Who is She? – Stolen Sisters and Canada’s Reputation

As a young girl, I was always incredibly proud to be Canadian. When I travelled internationally I wore my flag on my pack with pride. Through university when talking to foreign students about our culture, I did so with a sense that I was sharing something great with them. I was lucky enough to grow up with a close family friend who was Cree. I was honoured with attendance of pow wows and trips through Algonquin park during which he shared his knowledge of the land and all its gifts. I had so much respect for him, for the Indigenous people who knew and loved this land before the settlers came. To me, that was Canadian culture. That being said, learning about the way we have treated the Indigenous people is deeply horrifying to me. More recently, the tally of missing and murdered Indigenous women continues to strike terror into the very depth of my being. Recently, I found an article that discussed a major piece that is missing from the discussion around our stolen sisters.

I had long known about Canada’s deeply troubled past between Indigenous people and colonial settlers. Many citizens don’t have an understanding of Residential Schools or the Sixties Scoop, two of our nations nastiest secrets. Between 1840 and 1996 Indigenous children were taken out of their home and put into what they called Residential Schools. They were run by Churches, and then by the Government in an attempt to convert them to ‘the more civilized’ Christian religion. Roughly 150, 000 children were put through these schools where they were forced only to speak in English or French, and separated from their families for long periods of time (often indefinitely.) Survivors of these schools recounted histories of mental, physical and sexual abuse, the schools had mortality rates of 40-69%. There was also the 60’s Scoop in which children were taken from their families and placed into the Child Welfare system. Throughout the 1960’s to 1980’s it was believed that these children would be better off adopted, in foster homes, or as wards of the state rather than in their original Indigenous homes.

Between these two instances, and many other systematically racist programs implemented by Canada’s government, there was a massive cultural genocide. Many of their ways of life were destroyed by settlers, many languages were lost by the forced assimilation to English and French. This left a legacy of mental illness ranging from post traumatic stress disorder and borderline personality disorder to anxiety, depression and substance abuse. It also left a long history of criminality. Young Aboriginal people are still being incarcerated and criminalized the system that had harmed not only them, but their ancestors and their culture. As is described in the article linked above, this was the state-sanctioned trafficking of Aboriginal children. This systematic degradation of culture paired with a culture ridden with misogyny has left women, girls, and two spirited people at their most vulnerable.

Between 1980 and 2012, over 1100 Aboriginal women, girls, and two spirited people have been murdered or have gone missing. Although women are devalued throughout most of the world, we happen to live in a country with a history of heavily engrained racism. According to a report put together by the RCMP, women are grossly overrepresented as victims of these crimes. Aboriginal women make up just 4.5% of the population, but make up 11.3% of missing persons cases and 16% of homicides. This issue has long been recognized not only by the communities themselves, and by premiers of the provinces, but also by international human rights organizations such as the United Nations and Amnesty International. Still, nothing has been done.

As early as 2008, this problem has been mentioned in multiple reports: Amnesty International, UN Committee Against Torture, UN Convention on Elimination of Racial Discrimination Reports, UN Convention on Rights of the Child Reports, and UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women Reports, to name a few. A more extensive report can be found here, put together by the Native Women’s Association of Canada and the Feminist Alliance for International Action.

If you thought the international shame of this neglect would be enough to spur Canadian politicians into action, think again. Over the last decade there have been multiple actions taken that if anything, have exacerbated the problem. The most notable would be Bill C-36, as well as cuts in funding to both Children’s Aid Society and Sisters in Spirit.

Due to years of systematic discrimination, many Aboriginal people, particularly Aboriginal women and girls, live in extreme poverty. Human trafficking is both the reason and the outcome of this. In Canada, human trafficking and prostitution are often conflated when it comes to the rule of law – Bill C-36 was passed shortly after the laws that criminalized prostitution were struck down. There was a vague glimmer of hope for sex-workers that they might have safer work spaces, that they might have even had access to labour rights. This bill crushed any of those hopes.

This bill criminalizes the buying of sex as opposed to the selling, making Johns the target of the law. If you, like many lay people, believe that prostitution should be illegal, then this surely sounds like a great idea. We’re saving them! We’re protecting these poor, victimized women! Unfortunately, that is a sad misconception. Critics of this bill warn that it will increase violence towards sex workers. When one Conservative Senator asked if this would protect sex-workers, he responded that it would work towards decreasing and eventually abolishing prostitution. To continue to view sex work as morally reprehensible is only further damaging to women who engage in it.  We’ve all heard the White Feminist plight not to decriminalize sex work. Sadly, the fact that their cause is signed by many a celebrity makes it the more popular, all be it more harmful opinion. Thus bills such as C-36 are still widely supported, despite the harm they continue to bring.

In a similar vein, under the Harper government, groups such as the Childrens Aid Society (CAS) and Sisters in Spirit (SIS) have seen massive cuts in funding. In the article by Colleen Hele, Naomi Sayers, & Jessica Wood, the authors described situations in which CAS had driven them back to a home they had attempted to report for sexual and physical abuse. This story reflects a truth lived by all too many -it has been reported on many an occasion that the organization treats children differently based on location, poverty level and social issues within the area. Rather than trying to create equality in treatment of children through training or programming, the government has kept a hands off approach, even cutting funding to CAS over the years. Similarly in the case of SIS, an organization that was conducting research on the growing epidemic of violence towards Aboriginal women. Any funding the organization once received was eliminated by the Harper government, despite calls from premiers to invest more in an inquiry. This blatant disregard for such issues has unfortunately become a well known characteristic of our government, and by extension, our citizens.

The Adbusters video linked above never fails to give me chills. I, like the woman in the video feel I can’t defend my country against someone asking ‘What happened? You used to be one of the good ones.’ This is something I can’t stand for, a drastic change needs to be made. First and foremost, as many organizations and people in power have called for, we need an inquiry into this issue. Before we can properly understand how to solve the problem we need to have more information. Harper’s removal of the long form census has stunted our ability to make change. We are not fully informed about what is going on in our country, which paralyses us and stunts any positive change we may want to make.

The Chiefs of Ontario have taken the first step in starting a crowd funding campaign to conduct their own inquiry. The campaign, called “Who Is She,” aims to produce a First Nations led, community driven process to eradicate violence against Indigenous women and girls. I believe that this campaign is the best possible option, as the First Nations people can bring a contextual understanding of the problem within the greater disrespect our government has directed towards them. The report drawn up by the RCMP was quick to say that spouses and acquaintances were the most likely culprits. This kind of understanding can be spun by the media (as stories with Indigenous people often are) to blame the problem on their community rather than looking at it contextually. I hope this inquiry will follow the footsteps of Sisters in Spirit, which had compiled over 200 possible contributing variables to the problem.

There is also plenty that can be done beyond supporting the inquiry. We need to slowly chip away at the racism that is so deeply engrained in our society. Educate yourself on the history of Aboriginal people in this country, or go to one of the many incredible events that celebrate their culture. There is a long history that can only be changed if we work against it collectively. Most importantly right now, we can vote out the government that has changed the way Canada is viewed internationally. On October 19th, we will be voting and hopefully changing the leadership of our country. Ensure that you are registered to vote, figure out which platform suits your beliefs, and which party will be the most likely to defeat the Conservatives in your riding. Both the Liberals and the NDP have made promises to address this issue if elected into office. While we cannot erase the history of oppression, we can certainly move forward in a way that develops stronger relationships and reduces harm.