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Gendered violence for indigenous women involves multiple oppressions

Doreen Nicoll.

Doreen Nicoll.

By Doreen Nicoll 

Purple is a colour that calms the mind and nerves; offers a sense of spirituality; and encourages creativity. It’s also the colour of courage. Purple embodies the ingredients necessary to move a woman from a place of fear to one of empowerment.

November is Woman Abuse Prevention Month in Ontario, a time to shine a purple light on gendered violence. Woman abuse takes many forms including physical, sexual, psychological or emotional, intellectual, social, financial, verbal, cyber bullying, stalking, manipulating children, environmental, and spiritual violence.

Gendered violence is the means by which an abuser maintains power and control over his intimate partner. This inherent right to power and control is rooted in patriarchal society where men hold the power and lineage is traced through male heirs.

Gender inequality permeates every level of our lives. It’s found within Canadian politics, the various levels of government, the judicial system, health care, social services, media, cultural practices, workplaces, religions, and families. Every day we are exposed to a torrent of messages, direct and indirect, telling us men have an innate right to power and women don’t. Unfortunately, some men believe this right includes controlling women even if it means using violence or lethality.

Women are not a homogeneous group. Far from it. Our experience of violence is informed by who we are and the variety of unjust treatments we live with. This intersection of oppressions plays a significant role in determining a woman’s chances of experiencing violence, as well as the severity of the violence, during her lifetime. These oppressions include, but are not limited to, ableism, racism, discrimination, heterosexism, sexism, classism, ethnocentrism, transphobia, ageism, and homophobia. The more oppressions that a woman identifies with the greater her chances of being marginalized and encountering violence.

Canada’s First Nations, Inuit, and Metis women, referred to collectively as indigenous women, have a history of oppressions dating back to first contact with Europeans. The multiple oppressions indigenous women live with on a daily basis means they are subject to a disproportionate risk of violence, especially more severe violent episodes, than non-Aboriginal Canadian women.

Rates of violence against women vary widely across Canada, but Aboriginal women are 2.5 times more likely to be victims of violence than non-Aboriginal women.

The territories consistently record the highest rates of police-reported violence against women. The rate of violent crime against women in Nunavut was close to 13 times higher than the rate for Canada in 2011. Saskatchewan and Manitoba, had rates of violence against women in 2011 that were double the national rate.

Every six days, a woman in Canada is killed by her intimate partner, but Aboriginal women are killed at six to seven times the rate of non-Aboriginal women.

Aboriginal women are almost three times more likely to be killed by a stranger than non-Aboriginal women.

Saskatchewan comprehensively reviewed its long-term missing persons’ files and found that while Aboriginal women make up 6 per cent of the population, they account for 60 per cent of its missing women.

The RCMP estimate a total of 1,181 Aboriginal women went missing or were murdered between 1980 and 2012. Grassroots organizations and the Minister of the Status of Women put the number closer to 4,000.

Why are Aboriginal women experiencing violence at far greater rates than non-Aboriginal women? In one word, colonialism. The introduction of European patriarchal practices purposely undermined the essential roles women once played in Aboriginal societies.

Traditionally, Aboriginal women were the givers of life and as such, lineage was often traced through mothers and family units were often matrilocal in nature. Women were a child’s first teachers with lessons of love beginning in the womb. Land and resources were also often managed and distributed by Aboriginal women giving them significant power. Inheritance, wealth, power, culture and history were passed on to successive generations through women.

This changed when Europeans arrived. In their zeal to secure ownership of resource rich land, Europeans intentionally undermined the power and authority of Aboriginal women.

The Indian Act, passed in 1876, was a paternalistic government policy put in place to eventually assimilate First Nations people through enfranchisement, a legal process for terminating a person’s Indian status in order to impose full Canadian citizenship upon them. Most often, this citizenship was executed without consent. Metis and Inuit peoples are exempt from The Indian Act.

This act gave government agents the power to enforce government policy that controlled virtually every aspect of the lives of registered First Nations people and the reserves they were forced to live on. These powers included registering births and marriages; establishing who was eligible for status; and enforcing punishments when imposed rules were disobeyed.

First Nations women have suffered, and continue to suffer, great inequalities under this federal law. They have been enfranchised for getting a university education; becoming a doctor, lawyer or member of the clergy; leaving their reserve to seek employment or leave an abusive situation; marrying non-First Nations men; becoming widowed; or being abandoned by their husbands.

Many First Nations laws allowed for divorce, but government agents had the authority to charge a First Nations woman with bigamy if she divorced and moved in with a new husband. Government agents could also impose punishments like sending the offending woman to a reformatory. In this role, government agents were the administrators of imposed colonial morality. They dictated what decisions and actions were considered good and decent and they handed out severe punishments for infractions.

Children were routinely removed from their parents at the age of five in order to attend residential school until their release at 18 years of age. Over 150,000 stolen Aboriginal children attended these institutions from the 1870’s until the last school closed in 1996.

