What is it that wakes you!
In the night
after I wake up,
And feel the teardrops in my eyes,
For a moment I am startled,
What's in dreams that made me cry?
So I crash
through the shadows,
Stumble through the empty halls
Turn the radio on softly
I want to make sense of it all.
the night, hear the voices.
Hurting image on the wall.
Each is my memories, echoing I am nothing at all.
The images are scaring me, like I have no control.
Don't forget they are just shadows; they don't have any power at all!
So I crash
through the shadows,
Stumble through the empty halls
Try to find a warm steady heart beat,
In the cold, steel concrete walls
guitar is screaming
Stings the center of my soul
Overwhelmed that I am not dreaming, fighting my way to stand up tall.
The struggle is drowning a voice of reason;
The tears are me believing
That all this is me! “Realizing,” that it “Really, isn't me, at all!!!”
So I crash
through the shadows,
Stumble through the empty halls
Turn the radio on softly
I want to make sense of it all.
voice starts with humming, harmony to my soul
Resonating a common moment as she takes my hand in her palm.
Saying, “It's not your home, not your friends nor your lover,
The truth is it's in your song.”
“We all need a little help.
When our walk feels like a crawl!!!”
crazy, I am healing and can rise above despair!
This is real and I'm not dreaming!
The truth is, “I really care!”
crazy, I am healing and can rise above despair!
The tears are real, and I'm not dreaming
The truth is, “I really care!”
Song sung by Jo-Anne Hansen as her testimony to the
Standing Committee on the Status of Women, January 21, 2011.
[O]n the international, on the national, and on the global scene,
Canada has not treated Aboriginal women right. They are the blight on Canada,
and will continue to be the blight unless some real things are done. It can be
done. This is what keeps my hope up. Yes, there are measures that can be taken
in the communities and by our leadership, by every parliamentarian, and at
every level to identify this and to take it on as Canadian leaders so that this
In March 2010, the Standing Committee on the Status of Women
(hereinafter the Committee) passed a motion to undertake a study on violence
against Aboriginal women. The Committee heard from many witnesses, including
representatives of Aboriginal organizations, academics, service providers, and
Aboriginal women themselves, with the goal of:
- Gaining a better understanding of the extent and nature of the
- Examining the root causes of the violence; and
- Recommending solutions in consultation and with the full
cooperation of Aboriginal women.
Between April 2010 and February 2011, the Committee heard from over
150 witnesses from across Canada. The study began with three meetings in Ottawa
with national Aboriginal organizations, government departments and other
stakeholders. During the first months of this study, the Committee conducted
fact-finding visits to Aboriginal and urban communities in eastern and central
Canada; this included Iqaluit (Nunavut), Labrador City (Newfoundland and
Labrador), Fredericton (New Brunswick), Montreal, Québec City, and Maniwaki
(all in Québec). In January 2011, the Committee continued its fact-finding
visits in the west by travelling to Sioux Lookout and Thunder Bay (Ontario),
Winnipeg (Manitoba), Prince Albert (Saskatchewan), Edmonton (Alberta),
Vancouver and Williams Lake (British Columbia), and Yellowknife (Northwest
Territories). During fact-finding visits, the Committee made a number of site
visits to local organizations and service providers, such as women’s shelters
and friendship centres.
As they crossed the country speaking to and hearing from Aboriginal
women in large urban areas, in smaller communities, in the North, and on
reserves, the members of the Committee were seized by the urgency of the
situation of violence within which Aboriginal women, men and children live
daily. The incidence and the severity of violence that Aboriginal women face
are much greater than that faced by non-Aboriginal women.
If there is something that is even more shocking than the violence
itself, it is the silence within which this violence is allowed to continue. It
is that silence which is perhaps the greatest shame of all. It is the silence
of those of us in the majority who chose to turn a blind eye to this violence—cases
of missing Aboriginal daughters and mothers which never make the headlines;
epidemics of suicide which don’t elicit an outpouring of concern and outrage
from the non-Aboriginal community. It is this silence which is complicit in
allowing the situation to continue. It is this silence which sends the message
that we don’t care, that we don’t want to care, that we won’t pull all the
stops to say “enough”.
This Committee wants to join our voices to the voices of the strong
women who took the time out of busy lives to tell us their stories, and we want
to say “enough”.
