Canada: Native disappearances and hushed tensions

Salomé Ietter, translated by Clémence Vidal
13 Janvier 2015

“The first thing the police asked when my mother disappeared was ‘does your mother drink?’“. This sentence destroyed Loma Martin, whose mother Marie Jean Kreiser disappeared in 1987. It also clearly shows the discriminatory clichés that plague Canada. Women who cannot stand the decades of inertia on the part of the authorities are now pushing for a national investigation regarding the 1,181 disappearances and murders of Native women.

The Canadian Press/Carl Bigras
The Canadian Press/Carl Bigras
Upon landing on Canadian soil, cultural integration was the first thing I noticed. There are no endless debates about secularity or wearing the Muslim veil in public places here. There is acceptance, and tolerance of the others and their differences. But up to which point? One part of the population remains excluded in its most part, despite its small numbers — the Natives. More precisely the 50 First Nations, who make up 64% of the Natives in Canada and live in reserves or, for the most part, in the cities. In addition to discrimination they are victims of what could be the subject of another whole article, one problem specific to this community is not addressed: violence against Native girls and women. They make up only 4% of the Canadian population but represent 16% of female murder victims and 11% of disappearance cases.

Those disproportionate numbers have been published by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and are the proof of a phenomenon that the authorities refuse to speak about: a sexualised and racialized violence. The effects of this violence were discussed during a conference attended by both Teresa Edwards, lawyer for the Native Women’s Association of Canada (AFAC), and Lorna Martin, whose mother Marie Jean Kreiser disappeared in 1987. Aurélie Arnaud, the communication manager of the association Quebec Native Women (FAQ), explains to us the reasons and effects of this phenomenon in Canadian society, which was and is still based on an assimilationist colonisation.

“Before the colonisation, many nations were based on a matriarchal and matrilineal system. Politically, women were the equals of men and their roles and functions were considered as worthy as men’s.“ Aurélie Arnaud

Among the Innu, a nation from the East of the Labrador Peninsula, decision taking was equally divided between men and women. Women also had a key role in the tradition of oral transmission of knowledge. It was the 1876 Indian Act that introduced a patriarchal and European vision to their societies by imposing male control over access to goods and services. Some provisions concerning marriage also turned a white woman into a native should she marry a native, and vice versa.

This is only one example on the long list of policies that, in the name of national assimilation, destroyed communities’ cultural traditions. Residential schools also took part in setting up an intergenerational cycle of violence among communities. The last of them closed in 1996. Native children were forcefully sent to these schools, sometimes hours away from their families, and were subjected to degrading living conditions or even sexual abuse. Personal traditions were forbidden and led to physical punishment, which contributed to the erosion of Native culture.

“Almost 40% of the people who were placed in residential schools and are still alive today —there are 80,000 survivors— mentioned having been victims of serious physical, psychological and/or sexual abuse. That’s almost one child in two. This percentage is alarming and explains why abusive behaviour is still perpetuated today.“ Aurélie Arnaud

Doubly marginalized: women in their communities, Natives in society

With colonisation, women lost their status, their children, and the wealth of their cultural traditions which were deemed “savage” by Europeans. Female Natives are faced with a double marginalization: as women among their communities, and as Natives among society. In reserves, non-Native male partners explain their violence with racism, and use their whiteness to be taken seriously by the police. Among the perpetrators of violence, 17% live with Native women. But the AFAC study also found that 36% of these acts of violence come from unknown people, in part because of sex trafficking. 

Some see prostitution as deliberate risk-taking, as if exposing oneself to such practices was a choice. But 79% of Native prostitutes have been victims of sex trafficking since they were 7 years-old. 92% were raped, and the same percentage want to change their situation (as reported by AFAC, numbers from Farley 2011). When a woman has been a victim of sex trafficking since she was 7, is that a real career choice? According to Teresa Edwards, this phenomenon can be linked to how accessible and violent internet pornography is, since 85% of it contains scenes of often-racialized violence against women. Youngsters would accept this as the sexual “norm” and thus be more prone to reproduce it.

Government and security, tackling criminality

Last September, Kellie Leitch, the Minister for the Status of Women, announced a budget of $25 million over a 5-year period (2015-2010) dedicated to fighting violence against Native women. This budget is based on 16 recommendations made in March 2014 by the Special Committee on Violence against Indigenous Women. An MP from the Liberal Party (one of the main parties in opposition to the Conservatives in power), Natives’ needs.

Indeed, the biggest part —8.6%— of the budget is dedicated to community security plans, but there is not a single mention of education. Even though $7.5 million are meant to help victims, the budget does not address the causes of violence. Symptoms are treated, rather than the structural causes of the problem. And Prime Minister Stephen Harper is taking responsibility for that; he said on August 21 that the problem was criminality and not a sociological phenomenon. Acknowledging a social problem at the national level would be admitting that the state does not provide the security it is supposed to provide over the entirety of its territory.

