Violence against Aboriginal women and the right to self-defence

Protests were a regular feature outside the Missing Women's Inquiry in Vancouver

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For months now First Nations Leadership has been calling on the Federal government for a commission to study why there are so many murdered and missing Aboriginal women in this country. 

The government of Canada has refused.  Stephen Harper and his government have said that it is a matter for law enforcement, not for politicians or the public. I beg to differ with both positions. 

When Aboriginal women experience violence of any kind it is a political act.  It is so, because Aboriginal women as a group are the most vulnerable sector in the Canadian population. This is not an accident. It is a historical reality and a direct consequence of colonial policy over the last 150 years.  Not only are they most vulnerable to physical violence, but also Aboriginal women are the most likely to experience economic, employment, social and educational marginalization. If any other part of the Canadian population were statistically experiencing what Aboriginal women face in this country daily it would be considered an immediate national crisis. 

To call for another study of the “plight of Indians”, no matter how focused or extensive, would be a waste of time. There have already been a myriad of excellent studies by Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal academics who have understood exactly what the causes are of such violence and degradation. The problem is that they have tended to suggest solutions within the current constellations of government programs. 

Studies and commissions have proven fruitless.  In 1996 the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) was released. It set out 440 recommendations for change with a straightforward foundation for recognition, respect and reconciliation. RCAP was the most extensive and expensive study ever but it died somewhere between the Queen's Printers and Parliament. It seems obscene to parade the victims of rape and murder before the public in some sort of mock commission only for it to be a waste of time. First Nations leaders can save their public indignation for their next election campaign.

It is no mystery why Aboriginal women are vulnerable. 

First of all they are women in a society that values men more. Secondly, they are women of colour in a society that values "whiteness." Thirdly, they are of Indigenous heritage in a Nation, which has destroyed their cultures and stolen their land. Fourthly, their wombs are a reality threat to the narrative of dominion. Fifthly, Aboriginal men must undermine women's power to fit in with and prosper in the colonial status quo. Sixth, the non-Indigenous population thrives on the titillation of the 'savage bitch' getting what she deserves. Seventh, some Aboriginal women have commoditized their bodies and therefore undermined the value of all Aboriginal women's wombs. Eighth, some Aboriginal men have become so emasculated that they have to assault and kill their sisters to make themselves feel better. Ninth, some non-Aboriginal men get a kick out of victimizing the defenseless Indians because it improves their stature among peers. Tenth, police are tired of responding to nuisance calls in undeserving neighbourhoods or believe that Aboriginal victims bring it on themselves. Eleventh, white judges don't like to see young white men destroy their lives and reputations needlessly. Twelfth, Aboriginal leaders who represent us are divided by arbitrary definitions of our identity. When a rapist attacks a woman he doesn't check for her status card like the cashier at Walmart.

I could go on, but you get the picture. However, with all of these reasons why Aboriginal women are victimized I believe the most important cause of this violence, like all of the other rights that colonial society has taken away from peoples indigenous to this land, is the right of self-defense.  It is high time that Aboriginal communities assert that right.  

Canada committed billions of dollars and hundreds of lives to a war in Afghanistan, and among the most popular reasons was, to protect Afghan women and their rights.  Canada shed its role as a peacekeeper and became a warrior nation to do so.  A Colonial government won't do that for Aboriginal women in Canada so we need to do it for ourselves.  And unlike Canada in Afghanistan, let's not abandon our mission. Canada has spent millions of dollars in Haiti to train police, teach investigation techniques, and provide modern equipment and logistical support to protect Canadian investments.  Tell me that this is not a political problem.

This week the Oppal Commission report entitled 'Forsaken' was released in British Columbia. Reminiscent of Duncan Campbell Scott's poem of the same name the report is fatally flawed in its own fatalism.  Its recommendations rely on enhancing an already failed system with money that is no longer available. 

Like Scott's poem it demeans the indigenous woman and places her in safety only when she finds refuge alongside the "Fort."  Middleclass institutions, no matter who operates them, will not get at the underlying causes that have placed Aboriginal women at the bottom of Canada’s social register.  And the police, like those in Haiti trained by the RCMP, know whom their real clients are and their culture will not change.  The 'Forsaken,' report and poem, are as misguided and ignorant about Aboriginal women as Scott’s administration of the Indian Department which was instrumental in creating and perpetuating our suffering. 

We will not get the financial or logistical resources from the government to protect our people. It just is not going to happen that way.  In fact, the wealth stolen from Indigenous lands is being used to subsidize more theft of our lands.  So there is not much use for Shawn Atleo to seek a compromise.  No use at all.  If we wait for the dismantling of the Indian Act by a government that enforces it, then we will surely have our heads in an even tighter noose. 

It is time for our Nations to protect our own people. It is time to hunt down the perpetrators of the murdered and missing women and bring them to justice. It is time to confront our own failings as men and women and overcome the apathy that has undermined our power as human beings for far too long.  And it is time to stop being the victim.

RCAP gave us all a 20 year mandate to find peace.  There is no time left for that.  We need to organize our communities around self-defense, develop the skills needed to protect our lands and people and build alliances among our nations and with those who understand our need for justice. 

The days of taking table scraps are over.  We do not want or need what the colonizer has, we only want what is ours, what was given to us by the creator.


Robert Lovelace is an adjunct lecturer at Queen's University in the Department of Global Development Studies. His academic interests include Indigenous Studies, Sustainable Development and Aboriginal education. Robert is also an activist in anti-colonial struggles. In 2008, Robert spent 3 ½ months as a political prisoner for his part in defending the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation homeland from uranium exploration and mining. Robert is a retired chief of the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation. He lives in the Algonquin highlands at Eel Lake in the traditional Ardoch territory.

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