We want to dream with Aboriginal mothers who give birth to new sons and
daughters—to dream that those families will receive the support they need to
live lives free of violence, free of racism. We recognize that, as elected
officials, we must play a major role in breaking that silence.
This interim report is a first step toward the full report which
this Committee plans to issue on violence against Aboriginal women. In this
report, the Committee will highlight what we heard from witnesses in Ottawa and
across the country. Based on this testimony, we will outline some guiding
principles for moving forward on breaking the cycle of violence against Aboriginal
women. A more detailed compilation of recommendations will be incorporated into
this Committee’s final report.
In this report, we want to give voice to the women and men who have
shared their stories with this Committee in the hope that things will change. We
hope to do justice to the voices of people like Marilyn George, who told the
So I sit here in hope that our voice will be heard loud and clear
as first nation women.
I speak for my daughter, my cousins. I speak for those I’ve lost in my past due
to suicide because of domestic violence and other assaults that have happened
to many of our women in our communities.
Violence in Aboriginal women’s lives is pervasive, and is
compounded by violence and systemic and institutionalized racism as well as the
effects of historical violence, such as residential schools, the Indian Act,
and other legacies of colonization…Violence in many Aboriginal women's lives is
a daily occurrence, for too many women have died either by murder or by their
own hand. Many governments have been willing to fund
studies and reports, but very few have been willing to step up and fund the
long-term solutions to the problem of violence against our women and girls. How
many more women have to die before any concrete, long-term action is taken?
There is much diversity among Aboriginal women. Some are First
Nations, others Métis or Inuit. Some live on reserves, and many more live off
reserve, in towns and cities across Canada. The Department of Indian and
Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) reports that there are over 100,000 First
Nations women aged 15 and over living on reserve, almost 330,000 living off reserve,
approximately 135,000 Métis, and approximately 16,000 Inuit women. Despite
their great variety, however, Aboriginal people are much more likely than
non-Aboriginal people to be victims of violent crime and spousal violence. Statistics Canada reports that 24% of Aboriginal women reported being victims
of spousal violence in 2004, more than three times higher than the rate for
non-Aboriginal women (7%).
In addition, Aboriginal women are significantly more likely than non-Aboriginal
women to report the most severe and potentially life-threatening forms of
violence, including being beaten or choked, having had a gun or knife used
against them, or being sexually assaulted. According to Statistics Canada,
Aboriginal women are also seven times more likely to be murdered than non-Aboriginal
women in Canada. Research conducted by the Native
Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) demonstrates that Aboriginal women and
girls are as likely to be killed by a stranger or an acquaintance as they are
by an intimate partner—very different from the experiences of non-Aboriginal
women in Canada, whose homicide rates are often attributed to intimate partner
NWAC has documented that, over the past 30 years, more than 500
Aboriginal women and girls have gone missing or have been found murdered in
communities across Canada. The Committee heard from the family members of some
of these women as it travelled across the country.
Witnesses who appeared before the Committee emphasized the high
prevalence of violence in Aboriginal communities, the normalization of violence
within these communities, and the stigma surrounding discussing violence. While
most of the violence is targeted at women, many men are also victims of all
sorts of violence. Witnesses highlighted that violence in many communities is
intergenerational and accepted as “normal”. It is not openly discussed.
Witnesses said it was difficult to assess whether violence was increasing or
decreasing—violence in many communities is chronic and endemic.
Witnesses in all the site visits talked about the root causes of
violence against women, including the role of colonization and the residential
school system. The resulting loss of culture was seen as a significant
manifestation of violence against Aboriginal women and men. The link between
loss of culture and violence was a recurrent theme in all the site visits. For
example, the Committee heard that disenfranchisement of men in Inuit society
has led to a level of frustration which manifests itself in a number of ways,
Witnesses in Nunavut explained that, in their culture, men had held
an esteemed role in hunting and providing shelter for the family. Women had
played a key role in the household and the community. The role of men was more
severely affected in the move to a Eurocentric model of society. They suggested
that men have not made this transition successfully, and are lost somewhere
between the two cultures, dropping out of school, unable to maintain jobs and
provide for the needs of families. This has led to strong feelings of
disenfranchisement, which manifests itself as violence amongst men and against
Women’s roles in the household have been more enduring through
time, thus they may have suffered less than men from the cultural dislocation.