The government defends itself by saying that investigations are being conducted in the Western part of the country. The Missing Women Commission in British Columbia headed by Wally Oppal was to investigate 18 murders along a road nicknamed the “Highway of Tears“, but the procedure was eventually abandoned as it did not include Native representatives or prostitutes. Therefore, the aim of a national investigation is to shed light on the practices of the police in charge of local investigations. As shown in Lauren Martin’s account, those practices are often smeared with prejudice, sometimes sexual violence or abuse. Thus, according to ATAC, Native women are “over-watched and under-protected“.

A growing political disagreement

The issue of a national investigation leads to increased political tension. On Thursday 20th of November, lawyer and former senator Serge Joyal publicly promised to legally assist anyone who wished to bring their case against the government and its refusal to investigate all the way to the Supreme Court. Joyal’s work is based on the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as well as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and he thinks bringing the case to the Supreme court is the only way to put pressure on the government. The country’s main trade union, the Canadian Labour congress, is also rallying to this cause, and is encouraging people on their website to send as much mail as possible to the Prime Minister.

Mobilisation of Native Women

Today, some women are taking back the power that was stolen from them in the name of the European political model. They are participating in political debates in increasing numbers, and are statistically far more numerous in returning to school than non-Native women.

“Ever since the Native women movement asking for an Indian Act reform gained popularity, women have gained an increasingly important place in political debates, among community councils and in the dialogue with the government. FAQ is a perfect example of that.“ Aurélie Arnaud

The Quebec Native Women association (FAQ) has indeed allowed the case of the double discrimination of Native women to be brought to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, thanks to their annual attending of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, despite political power being too often inaccessible to them. “They are the ones we see blocking the roads so trucks can’t access the building sites for hydroelectric dams or mines they don’t want to see built on their territories,“ explains Aurélie Arnaud.

FAQ is also fighting for Native women to be actively involved in research, to obtain the best possible solution.
“The idea is that we must adapt programs to the reality of Native women, because their lives are not the same as those of the rest of Québec’s women. The Natives suffer from a double discrimination (being a woman and being a Native), and they also have a different history, since colonisation and residential schools have left a deep legacy on socio-economic conditions of nations and Native women.”  Aurélie Arnaud

Local and international mobilisations, and government inaction

Canada waited for 3 years before signing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples on September 13, 2007. The country was part, along with the US, Australia and New Zealand, of the 4 ‘no’ votes in opposition to the 143 ‘yes’ votes of the General Assembly. In addition to this, Canada also opposed the Declaration at the UN Human Right Council. According to Aurélie Arnaud, the current government which has been in power since February, 2006 does not believe in self-determination of people and tries to minimize the impact of decisions coming from the Supreme Court. The government also cut the funding that allowed FAQ to reach beyond the Canadian borders. Protestors’ actions are discredited, too. Aurélie Arnaud deplores the secret services and home security mandates to follow Idle No More’s militants, which are allegedly similar to those used for “dangerous terrorists“.

All the Native topics are actually very complex, since they pertain to complicated legal configurations. We can wonder if all this complexity is not voluntary, so as to draw public attention away, avoid any discussion with the Natives and then, undercover, further carry out the colonisation of Natives and the annihilation of their rights.“ Aurélie Arnaud

What would the government have to gain in this? “If no one can be recognized as Native, no one has a claim on a special territory that does not belong to ‘great’ Canada, and so the government can exploit and use all lands as it wishes. Little has changed since the 18th century in that respect.” Aurélie Arnaud

“From Sea to Sea”, “Je me souviens”

The respective mottos of Canada and Québec can help to put into perspective this shocking national phenomenon.
In the future, the priority is for Canadian society — which is largely ignorant about its own colonisation history with regards to Natives— to acknowledge this phenomenon. Prime Minister Harper boasted, during the 2010 G20 summit and before the world’s press, that Canada was the only civilized country to have never colonized.“ Aurélie Arnaud

Faced with this ignorant indifference, or indifferent ignorance, all Canadians must rally. But it must be said that rallying can only occur where there is awareness. The FAQ association started a petition on 2013 to ask for a modification of history syllabi to include the history of colonisation and residential schools, and to “remember“, as Québec says. “The petition got 4,411 signatures,” says Aurélie Arnaud. “FAQ can regularly see how widespread the prejudice and clichés we still have to fight are”.

Several ways to fight these prejudices are available to everyone: signing petitions, sharing information, taking part in protests, but also simply allowing yourself to feel empathy. Understanding emotions and beliefs lead to tolerance, even if in our Western societies empathy can be understood as a synonym of weakness. We must rally for one another in a world where politicians fight violence rather than its causes, as if mildness and virility, dialogue and conflict, and tolerance and strength were always clashing.