Indigenous women are one of the most marginalized and vulnerable groups in almost every part of the world that they inhabit (Kuokkanen 2008, 220); they are also among the hardest hit by the negative effects of globalization (Kuokkanen 2008, 216). To make this situation worse, while violence against women is a very serious problem in a variety of social and cultural groups, in the Indigenous context it is endemic – so prevalent it has been referred to as a “plague” (Rouleau 2004, 36). Canada is unfortunately, no exception to this rule. Aboriginal women here experience one of the highest levels of poverty and disenfranchisement in Canadian society, and also face a higher risk of violent attack than any other segment of the population (Amnesty International 2004, 105). The structural origins of these problems can be traced to catastrophic changes in the Aboriginal way of life, brought about by institutions and processes such as colonialism, capitalism, Patriarchy and racism. The introduction of these new influences on Aboriginal reality affected changes to what Gayle Rubin refers to as Aboriginal people’s “sex/gender system” (Rubin 1975, 159), resulting in radical shifts in Aboriginal cultural life, gender roles and family forms, which contributed directly to the increase in violence against Aboriginal women. These forces are still at work today, confounding attempts by Aboriginal women and their allies to reduce the damage done by history and bad government policy. Despite some setbacks, the tenacious energy of these women continues to gradually improve the situation, although realistic official intervention should be expedited immediately.
As in many pre-industrial societies, evidence indicates that early Aboriginal cultures were fairly equitable toward women (Amnesty International 2004, 110). Women’s role was well-established in Iroquois/Mohawk political processes and among the Innu there was a power-sharing relationship between the genders (Quebec Native Women Inc. 2008, 4). Indigenous women also had important roles to play in terms of reproductive labour, such as gathering food, preparing clothing, etc. – a family needed a woman and a man in order to function (Quebec Native Women Inc. 2008, 4). While European women were regarded as property, first of their father and then of their husband, the majority of North American Indigenous cultures included women in positions of power and matrilineal family forms (Harper 2006, 34). Indigenous sex/gender systems such as these would soon change radically as colonization began to take hold.
Early relations with Europeans were fairly equitable, with the new arrivals receiving help in order to survive, but this cooperation quickly gave way to brutal conquest and imperialism, predicated on the notion of Aboriginal racial inferiority, which rationalized official government mandates of assimilation and paternalism (Harper 2006, 34). Such ideas gave rise to two of the most devastating historical attacks on Indian culture and identity: the residential school system and the Indian Act. These policies were explicitly designed to obliterate Aboriginal culture through re-education and gradual incorporation. Residential schools subjected Aboriginal children to abuse, appalling living conditions and punished them for communicating in their native language or practicing their traditions, leading to widespread, multigenerational alienation from their culture (Quebec Native Women Inc. 2008, 5). The Indian Act instituted paternalistic policies which denied Aboriginal people self-determination and later segregated them in reserves (Rouleau 2004, 37). The outcome of these programs on Aboriginal culture was disastrous, resulting in complete disruption of Aboriginal people’s ways of life, including their sex-gender systems, which would have demonstrable effects on levels of violence against women in their communities.
Among the Inuit of Nunavut, where resettlement took place much more recently and its more immediate effects are still being felt, we see the dramatic rise in violence that can occur when sex-gender systems are upset. Billson notes that resettlement of Inuit communities from “the land” into small villages in the 1960s was followed by a marked rise in domestic violence (Billson 2006, 70). Although there is no hard data, interviewees in her study reported that in the hunter-gatherer context, people considered family violence “despicable” and customs of informal social control would impose severe sanctions on men who violated these norms (Billson 2006, 72). Resettlement destroyed the balance between spheres of home and hunt, which prior to that had been the principle organizing paradigm in Inuit family life; the mutually dependent roles of provider and seamstress were made problematic by the forced abandonment of men’s hunting equipment, dogs and sleds, although women were permitted to bring their tools, leading to a reversal of income generating roles (Billson 2006, 74). Loss of their provider function led men to lowered self-esteem and dramatically higher rates of substance abuse, depression and suicide, in addition to endemic family violence (Billson 2006, 74). Resettlement led to fundamental shifts in the gendered balance of power in Inuit families and communities and became one of the major factors in the alarming increase in violence against Inuit women (Billson 2006, 75). The Inuit case is useful as a model for the means by which colonization, resettlement and other processes, can disrupt Indigenous sex/gender systems, with often ruinous consequences for subaltern groups.