Witnesses emphasized that cultural re-appropriation is a key part of rebuilding
healthy individuals and safer communities. The Committee heard that Aboriginal
people need an education system that promotes indigenous knowledge, as
transmitted through their language. At the same time, the general public needs
greater education on Aboriginal peoples, and their history, to counter negative
stereotypes and misunderstanding.
Witnesses reminded the Committee that the issues they were raising
were not new. The Committee recognizes that this is not a new situation, and
emphasizes that the testimony it has heard on this subject mirrors the findings
of previous reports, including the 1996 Report of the Royal Commission on
Aboriginal Peoples. That report identified a number of factors that are
linked to violence in Aboriginal communities, including systemic discrimination
against Aboriginal peoples, economic and social deprivation, alcohol and
substance abuse, the intergenerational cycle of violence, the breakdown of
healthy family life resulting from residential school upbringing, racism
against Aboriginal peoples, the impact of colonization on traditional values
and culture, and overcrowded, substandard housing.
Witnesses across the country emphasized two key approaches to
moving forward to decrease the levels of violence which Aboriginal women face:
- A coordinated, holistic approach to violence against women; and
- The definition of priorities and solutions tailored to their
particular circumstances by communities.
Many witnesses situated violence against women as a manifestation
of the high levels of more generalized violence in their communities. In
mainstream society, domestic violence is usually defined as a women’s issue;
however, witnesses in all the site visits emphasized the importance of taking a
more holistic approach to violence. They stressed the importance of the family
unit, and providing services not only to the women who are victims but also to
the men who are violent. They urged the Committee to take a comprehensive
approach to the problem of violence against Aboriginal women, an approach which
takes into consideration larger systemic issues such as poverty, housing, and
Witnesses in all the site visits also emphasized the importance of
helping communities to develop the tools needed to find their own solutions,
rather than imposing a one-size-fits-all model. Witnesses highlighted the
importance of culturally-appropriate programming and the leadership of
Aboriginal communities in the development of programs, services, and resources.
These two key ideas will form the guiding principles for the
Committee as it moves toward developing recommendations for its final report.
Witnesses urged the Committee to use the United Nations (UN)
Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as a framework in the elimination of violence against Aboriginal women. Endorsed
by Canada in November 2010, this Declaration establishes the “minimum
standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of the indigenous peoples of
the world.” Moreover, Article 22 of the Declaration states that: “States shall take
measures, in conjunction with indigenous peoples, to ensure that indigenous
women and children enjoy the full protection and guarantees against all forms
of violence and discrimination.”
In endorsing the Declaration, Canada “reaffirmed its
commitment to build on a positive and productive relationship with First
Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples to improve the well-being of Aboriginal
Canadians, based on our shared history, respect, and a desire to move forward
together.” Using this Declaration as a guide, the Committee wishes to highlight the principles of a holistic and
Aboriginal-led approach as it develops recommendations for its final report on
violence against Aboriginal women.
By our actions we need to show that we trust them, recognize their
rights, and have faith in their ability to take leadership and represent the
women as their citizens. We need to hear them and respond to them.
The Committee emphasizes the importance of working with Aboriginal
people to find solutions to the violence in their communities. The Government
of Canada’s Residential School apology, given on June 11, 2008 by Prime
Minister, the Right Honourable Stephen Harper, noted that the objective of the
Residential School system was “based on the assumption Aboriginal cultures and
spiritual beliefs were inferior and unequal… Today, we recognize that this
policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm, and has no place in
our country.” The Committee affirms that acknowledgement as key to moving forward.
A respectful recognition of Aboriginal culture and beliefs requires
that we listen to Aboriginal people and resist the temptation to impose
solutions on their communities. The UN Declaration on the Rights of
Indigenous Peoples commits Canada to recognizing the right of Aboriginal
people to be active partners in programs and policies which affect them:
States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the
indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in
order to obtain their free, prior and informed consent before adopting and
implementing legislative or administrative measures that may affect them...
Indigenous peoples have the right to determine and develop
priorities and strategies for exercising their right to development. In
particular, indigenous peoples have the right to be actively involved in
developing and determining health, housing and other economic and social
programmes affecting them and, as far as possible, to administer such
programmes through their own institutions.
