Credit: M-J Milloy on Flickr, under Creative Commons
(WOMENSENEWS)–Canada, the United States, Scandinavia, Europe and Australia all made significant strides in equality rights for women in the second half of the 20th century. But along the way, the rights of aboriginal women were ignored, just as aboriginal people themselves were left out of equality equations in nation-building.
When Amnesty International accused Canada of overlooking the possible serial killing of aboriginal women in two reports, one written in 2003 and the next in 2009, they reminded Canadians that violence against aboriginal women is a long-held and nasty secret. Their plight was the theme of George Ryga‘s brilliant play, “The Ecstasy of Rita Joe,” first performed at the Vancouver Play house in 1967. Later adapted as a ballet and translated into French, the play focused on violence perpetrated against the young Rita Joe at the hands of an entitled white society. When she was killed, nobody paid attention–which rang all too true in Canada.
So in 2003, when Amnesty International released its first report, “Stolen Sisters,” no one was really surprised that it addressed the fact that too many aboriginal women were missing in western Canada and not enough attention was being paid by the Canadian government. The report opened with the story of a woman whose name had become a symbol of struggle and the miscarriage of justice for the country’s aboriginal women.
Helen Betty Osborne was a 19-year-old Cree student from northern Manitoba who dreamed of becoming a teacher. On Nov. 13, 1971, she was abducted by four white men in the town of The Pas and then sexually assaulted and brutally murdered. A provincial inquiry subsequently concluded that Canadian authorities had failed Osborne. The inquiry criticized the sloppy and racially biased police investigation that took more than 15 years to bring one of the four men to justice. Most disturbingly, the inquiry concluded that police had long been aware of white men sexually preying on indigenous women and girls in The Pas but “did not feel that the practice necessitated any particular vigilance.” The 67-page report ended with a pointed demand that the government do something about it.
Canadian officials have a clear and inescapable obligation to ensure the safety of indigenous women, to bring those responsible for attacks against them to justice and to address the deeper problems of marginalization, dispossession and impoverishment that have placed so many indigenous women in harm’s way.
Amnesty International included a petition with the report and encouraged all Canadians to sign it on behalf of the Stolen Sisters. It reads:
“Young aboriginal women in Canada are at least five times more likely than other women in Canada to die as a result of violence. Not enough is being done to ensure that these crimes are adequately investigated, or to address the discrimination and impoverishment that put so many aboriginal women in harm’s way. We, the undersigned, urge the Government of Canada to work with aboriginal women and aboriginal peoples’ organizations to develop a national plan of action to stop violence against indigenous women.”
It said such a plan of action must:
- Recognize the high levels of violence faced by aboriginal women because they are aboriginal women.
- Ensure effective, unbiased police response through appropriate training, resources and coordination.
- Improve public awareness and accountability through the consistent collection and publication of comprehensive national statistics on violent crime against aboriginal women.
- Reduce the risk to aboriginal women by closing the economic and social gap between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people in Canada.
The petition got plenty of signatures. But successive governments failed to take action, instead obfuscating, delaying and basically ignoring the issue. For instance, when the House of Commons Standing Committee on the Status of Women released its final report on violence against aboriginal women in December 2011, Prime Minister Stephen Harper‘s government completely ignored the report, as well as the input of the aboriginal women who had appeared before the committee.
The Native Women’s Association of Canada, along with the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action, took their complaint to the U.N. And the U.N., in keeping with the resolutions it has written (and rarely acted on) on violence against women, decided in December 2011 to send a team to conduct an inquiry into the murders and disappearances of hundreds of aboriginal women and girls in Canada, based on violations of the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. (Like most countries, Canada is a signatory to CEDAW and also to the Optional Protocol, which outlines a process for initiating an inquiry when the CEDAW Committee receives “reliable information indicating grave or systemic violations.”)
Relying on the Amnesty International reports, the CEDAW Committee noted that in 2008 the Canadian government had failed to live up to its obligations, and had failed again in 2010, stating, “The Committee considers that its recommendation [regarding missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls] has not been implemented and it requests the Canadian authorities to urgently provide further information on measures undertaken to address such concerns.” No information was forthcoming. So CEDAW called for its own investigation into a situation that Canada had refused to acknowledge.
‘Big Black Eye’
When 23 independent experts from around the world came to Canada, a country that prides itself on being a defender of human rights, to investigate a national tragedy that the federal government had ignored, it was strong medicine for “the true north.” Mary Eberts, who acts as legal counsel for the Native Women’s Association of Canada says, “This is the first time CEDAW has done an investigation in a developed country. It’s a big black eye for Canada.”
The inquiry wasn’t a criminal investigation; it was more about asking questions and writing a report for the U.N. It is already known that aboriginal women in Canada experience rates of violence three and a half times higher than non-aboriginal women, and young aboriginal women are five times more likely to die by violence. Aboriginal women in Australia, New Zealand, the United States and much of Central America also suffer from increased violence as well as poorer health and more poverty.
Eberts has no hope for government action even with the release of the U.N. report, which took place late last year, because “officials are woefully bad at doing due diligence. Nothing happens because of indifference.” But that doesn’t mean the report won’t have an effect, she says. “Women have to stop relying on governments to make change. Politicians love to talk about change; they talk for years about water quality, about aboriginals, about the environment. But the resistance to change is endemic. CEDAW doesn’t have the clout to make Canada do anything. But this report will build awareness with Canadians.”
Cindy Blackstock, the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, is preparing for action. “Within the hierarchy of First Nations, women have one of the most sacred roles– we are the life givers. With every generation there comes a chance to make the world anew. We have the possibility as women to truly shape the future, the future of humanity.”
Read the latest criticism from Human Rights Watch saying that a landmark Canadian parliamentary report released on March 7, 2014, failed to recommend needed steps to stem violence against indigenous women.
From “Uprising: The New Age is Dawning for Every Mother’s Daughter” by Sally Armstrong. Copyright © 2014 by Sally Armstrong and reprinted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books.
Sally Armstrong is a three-time Amnesty International Canada award winner, a member of the Order of Canada, the holder of seven honorary degrees, a journalist and a humanitarian activist. She was a member of the International Women’s Commission, a U.N. body that consists of 20 Palestinian women, 20 Israeli women and 12 internationals whose mandate is assisting with the path to peace in the Middle East.
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