THE INDIAN ACT
Resettlements’ effects on sex/gender systems can be traced much further back in the larger Aboriginal community, to the Indian Act (1867), the first of a series of legislative attacks on Aboriginal identity and culture. This piece of legislation was intrinsically paternalistic, placing “Indians” under state guardianship and segregating them on reserves (Quebec Native Women Inc. 2008, 37), but its effects on Aboriginal women would be much more layered and ultimately disastrous, leading to the displacement of tens of thousands (Quebec Native Women Inc. 2008, 5). An amendment in 1876 took Indian status away from women who married outside of their band, caused status to be passed down patrilineally, and disenfranchised women by removing their right to vote and hold office (Barker 2008, 259). This effectively took away a woman’s right to live on the reserve or enjoy any of her rights as an Indigenous person, if she married outside of the Aboriginal community (if she married an Aboriginal man outside of her band, she would obtain his status, but if they divorced she would not regain her status), causing many women to choose not to marry, and others to be separated from their families and cultures, sometimes forever (Barker 2008, 261-3). This withdrawal of entitlements further contributed to Aboriginal women’s poverty and marginalization; by entrenching Aboriginal male privilege, the Indian Act planted the seed and assured the reproduction of unequal gender relations, which would continue to place women in vulnerable positions for years to come (Barker 2008, 263). These forms of economic organization caused major shifts in the sex/gender systems of most Aboriginal groups, because the majority of their cultures were arranged matrilineally. Although Aboriginal women have now successfully lobbied for the repeal of the more overtly discriminatory aspects of the Indian Act, their legacy and new forms of discriminatory legislation continue to affect Aboriginal people today. For example, because divorces are handled under provincial and territorial law and reserve lands are strictly a federal matter, there is a gap in the law which leaves women unprotected with regard to the division of matrimonial real property, dispossessing them and making it difficult to escape violent situations at home (Harper 2006, 33).
These historical structures and processes have led to the extreme social and economic marginalization of Aboriginal women, which has forced them into dangerous circumstances such as poverty, homelessness and sex work in disproportionate numbers (Amnesty International 2004, 105). The police have been shown to provide inadequate protection of Aboriginal women and their resulting vulnerability is allowing them to be preyed on with severe violence by non- and Aboriginal men (Amnesty International 2004, 105). Due to a dearth of race-based data, although statistics which obtain to this issue are extremely disturbing, they frequently underestimate the magnitude of the crisis (Amnesty International 2009, 1). Statistics Canada reports that in 2004 Aboriginal women reported rates of domestic violence that were three times as high as non-Aboriginal women (Statistics Canada 2006), although this data does not take into account cultural differences and likely also misjudges the scale of the problem (National Women's Association of Canada 2009, 12) . Indigenous women have a higher risk of domestic violence than any other demographic in Canada (Quebec Native Women Inc. 2008, 3), but this is only half of the story; these women are also more likely to be the victims of the most extreme, and frequently deadly, forms of violence including choking, being attacked with a knife or gun, and sexual assault (Quebec Native Women Inc. 2008, 3). This means that violence against Aboriginal women is particularly lethal; the Canadian government stated in 1996 that Aboriginal women age 25-44 are 5 times more likely to die violently than non-Aboriginal women the same age (Amnesty International 2004, 114).