In Winnipeg, the Committee visited the Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre,
which serves as a hub for the urban Aboriginal community in the city. It was a
thriving place which brought together Aboriginal children, youth and families. A
key to its success is that the centre takes as a starting point that the
community has the capacity and strength to do great things. The centre sees its
role as building on the strengths of people—not meeting the needs that centre staff identifies for people, but rather responding to needs identified by the
community. The staff works with the community to identify solutions and
programs, and then turn to people in the community to run those programs. Ultimately
these programs are more successful because they respond to the real needs of
the community, rather than the perceived needs, and because programs are
strengths-based rather than problems-based.
The Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre is a living example of what
witnesses all across the country were asking for—the ability to define their
most urgent needs, to tailor solutions to their own communities, and to find
ways to build on their strengths to meet the needs of their communities.
Change of this magnitude cannot be achieved by piecemeal reform of
existing programs and services—however helpful any one of these reforms might
be. It will take an act of national intention—a major, symbolic statement of
intent, accompanied by the laws necessary to turn intention into action.
The Committee understands that it is impossible to deal with
violence against Aboriginal women without dealing with all of the other systems
which make women vulnerable to violence and make it difficult for them to
escape violence. What is required is a co-ordinated, holistic approach to
violence against Aboriginal women. The vulnerability of Aboriginal women is not
new; it is chronic.
During its last review of Canada, the UN Committee on the
Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) made specific
recommendations to Canada, about violence against women and about missing and
murdered Aboriginal women more particularly. The Committee recognizes that the
testimony it received on violence against Aboriginal women reaffirms the
findings of the CEDAW Committee that:
Aboriginal women in Canada continue to live in impoverished
conditions, which include high rates of poverty, poor health, inadequate
housing, lack of access to clean water, low school-completion rates and high
rates of violence. They are underrepresented in all areas of the labour market,
in particular in senior or decision-making positions, have higher rates of
unemployment and face a greater pay gap in terms of their hourly earnings
compared with men.
The Committee plans to situate the question of violence within this
larger context. As it works toward its final report, the Committee will take
into consideration the request of witnesses who called on the federal
government to put in place a national action plan, recalling once again that
the CEDAW Committee had proposed that Canada:
[D]evelop a specific and integrated plan for addressing the
particular conditions affecting Aboriginal women, both on and off reserves,…
including poverty, poor health, inadequate housing, low school-completion
rates, low employment rates, [and] low income...
The violence experienced by Aboriginal women was most often placed
in the context of breakdown in the whole community as a result of the
generational impacts of colonization and residential schools, and of the
systemic racism that continues to push Aboriginal people to the margins. The
Committee heard extensive testimony about the violence that Aboriginal women
face at the hands of their families as well as strangers. The Committee heard
disturbing evidence of widespread discrimination and racism against Aboriginal
people, including with landlords, police and social and health services in a
number of cities.
The Committee is mindful that the UN Declaration on the Rights
of Indigenous Peoples commits Canada to the following:
1. Indigenous peoples have the right, without
discrimination, to the improvement of their economic and social conditions,
including, inter alia, in the areas of education, employment, vocational
training and retraining, housing, sanitation, health and social security.
2. States shall take effective measures and, where
appropriate, special measures to ensure continuing improvement of their
economic and social conditions. Particular attention shall be paid to the
rights and special needs of indigenous Elders, women, youth, children and
persons with disabilities.
The Committee recognizes that addressing the violence against
Aboriginal women will require interventions on a number of fronts in a
strategic, coordinated effort. This includes addressing issues related to
poverty, child welfare, missing and murdered Aboriginal women, the justice
system, healing of communities, families and individuals, housing, empowering
Aboriginal women leaders, and racism. The Committee also heard that federal and
provincial/territorial governments must coordinate their efforts.
Emphasizing the importance of working in a comprehensive way, the
Committee now turns to each of these pieces of the puzzle.
Poverty plays a pivotal role in the violence which Aboriginal women
face. In fact, many witnesses identified poverty as the most important factor.
First, poverty and unemployment can place stress on relationships
and increase the risk of violence, particularly where compounded by other
stressors such as overcrowded housing. In addition, the Committee has heard
that “for women living in poverty, lack of access to safe, affordable housing
options is a major issue in terms of preventing violence, escaping violence,
and creating a life of safety for themselves and their children.”
