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Murdered, missing and still excluded: Indigenous women fight for equality

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If there is one thing that the Pickton Inquiry has proven to Canadians is that gender discrimination against Indigenous women is not only a present-day phenomenon, but that it is systemic at all levels of government. The unique problem for Indigenous women is that the gender discrimination they face when dealing with one group, like the police, is multiplied many times over top of the gender discrimination they face in all other aspects of their lives. These Indigenous women who were murdered at the hands of Robert Pickton or who remain missing have never truly been treated as human beings worthy of care and protection.

In many Indigenous Nations, their concept of citizenship or belonging was a relational concept that provided both rights and responsibilities on the parts of individuals and Nations. So, an Indigenous Nation required the recognition, loyalty and contributions of their people, and the people required the recognition, protection and contributions of their Nation. For many, there was no such thing as a person who was dispensable.

We also know that in many Indigenous Nations, women were not only considered "equal" as human beings, but many societies were matriarchal. In some Nations, it was a council of women who decided who would be the next leader and that same council could remove a poor leader. For others, while the men may have tracked down and killed a moose for the community, it was the women who had to dress it and drag it back. There is not a single Indigenous Nation that I have ever studied where their women were not valued as life-givers and care-takers of their Nations.

This is a far cry from the European laws, rules, policies and values imposed on our Indigenous Nations. I wish I could say that colonization was a thing of the past, an issue for which we should all just "get over". Sadly, the reality is that Canada is still in the colonizing business -- trying to assimilate Indians once and for all and our women have always been the primary targets. Today, our women face gender discrimination on all fronts, from all levels of government and society, and many have paid the ultimate price for being an Indigenous woman -- they have lost their lives.

When the colonial governments in Canada realized Indians were not dying off fast enough, they enacted provisions in the Indian Act to assimilate them faster. The first people to be tossed out were Indigenous women and their children. Jeanette Corbiere-Lavell (now President of the Native Women's Association of Canada) took Canada to court to challenge this blatant discrimination, but our Supreme Court of Canada said there was never any intention that the equality provision in the Bill of Rights would effect legislation.

Sandra Lovelace (now a Senator) was then forced to take Canada to the United Nation Human Rights forum to protect her equality rights and Canada was found in violation of international laws by preventing her from enjoying her culture with her community. Canada was supposed to get rid of all gender inequality in the Indian Act -- but Bill C-31 not only did not remedy all gender inequality, but created new forms for Indigenous women and their children to suffer.

Sharon McIvor then took the lead and sued Canada for continued gender discrimination in the Indian Act and won. However, Canada's response was to amend the Indian Act in such a limited way that more people will be excluded than included. Moreover, Bill C-3 did not fully remedy gender inequality and once again created new forms of discrimination only applicable to Indigenous women. Adding insult to injury, the preferential treatment of non-Indian women remains in the Indian Act today.

But this is not the only issue faced by Indigenous women. The proposed Bill S-2 (previously Bill S-4, Bill C-47 and Bill C-8) is supposed to provide equitable divisions of matrimonial assets upon divorce for Indians living on reserve. It is touted by the Conservatives as legislation that will also protect Indigenous women from violence. However, this Bill not only does not address violence against Indigenous women, but creates once again, an illusion of justice in that any rights must be accessed through Canadian courts and expensive lawyers -- assuming any courts and lawyers are available in many remote communities.

Bill S-2 also creates new rights for non-Indians to have life interests in reserve lands. Given the high rates of out-marriage in many communities, this could mean whole scale occupation of reserve lands by non-Indians. That is in addition to all the homes already occupied by non-Indian women who got to keep their privileged Indian status because Canada thought it would be too unfair to take it away from them once they had it. That kind of injustice is only suitable for Indigenous women.

So, Indigenous women continue to fight for equality, which has turned into a fight for their identities, their right to be part of their communities and now their very lives. The fact that hundreds of Indigenous women could go missing for so long, over so many years, without anyone in power batting an eye, is a testament to the less than human status assigned to Indigenous women. The police, Crown lawyers, and federal and provincial politicians have created this situation. The least they can do is allow Indigenous women to finally exercise their voice in a safe forum with the same protection afforded to police -- lawyers paid for by the Crown. As it stands now, any Indigenous woman who testifies must face a firing squad of no less than 13 lawyers who will interrogate these women at length.

Just like all the "non-status", "non-band member" and "off-reserve" Indian women who have been excluded at every turn, we now have a new negative descriptor -- murdered or missing Indigenous women. Our women can be murdered or go missing in frighteningly high numbers without society caring enough to even wonder why. How much more inequality must Indigenous women endure before society at large will stand up and say enough?

British Columbia needs to step up, stand up and give these women the same chance afforded the already too powerful police force. Anything less is a complete sham.

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