Reported cases of violence and death fail to articulate the full scale of the issue, due both to the under-reporting which frequently plagues investigations of family violence, and to the disproportionate number of Aboriginal women who go missing, never therefore being listed as dead. In The Native Women’s Association of Canada has compiled a list of over 520 missing or murdered Aboriginal women in the last three decades, an abysmal figure when considering the representation of Aboriginal women in the population and the relatively low violent crime rate in Canada (Amnesty International 2009). In 2007, 60% of the long-term missing women’s cases in the province of Saskatchewan were Aboriginal women (Amnesty International 2009, 1). In Vancouver, where Indigenous people represent 2% of the general population, but 30% of the homeless and 40% of sex workers, 60 women (20 Aboriginal) were reported missing from the Down Town East Side, one of the most economically depressed neighbourhoods in the country; Robert Pickton has been convicted in the death of 6 of these women and awaits trial for the murder of 20 more (Amnesty International 2009, 22). Amnesty International first brought attention to the dilemma of missing and murdered Aboriginal women in 2004, indicting the Canadian government for failure to live up to its obligations towards Aboriginal women under international human rights law, including a lack of due diligence in efforts to provide a safe environment (Amnesty International 2004). Efforts to address the issue in the meantime have been woefully inadequate, the most promising measures being implemented by provincial officials or police agencies, without a cohesive national strategy being deployed (Amnesty International 2009, 3-4).
These incredible statistical disparities indicate widespread structural discrimination against Aboriginal women, who experience the “double marginality” of being women and Indigenous (Billson 2006, 73). Lack of ethnic and racial statistics makes a comprehensive analysis of this issue impossible, but what is apparent is pervasive inequality. Across the country Aboriginal women earn 30% less than non-Aboriginal women; three quarters of Aboriginal households headed by a single female live in poverty (Amnesty International 2009, 7). In Manitoba, 42.7% of women living off reserve live in poverty while this figure is reduced to half for non-Aboriginal women; their average annual income is also much lower than that of either Aboriginal men or non-Aboriginal women (Harper 2006, 35) Aboriginal women are also disadvantaged in terms of educational attainment. In 2001, 40% of Aboriginal women had not graduated from high school compared to 29% of other women; only 7% had a university degree compared to 17% of the rest of women (Harper 2006, 35). Ironically, although the residential school system has been officially publicly decried and apologized for, the Canadian child welfare system continues to be responsible for an alarmingly disproportionate number of Aboriginal children ( 39.5 % of children in state care, resulting in a similar disconnection from their culture (Harper 2006, 35). The justice system is equally discriminatory, with both police and the courts being implicated in a failure to be culturally sensitive, as well as various instances of systemic racism/sexism (Harper 2006, 35).
Structural discrimination has furthermore led to a situation where many Indigenous communities in Canada, one of the world’s richest countries, live in conditions comparable to the Third World (Amnesty International 2009, 7). The federal government, charged with the sole responsibility for social welfare services such as health care on reserves, spends markedly less per person in these communities than provincial and territorial governments spend on non-Indegenous communities, despite the fact that it is more expensive to deliver services in remote communities (Amnesty International 2009, 7). These inequalities have translated into disastrous life outcomes for many Aboriginal women; they are nearly three times as likely to contract HIV/AIDS, their life-expectancy is five to ten years less than non-Aboriginal women, and the infant mortality rate in Inuit communities is four times the national numbers (Amnesty International 2009, 7).
One of the most important dimensions of structural inequality is the chronic underfunding of services aimed at Aboriginals. Although studies indicate that the ongoing process of transferring control of government programs for Aboriginal people to their community has resulted in improvements in service delivery, spending caps on many of these programs have increased disparities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous groups (Amnesty International 2009, 7). In addition to the gap in service delivery between federal programs aimed at Indigenous communities and provincial and territorial programs for non-Indigenous people (Amnesty International 2004, 114), there are also many disparities within provincial and territorial populations, for example women’s shelters in Indigenous communities in Quebec receive 1/3 the funding of other such organizations (Quebec Native Women Inc. 2008, 7). Many indigenous communities do not even have access to such services, or where they do they are not culturally appropriate (Amnesty International 2009, 7).