Poverty comes in many forms. On the one hand, the Committee heard
that social assistance rates are too low to cover the basic costs of living,
such as housing and food. Although the setting of social assistance rates is an
area of provincial jurisdiction, witnesses reminded the Committee that Canada
has been criticized by the United Nations for its low income assistance rates.
On the other hand, for single mothers, lack of affordable child care makes it
difficult to survive on a minimum wage job. Thus, for many people, it is
difficult to escape poverty.
Poverty was described as a root cause of the daily violence
suffered by Aboriginal women. As one witness explained:
Poverty seems to drive almost all of [the abuse]. It's very
difficult for a woman to leave an abusive relationship when there are issues of
housing, when she’s living on social assistance…it’s not enough money to
support someone, let alone children, when there’s a lack of resources….
Witnesses talked about the “vicious cycle” of poverty, addiction,
and prostitution in which some Aboriginal women find themselves. In a number of
cities visited by the Committee, witnesses suggested that there is a link
between the high levels of poverty and the over-representation of Aboriginal
women in the sex-trade industry. As Dawn Harvard of the Ontario Native Women’s
Association pointed out:
[M]any are forced into situations of having unsafe living
conditions in order to try to stay away from homelessness, a state in which
they would be even less safe, and into dangerous life-threatening situations,
and often the sex-trade industry, in which they're forced to sell their bodies
on the street corners to try to feed their families. That's a situation nobody
should have to be in, but it makes them extremely vulnerable, and thus
contributes to the extremely high rates of violence.
Witnesses emphasized the role that child welfare played in the
violence experienced by Aboriginal women. The Committee heard that women who
were victims of violence often avoided seeking help from health or social
service organizations for fear that their children would be apprehended by
child welfare authorities, as Darcie Bennett, Campaigns Director, Pivot Legal
Society, pointed out:
One of the key themes that came out of the last project we did with
women who were involved with the child welfare system as parents was on male
violence in their lives. It manifests itself in a lot of ways, but one of the
biggest is actually fear of calling police if there's violence in the home,
because they've seen children apprehended.
Unable to afford adequate, safe housing on low social assistance
rates, witnesses indicated that low-income Aboriginal women have to choose
between decent housing or adequate food—and either choice risked flagging their
children to child welfare authorities for neglect. In fact, witnesses across
the country told the Committee that children often come into the care of child
and family services not for abuse, but rather because their families are unable
to provide the necessities of life.
It was brought to the Committee’s attention that the costs of
providing child and family services to First Nations people have increased
dramatically. According to INAC, “funding to these service providers has more
than doubled over the past decade, from $238 million in 1998-99 to
approximately $550 million in 2008-09.” Witnesses suggested,
however, that the money could be better spent on prevention and supports rather
than on the costs of maintaining children in foster homes or group homes. The
testimony of Donald Langford, Executive Director, Métis Child and Family
Services Society, expressed a common frustration among witnesses:
I’m paying some of my foster parents $6,000 a month tax-free to
look after four or five children. Just think, if we gave $2,000 to that family
and provided some supervision and some guidance and support, how they could
survive. We're putting the money in the wrong place.
In its efforts to make the apprehension of children the last
option, Community and Family Services in the Child Protection Program of the
Yellowknife Health and Social Services Authority allocates funding directly to
low-income families. Sheila Nelson, Manager of the program, explains:
As hard as it may be for people to believe, apprehending a child
from a woman who has left an abusive relationship is the last option we want.
We put out a significant amount of money to assist families that are on a very
limited income, and sometimes income support just doesn’t pay enough. It’s not
uncommon for us to give out gift cards on a regular basis.
Ms. Nelson also stated that their department will pay utility bills
and rental arrears, with the goal of ensuring suitable and safe housing for the
Witness expressed a number of other frustrations with the child
welfare system. For example, on-reserve child and family services do not
receive funding to provide services to their community members off-reserve,
while off-reserve child and family services are often not culturally sensitive
to the needs of Aboriginal people.
The Committee heard from several witnesses that young women who had
grown out of the child welfare system are more likely to engage in high-risk
behaviour, exposing them to violence. The testimony of Melanie Nimmo, assistant
professor in Criminal Justice, University of Winnipeg, and Member of the Board,
John Howard Society of Manitoba, is indicative of what the Committee has heard:
As for what’s happening in the foster care system, it's not like
this child moves into a loving arrangement where they're cared for.... The
number of placements that these sexually exploited girls go through is
mind-boggling. So to think that they can have some
sense of self-worth and self-respect, or that anybody gives a damn for them
given the circumstances they’re experiencing in their home life and their
street life.... It’s really disconcerting.
