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How Canada Should Investigate Violence Against Indigenous Women

A national inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women must remain focused.

Canada has finally emerged from a decade of rule under the former Conservative government which was replete with anti-Indigenous sentiment; the regular breach of Aboriginal and treaty rights; political attacks on Indigenous leaders; and the government’s steadfast refusal to address the crisis of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls.

Our new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was elected on a platform of improving relations with Indigenous peoples by moving to a Nation-to-Nation relationship; implementing all of the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (on residential schools), and launching a national inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women. True to his word, upon taking office his first order of business was engaging in a consultation process with the families of victims and Indigenous advocates, experts and organizations to determine the scope of the inquiry. While some suggested that Indigenous men should be in the inquiry, Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett confirmed that the inquiry would focus exclusively on Indigenous women and girls.

The core argument of those opposed to women and girls focused national inquiry is that the murder rate of Indigenous men is staggering, which is true. Indigenous men, like Indigenous women, suffer from higher homicide rates than the rest of the Canadian population. Another argument was made that excluding Indigenous men would only serve to further marginalize and paint them wrongly, they argued, as the perpetrators. The fact is that Indigenous women are murdered, almost exclusively, by men. Some commentators worried that the national inquiry was becoming somewhat of a “feminist” project — one that served to further feminist goals as opposed to a much-needed comprehensive investigation into violence against Indigenous people in general. Presumably, this argument was made on the basis that it was, in fact, Indigenous women and their allies who, together with the families of the victims, advocated tirelessly to both bring this crisis to Canada’s attention, and demand an inquiry. Still others made the argument that if the situation were reversed, and had Indigenous men advocated for an inquiry focused only on Indigenous men, Indigenous women would never support it.

Resistance to a woman-focused national inquiry shouldn’t be much of a surprise. There wouldn’t be a crisis of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls, if there were not high levels of racism and misogyny in Canadian society. In fact, the United Nations has found that discrimination against women is the most common form of discrimination in the world. Even the courts in Canada have noted that Indigenous women suffer dual disadvantage by being born female and Indigenous. Sadly, one of the ill effects of the brutal and extended period of colonization in Canada is that these discriminatory values, imported from European societies, were implanted into the minds of our Nations. Traditional Indigenous values varied from Nation to Nation, but common to all was a deep respect for the value of Indigenous women. Our women were respected not only as life givers, care givers and healers, but also as negotiators, leaders and political strategists. Indigenous women often determined who would be leader and who could access lands in their territories. After control by Indian agents, Indian Act expulsions, residential schools, forced sterilizations and decades of oppression, exclusion, and sexualized violence, Indigenous women are struggling to re-assert their power.

It is within this complex context of state, society and community-based discrimination and oppression that Indigenous women and girls have fought to protect themselves. This is not to say that Indigenous women see themselves separate from, or outside of the context of their families, communities and Nations. In fact, despite the many challenges, Indigenous women and girls have fought alongside their fathers, brothers and nephews for justice in their Nations. At every protest or rally where Indigenous Nations stand in defence of their lands, waters, people or rights, Indigenous women have been there. When the Chiefs were overcome by the heavy, oppressive hand of the former Conservative government, Indigenous women led the grassroots people into the largest social movement Canada has ever seen: Idle No More. Despite, the additional hurdles of government funding cuts, the Minister of INAC engaging in victim-blaming, and former Prime Minister Harper’s refusal to act, Indigenous women and girls stood resolute in their call for a national inquiry. They deserve this national inquiry to focus on them.

Indigenous women stood by their men in the calls for various inquiries focusing on Indigenous men. In 1989, the Royal Commission on the Donald Marshall Prosecution released its findings in relation to the wrongful conviction of a Mi’kmaw man primarily because he was native. In 2004, the Commission of Inquiry into the death of Neil Stonechild shed light on police violence and racism for what are known as Starlight Tours of Indigenous men — when police detain them without arrest, drive them to an isolated location and leave them to die in freezing temperatures. In 2007, the Ipperwash Inquiry found that widespread racism against Indigenous peoples within the police force was an underlying factor in the police shooting death of Dudley George. Through all these inquiries about the racism, violence and/or wrongful deaths experienced by Indigenous men and boys, Indigenous women and girls were there to support them.

The Aboriginal Justice Inquiry of Manitoba found that the justice system has consistently failed Indigenous women and girls:

Aboriginal women and their children suffer tremendously as victims in contemporary Canadian society. They are the victims of racism, of sexism and of unconscionable levels of domestic violence. The justice system has done little to protect them from any of these assaults.

The phenomenon of sexualized violence only goes one way — committed almost exclusively by men against women. It is a unique scenario that is not replicated in the reverse. To force a national inquiry to include Indigenous men, would take the focus off of sexualized violence committed upon Indigenous women and girls and look at violence in more general terms. Indigenous women and girls are prey to men because they are female. This requires an in depth investigation and analysis.

We stood by Indigenous men during their inquiries. We hope that there will be more inquiries to look into violence and racism against Indigenous men, over-representation in prison and the high levels of Indigenous children in care. But right now, in this important moment, it is our turn for an inquiry. It’s our turn to focus an inquiry on the racism and sexualized violence inflicted upon our women and girls by men of all backgrounds in Canada.

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