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For International Women's Day, women's groups demand justice for Indigenous women

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Over the weekend, around 50 feminists -- Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal -- gathered at the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Center on East Hastings. The meetings, organized by the Aboriginal Women's Action Network (AWAN) and Vancouver Rape Relief & Women's Shelter were aimed at strategizing on the national inquiry. Fay Blaney, founder of AWAN, said the whole process was "amazing," as her concerns were not only heard, but repeated by allies from across Canada.

At a press conference on Monday, Blaney said, "My alarm with the entire process is the utter absence of any feminist analysis in the inquiry." She argues that the government's "family first agenda" lacks a gendered lens and an explicit focus on male violence against women, meaning that it is likely that "a huge segment of our population is being excluded from the inquiry." Blaney went on to explain that many of the Aboriginal women who've gone missing or been murdered in Canada are not attached to any family or community, having aged out of the foster care system, fled violence in their homeland, or become estranged from their communities for a variety of reasons. "The 'families first' agenda does not address that in any way shape or form," she said.

Keira Smith-Tague, a collective member at Vancouver Rape Relief was also critical of the "families first" approach. She said that, in dealing only with individual families, the government allowed itself to individualize cases of missing and murdered women, rather than look at the systemic nature of men's power and privilege over women and how that is central.

"I mean absolutely no disrespect to families," Blaney said. "I know what they're faced with. I also have family that have been murdered. I think [families] have relevant and valuable data to share with the inquiry. But we also need to include the Indigenous feminist voice in this process."

"It is a divide and conquer strategy on the part of the government, intended to separate the families from women," Blaney added. "The government is pretty contented to hear the emotional stories without the political analysis." It is that very analysis that women's groups bring to the table and it is for that reason that they must be part of the inquiry process, she says.

I asked her about recent calls to include men in the inquiry, which Blaney says she was "appalled" by. "We marched when no one was paying attention, for years and, not only that, but women have been rising up and speaking out against violence in their own communities while men remain in denial about it."

The problem is that when male violence happens in Indigenous communities, "men protect men," Blaney says. "So who is speaking up for the girls and who is speaking up for the women? We want Indigenous men to step aside and allow Indigenous feminists to lead the way into this inquiry."

Just as Indigenous women's voices and interests are erased in Canada, at large, and are being threatened with erasure in the national inquiry, Blaney argues that Indigenous women are being marginalized in their own communities, as they remain underrepresented in the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), "which is so contrary to our matriarchal traditions."

"The Indian Act, the Church, and other institutions have destroyed our matriarchal traditions," she says. "And our women are saying that the way towards decolonization is through addressing the erasure of our matriarchal traditions."

Alice Lee, on behalf of her group, Asian Women Coalition Ending Prostitution, expressed solidarity with Indigenous women's calls to address the systemic factors that subject Aboriginal women to such high rates of violence. She added that things like a guaranteed livable income, universal child care, safe and affordable housing, and education would would ensure that Aboriginal women (and all women, more broadly) are less vulnerable to the attacks of men.

"If they were to offer a true solution to the missing and murdered women, the government would have to address the cause of poverty, systemic racism, and women's inequality, and they're just refusing to do that," Lee said.

All representatives reinforced the need for Canada's current prostitution laws, criminalizing the purchase of sex, to be enforced across the country. Here in Vancouver, Lee reminds us, there is a huge trafficking and prostitution trade that the City of Vancouver and the police have refused to address. She says this effectively abandons poor women of colour, in particular, to exploitative men and to the racist stereotypes the sex industry relies on.

"One of the issues that Indigenous women face here in Vancouver is the non-Native groups that are pushing for the legalization of prostitution," Blaney says. "Most Indigenous women that I encounter are abolitionists like I am." She goes on to make the connection between the prostitution of Indigenous women and colonialism, saying, "We didn't have a word in our languages for prostitution but then there was an Indian Act saying we were prostitutes and squaws -- sexually accessible and disposable. And now we have these lawyer's groups pushing for the legalization while talking about making our women 'safe' -- it's such a harmful agenda."

"That's what makes us targets," Blaney said. "The non-Aboriginal liberals who are out there promoting sex as a viable source of income are relegating us to a very degrading life."

Smith-Tague is careful to point out that the issue of the missing and murdered women is not limited to Canada, but is, rather, a global phenomenon. "But we're also in a moment where women worldwide -- and especially Indigenous women -- are rising up in resistance and that's reason to celebrate on International Women's Day and to stand in solidarity with women worldwide who are resisting male violence."

Here in Canada, at least, we are in a position to do just that -- to heed our Indigenous sisters' calls to make violence against women the full focus of the inquiry. "It cant be an examination of colonization as it impacts all indigenous people -- it has to be gender-specific," Blaney says. "We have to keep the pressure up. We cant give up now. We're in a moment now where we just have to step up and do everything we can to change the direction of that huge steamroller coming at us."

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