Indigenous women rising in the face of violence and injustice

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Indigenous women rising in the face of violence and injustice

Carol Martin is a Nisga'a woman who has been part the Downtown Eastside (DTES) neighbourhood of Vancouver for almost 30 years and she works at the Downtown Eastside Women's Centre. Sophie Merasty is a Denesuline and Woodland Cree woman who has been part of the DTES for close to 30 years as well, and she works in the performing arts. Scott Neigh interviews them about Red Women Rising: Indigenous Women Survivors in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, a new publication which brings together the voices of Indigenous women in the DTES to talk about injustice, survival, leadership, and making change.

Along with being one of the poorest neighbourhoods in the country and being stigmatized in pretty much every way an urban neighbourhood can be, the DTES has also been described as "ground zero for violence against Indigenous women." Who better, then, to describe the injustices that are the basis of the violence that Indigenous women and girls face, and to articulate the steps we all must take to eradicate that violence, than the Indigenous women of the DTES.

The Downtown Eastside Women's Centre recently facilitated a community process in which 113 Indigenous women and 15 non-Indigenous women from the neighbourhood participated, shared and discussed. They brought together their insights, their stories and their challenges, and identified the changes that they see as necessary to bring about justice. The process was funded with money from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, and its results will be submitted to the inquiry. Unlike most of the seemingly endless stream of research done in and about neighbourhoods likes the DTES, this process was not imposed by outsiders but was guided and enacted at every step by women from the neighbourhood, mostly Indigenous women.

The end result of this process was Red Women Rising, which was published at the beginning of April. Merasty was a facilitator in the process. The report was co-authored by Martin and Harsha Walia.

One premise of the project is that the violence that Indigenous women face cannot be understood in isolation. Rather, as stated in the Red Women Rising report,  "individual experiences of violence are inseparable from state violence including loss of land, forced poverty, homelessness, child apprehension, criminalization within the justice system, and health disparities." In each of these areas, the report brings together the words of the women who participated in the process with a review of relevant published research. The violence that women face in the DTES includes the many, many ways that the Canadian state and settler society have harmed and continue to harm Indigenous women -- everything from criminalization of land defenders, to the theft of children, to lack of affordable housing, to police harassment, and much, much more. All of this systemic harm and accompanying stigmatization in turn make Indigenous women more vulnerable to interpersonal violence.

A key feature of the report is the inclusion of the stories of many of the women, told at length and in their own words. Even without the accompanying research, these powerful stories cut to the core of what "Canada" is and the gendered, colonial violence it is based on. Another key goal of the project was to centre the ways in which Indigenous women in the DTES refuse to be statistics or stereotypically passive victims. Rather, it makes visible their active, ongoing work not only to survive, but to support each other and to push for change.

The report makes 200 recommendations that would help work towards ending violence against Indigenous women and girls, including 35 key recommendations that were brought up repeatedly by the participants. Today's interviewees identified the first two of those as particularly crucial: recognizing full Indigenous jurisdiction over the land and law-making, and restoring the roles that Indigenous women traditionally held in leadership, in keeping knowledge, and in holding title to the land in many nations. Others include ending sexism in the Indian Act, stopping the apprehension of Indigenous children, holding police accountable for violence, strengthening tenant rights, raising social assistance rates, expanding various Indigenous services in the DTES, and much more. Taken together, they not only point towards what must be done to end violence against Indigenous women, but they suggest how centering the struggles of Indigenous women would lead to a more fair and just society for all of us.

Image: "Long Live Our Mother" by Jess X Snow. Used with permission of the Downtown Eastside Women's Centre.

Theme music: "It Is the Hour (Get Up)" by Snowflake, via CCMixter


Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out its website here. You can also follow them on Facebook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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