently ‘drag’ the Red River, using hooks and chains to search for bones in an attempt to bring closure to families who reported a loved-one missing. This location-specific social movement proves that when institutions fail to deliver adequate services, citizens will come together to find justice.
Social movements take many forms, from active to passive, short to long, or quiet to shocking. At a rally in Vancouver asking for an inquiry into the Pickton Murders, Lorelei Williams, an Indigenous woman whose cousin’s DNA was found on the Pickton farm in 2002, started the movement Butterflies in Spirit. Her social movement took the form of a dance group. Their uniforms were shirts displaying photos of their loved-ones who had gone missing or were murdered. At the end of their performance, the members of the dance group whose loved ones had been murdered laid down and were covered by a white sheet while those loved-ones who were still missing stayed standing. The visual scene of bodies in the streets and faces of missing women had shock-factor. William’s movement was intended to be a one-time event but carried on into 30 performances. She explained that the power of dance raises awareness while simultaneously acts as a healing process for the dancers. People unite to find justice in creative ways and this gives social movements more dimension.
Further, social movements are shaped by geographic location and individual experiences. In northern British Columbia, the 724 kilometers of Highway 16 have been named the ‘Highway of Tears’ because it is where many women have gone missing and/or were murdered. According to the ‘Highway of Tears’ website, nine Indigenous women have gone missing or have been murdered, but estimates from northern communities say this figure could be closer to 30. These tragedies sparked a symposium that later published recommendations to stop the violence. Recommendations coming from these neighboring communities and these people are based on “the understanding that the communities along the highway share a situation of colonization resulting in experiences of poverty, violence, cultural genocide, residential school impacts, addictions and displacement from land”. Incorporating a local perspective increases the chance that the recommendations will successfully stop the violence. For instance, this organization is currently educating each neighboring Indigenous community on safety, illustrating the advantage of organizing locally.
Community organizing also prompted the creation of the RCMP’s project, E-PANA, started in 2005 to review murder cases from the Highway of Tears. Currently, E-PANA is investigating 13 murders and five missing persons cases. According to the Indigenous communities, however, this still leaves over one dozen cases unaddressed and unsolved, likely because they were either mishandled or unreported by police. For instance, the Human Rights Watch found that Indigenous women who had a criminal record or had reported domestic abuse repeatedly were not taken seriously. The appeal of community organizing is its customizability and attention to detail, so unlike governmental institutions, no case will go unanswered.
One social movement that is bringing injustices to the surface is Walk4Justice. It began in Vancouver in 2008 as a grassroots initiative when a group of people organized a walk for missing and murdered Indigenous women. Walks4Justice was just a local movement, but now they walk on behalf of all the missing and murdered people in the world. In Canada, their objectives are to raise awareness for the changes needed in Indigenous communities and address the dangers that Indigenous women are facing. Their goal is to bring these injustices to parliament’s attention and make Canada safer for all Indigenous women. Walk4Justice’s global success is thanks to social media and its various platforms for social organizing.
Social media plays a big role in social movements today. The movement for missing and murdered Indigenous women gained a lot of momentum with the use of a hashtag: #IdleNoMore. Not only is this hashtag representative of the violence against Indigenous women, it also addresses the 500 years of injustice that the Indigenous peoples have been facing. The movement began with four women organizing to discuss Bill C-45 (proposed legislation to remove protection over forests and waterways in Canada) and grew to tackle struggles such as sovereignty. #IdleNoMore was the main mobilizing factor that sparked a transnational movement. According to authors Vincent Raynauld, Emmanuelle Richez, and Katie Boudreau Morris of “Canada is #IdleNoMore: exploring dynamics of Indigenous political and civic protest in the Twitterverse,” this movement has no “centralized leadership, loose membership, [and] diversity of interests”. Social media enables organizers and participants to communicate more easily. Further, as noted by Raynauld, Richez, and Morris, social media enables its participants to establish a shared identity which is particularly important for diasporic Indigenous communities of Canada. The hashtag was not only used to discuss aspects of the movement, but to show solidarity and make reference to varying epistemologies of indigeneity. The hashtag went viral and started the National Day of Action on December 10th. #IdleNoMore was “the largest Canada-wide social action movement since the civil rights movement of the 1960s,” according to CBC News. It resulted in the creation of a website outlining the movement, further actions, and stories of #IdleNoMore activists both nationally and globally. The movement also serves the global population by providing a database of all upcoming events near to the user. People speaking together produces results and this is aided by social media.