Aboriginal children were exposed to physical, sexual, emotional, and psychological abuses. The cruelty also included isolation from family and siblings, as well as torture. Deprived of the love of their parents, these children were robbed of the opportunity to learn how to become loving partners and parents. Denied interaction with their brothers and sisters, these children were robbed of a lifetime of familial love and support. The injurious effects of this assimilation policy are still very much with us today.

Aside from attending residential school, government agents were given the power to remove Aboriginal children from their families if they were being exposed to outlawed cultural practices. Falling under this umbrella was singing traditional songs, dancing, attending potlatches, and practicing their spiritual beliefs.

The Sixties Scoop overlapped with the residential school system. Child protection services were given the authority to “scoop up” Aboriginal children and place them in non-Aboriginal foster homes. This policy also allowed non-Aboriginal families to adopt the children. Beginning in the 1960’s this practice continued until the late 1980’s.

Even today, children living on reserve continue to be denied access to the same level of services as children living in the rest of Canada. In 2007, the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada and the Assembly of First Nations filed a complaint against Indian Affairs and Northern Development Canada based on Section 5 of the Canadian Human Rights Act. Specifically, the complaint accused the federal government of knowingly underfunding family and child support services on First Nations reserves thereby creating inequalities based solely on the children’s origins.

In order to qualify for services readily available across the rest of Canada, children on reserve have to be apprehended and placed in foster care, most often in non-Native homes. This explains the 71.5 percent increase in the number of First Nations children entering care between 1995 and 2001.

In January 2016, after a nine year legal battle, the tribunal found in favour of the plaintiffs and ordered immediate action. To date, the Liberal government has breached the terms of the recommendations twice and is in jeopardy of sending the case back to court. We, as a nation and a federal government, have not learned from our mistakes and are continuing to make detrimental choices that are impacting First Nations women and their children.

The Indian Act restructured First Nations society into a carbon copy of patriarchal roles found throughout Europe. It destroyed the traditional extended family model and replaced it with the nuclear family commonly found throughout Europe.

Dependence of First Nations women on First Nations men was legislated into being in 1851 when the federal government determined that to be considered First Nations you had to be male, be the child of a male, or be married to a male. First Nations women became a non-entity and had their independence stolen from them because status would forever be dependent upon having a prescribed relationship with a First Nations male. This doctrine gave birth to the terms Status and Non-Status.

Should a First Nations woman lose her status then she would be denied treaty benefits; health benefits; the rights to live on reserve, inherit family property, and even be buried on the reserve with her ancestors. If a First Nations woman married a First Nations man from another band she forfeited her right to remain in her band and was forced to join her husband’s band. Becoming a widow or being abandoned by a First Nations husband meant a First Nations woman became enfranchised and lost her status and rights.

Division of property and inheritance under the Indian Act ensured First Nations women could not possess land or marital property unless widowed. But, even widows were prohibited from inheriting their husband’s personal property unless deemed of good moral character by the government agent. To this day, First Nations men retain exclusive rights to property even when relationships end. This has a tremendous impact on First Nations women and their children living with, leaving, or healing from abusive relationships.

Political involvement of First Nations women was denied when the federal government created male centric band governments precluding women from becoming chiefs or band councilors. This meant First Nations women were prohibited from providing input into decisions affecting them, their families, and their communities. Dissenters were jailed.

It was 1951 before First Nations women were allowed to vote in band elections. It wasn’t until 1960 that First Nations women and men were allowed to vote federally in Canadian elections. Inuit were allowed to vote federally in 1950. Unfortunately, it proved impossible for them to cast their ballots until 1962 the first year that ballot boxes were made available. Metis men were able to vote federally prior to confederation, yet I’m unable to determine the year that Metis women were allowed to vote federally.

This brief, and vastly inadequate, history lays bare the fact that the federal government of Canada stripped First Nations, Inuit, and Metis women of the essential roles they played within their families, communities, government, culture, and history.

Worse than that, the misogynous European dogmas imposed dictated the constituents of a good upstanding moral woman onto Aboriginal society. Over time these doctrines have woven their way into the fabric of First Nations society and are now considered commonplace. First Nations women were very effectively turned into non-persons within their own families, communities, and societies as well as the larger Eurocentric world.

Aboriginal people believe it takes five generations to fix mistakes. There’s no time like the present to acknowledge Canada’s role in creating a country that often sees women, and especially Aboriginal women, as disposable and less than deserving. The destruction caused by denying Aboriginal women and girls their human rights needs to be redressed.

The inquiry into our missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW) and girls is an epic undertaking.  Canada has one opportunity to thoroughly understand the effect disenfranchisement has had on Aboriginal women and girls. Because truthfully, disenfranchisement is exactly what our federal government imposed on Aboriginal women and girls for centuries.  The federal government has established a long history of very successfully depriving Aboriginal women of their rights, privileges, power, and self-determination.

However, the recommendations coming from the inquiry into our MMIW must be implemented not only in a timely manner, but with sufficient funding to ensure the root causes of violence against Aboriginal women and girls in Canada are adequately redressed. An important component will undoubtedly be education not simply for all Canadian children, but for every one of us regardless of age because we all have a lot of unlearning to do.

 

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