These micro considerations must be considered against the backdrop of the global economic system. Although scholars are now beginning to trace the linkages between globalization and violence, the gendered nature of these processes remains under-analyzed (Kuokkanen 2008, 217). Theoretical frameworks tend to be globalocentric and patriarchal, ignoring the violence women face when they resist oppression, as well as deemphasizing the importance of work done on the grass-roots and community levels (Kuokkanen 2008, 12). Many Indigenous people see globalization as a euphemism for modern, economic colonialism; institutions and processes such as patriarchy, capitalism and white supremacy overlap with globalization and produce new forms of violence against Aboriginal women (Kuokkanen 2008, 218). For example, the sex industry is now an extremely important sector in the global economy; with the high proportion of Indigenous women in this occupation, they are exposed to the higher risks associated with it such as exploitation or violent attack (Kuokkanen 2008, 221). Another example of the relationship between macro-relations at the global level and interpersonal violence, is the greater vulnerability and danger created for Aboriginal women by the state’s neoliberal economic logic, which has led to privatization of (and reduced access to) public health services, corporate control of resources and the increasing disparity in wealth (Kuokkanen 2008, 220). Increased pressure on the land for the purposes of mining, drilling, etc. has reduced economic and social security in Aboriginal communities, which also leads directly to violence (Kuokkanen 2008, 223). Although analyses have thoroughly investigated the way that processes of globalization, such as the feminization of low-wage migratory labour and resulting changes to the sex/gender systems in export processing zones, increase women’s vulnerability, there has been little examination of the so-called Fourth World within the First World– the world of Indigenous people in wealthy nations, especially women (Kuokkanen 2008, 222).
These and other forms of discrimination have led to debates about Indigenous people’s inalienable rights. The Canadian government has publicly admitted that the Indigenous situation is Canada’s most important human rights issue (Amnesty International 2004, 119). In recent years, the idea of violence against women as a human right concern has also begun to gain traction. International human rights law concerns the Canadian Aboriginal woman in two important ways: 1) Violence against Aboriginal women is itself a human rights abuse, as is the failure of government to properly protect Aboriginal women. 2) A number of other issues place Canada at risk of IHL violations, such as the residential schools program and the disproportionate levels of poverty experienced by Aboriginal people. (Amnesty International 2004, 105). Canada has already been chastised several times by the UN for its failure to honour international obligations to Aboriginal people, particularly women, and has been brought before several UN human rights bodies by its own citizens (Amnesty International 2009, 25). This country has even ignored the warnings and instructions from its own official investigations such as the 1991 inquiry into the murder and disappearance of Aboriginal woman Helen Betty Osborne or the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal People.
My research on this issue has brought a number of recommendations to light which may permit the state to better protect Aboriginal women and reduce their risk of experiencing violence. A number of very serious gaps are apparent in terms of available information on violence against Aboriginal women; these gaps are due to poor information sharing between police forces and a policy against keeping race –based statistical information (Amnesty International 2004, 115). These issues should be resolved as soon as possible; better communication between forces will improve their ability to serve the public and race-based statistics will allow academics and policy-makers to have a better idea of the problems they are trying to tackle (Amnesty International 2004, 116). The government should also seek to work more closely with Aboriginal and other social workers and agencies on the ground, rather than implementing programs and changes without consultation, which are not appropriate for the context (Rouleau 2004, 37). Furthermore, the ambivalent view many Aboriginal people hold the police in is counter-productive, and should be rectified. Because of negative stereotypes and systemic discrimination, many Aboriginal communities are in a state of being “over-policed and under-protected” (Amnesty International 2004, 117), increasing Aboriginal distrust of police forces. In order to improve this situation I recommend further training in cultural sensitivity for police officers and other justice system staff (Quebec Native Women Inc. 2008, 9), as well as efforts to increase the representation of Aboriginal people on police forces (Amnesty International 2004, 118). Hopefully, these recommendations and other continued efforts will eliminate this horrendous problem from our society once and for all.
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