One major step toward a resolution is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Ultimately, it suggests needing to work on the cohesion of Indigenous communities and fostering new relationships with Non-Indigenous peoples and institutions. As a nation, Canada must acknowledge the ongoing structural violence Indigenous peoples face. As Canadians, we must acknowledge our historical roles as settlers and unpack our own prejudices. However, recognizing past injustices is not enough. This process of healing goes beyond deconstructing colonization – it is about revitalizing Indigenous self-determination and liberating them from generations of oppression in the form of land reform and judicial rights. For the Indigenous peoples, having autonomy is a necessary step toward communal healing.
The Government of Canada started the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in 2016. The inquiry is a response to community calls for justice, various social movements, and a call to action in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This national inquiry is autonomous from the government so it can be open and honest. The inquiry was allocated $40 million by the federal government. It is set to finish by 2018 and will include accounts from victims, families, communities, and more. The aim is to honor the missing and murdered women by finding the truth and stopping the problem. The inquiry was in Edmonton, Alberta last month and is making its way across Canada. The inquiry was a victory for many activists and will hopefully deliver effective results.
Acknowledging the problem and actually working to solve it are two different things. The Canadian government is fulfilling the former, but the nation must wait for the final report of the Inquiry in 2018 to see if Canada will fulfill the latter. The issue is bigger than police investigations and educating Indigenous communities on safety. Helping the Indigenous women of Canada will be the responsibility of many generations and politicians. The Indigenous peoples of Canada need a commitment from the government and Canadians to support reconciliation efforts until the levels of inequality are reduced. This includes addressing Canada’s inadequate criminal justice system and other socioeconomic factors facing Indigenous peoples, especially women and girls. Further, for the Indigenous peoples of Canada, healing is a holistic process and cannot happen when the state has control over their lands and governs their institutions.
The idea of holistic healing is shared by many Indigenous groups globally, but their idea of ‘holistic’ can vary. When considering the various social movements that other Indigenous peoples are engaged in, the Zapatista movement in Mexico stands out. Similar to the Indigenous peoples of Canada, the Zapatistas are also victims of colonization, assimilation, and ongoing discrimination and violence. However, unlike the Indigenous peoples of Canada, the Zapatistas are not seeking power from the state but instead are organizing themselves into a collective identity and defining their own autonomy. Attaining autonomy from the federal state as a subordinate group is still oppressive, they argue. Alternatively, the Zapatistas have declared their own autonomy as an ongoing process, allowing them to construct their own institutions as a form of ‘anti-power’. This includes not accepting any support from the state. The Zapatistas subscribe to the idea that Indigenous communities should “define their own practices, their priorities, and their relation to the land and to natural resources.” The idea of neoindigenism, the ability of the state to acknowledge indigeneity but continue to restrict their cultural identity, is rejected by the Zapatistas. Neoindigeneity does not create a space of recovery for Indigenous identities, instead it continues to oppress them. Perhaps the Indigenous social movements in Canada could benefit from adopting a similar attitude toward autonomy or a more global perspective.
Drawing inspiration from other social movements can be effective, powerful, and create global solidarity. Social movements matter because they are the checks and balances that uphold justice when institutions and people do not. In Canada, Indigenous women have been fighting for their own justice and it is due time that Canadians helped.
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Original post copied from Stories of Struggle