Statistics show that First Nations children are over-represented in
the child welfare system. As of March 31, 2010, about 8,682, or 5.4% of
children living on reserves were in care outside the parental home. This
proportion is almost eight times that of children living off-reserve. Also, that number under-estimates the total number of Aboriginal children in
care because it does not include the number of Aboriginal children, including
Métis, Inuit, or off-reserve First Nation children who are in care under the
auspices of provincial and territorial child welfare services.
The Committee was concerned to hear that “there are more First
Nations children in child welfare care today than at the height of residential
schools, by a factor of three.” A number of witnesses warned the Committee that the child welfare system was
the modern-day equivalent to residential schools, and suggested that it would
be difficult to stop the violence in Aboriginal communities until we can
somehow stop the tide of Aboriginal children who continue to be taken away from
The Committee held a follow-up meeting in Ottawa on the subject of
child welfare, with departmental officials and the First Nations Child and
Family Caring Society of Canada. The testimony from that meeting will inform
the Committee’s recommendations in its final report on violence against Aboriginal
[T]hese women...were mothers, daughters, grandmothers, aunties, and
cousins. Indeed, there exist two prominent connecting features amongst missing
and murdered Aboriginal women and girls: they were Aboriginal, and they were
all loved and cherished by their families.
The Sisters in Spirit initiative, a Native Women’s Association of
Canada (NWAC) research and education project, has been gathering information on
the disproportionately high number of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and
girls in Canada. The final report of this initiative has recorded the disappearance or death of
580 Aboriginal women and girls across Canada. Of these, Sisters in Spirit
report that between 2000 and 2008, 153 were murdered. Their findings
demonstrate that Aboriginal women are more likely than non-Aboriginal to be
murdered—accounting for approximately 10% of the total number of female
homicides in Canada, although Aboriginal women make up only 3% of the female
population in Canada. Aboriginal
women are also much more likely than non-Aboriginal women to be murdered by a
the murderers of Aboriginal women are much less likely to be convicted.
Witnesses throughout the country told their stories of friends and
family members who had gone missing or were murdered—posters were distributed
of a missing daughter, a presentation was dedicated to a murdered cousin, and
stories were shared of missing and murdered friends.
The Committee was reminded that this issue has been subjected to international
and national attention over the past decade. Specific examples are:
- Amnesty International has released two reports, in 2004 and in
2009, on the issue of missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada and the
need to protect their human rights.
- In October 2008, the United Nation’s Committee on the Elimination
of Discrimination against Women called upon Canada to examine the cases of
missing and murdered Aboriginal women and to remedy the system deficiencies
related to failed investigations.
Witnesses stated that if an equivalent percentage of non-Aboriginal
women had gone missing or been murdered, Canadians would have been outraged and
immediate action would have been demanded. Then-President of NWAC Beverley
Jacobs told a University of Western Ontario class in 2008 that if the same
percentage of non-Aboriginal women were missing or murdered, the number would
be a staggering 18,000.
Witnesses suggested that the indifference of society to the fate of
these Aboriginal women renders Aboriginal women more vulnerable to targeted
acts of violence against them, by strangers or acquaintances. As one witness
explained, being an Aboriginal woman is “like walking around with an X on your
back.” The Picton case in Vancouver demonstrates the horrible implications of an
inadequate response to the disappearance of women, many of whom were
Aboriginal. The Committee shares the conviction of many witnesses that it is
essential to respond to every instance of missing and murdered Aboriginal women
with the greatest of diligence and to provide the necessary supports to the
families of these women.
Given the magnitude of the situation, a number of witnesses
demanded that the Government of Canada establish an independent public inquiry
to examine the issue of missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada.
The Committee was told of the failure by police to take reports of
missing and murdered Aboriginal women seriously, delays in investigations, and
the lack of effort put into searches and public appeals. Some witnesses stated
that racism and sexism continues to exist in certain police organizations,
while others noted that there had been great efforts to provide cultural
awareness training to police officers and to develop working relationships with
Aboriginal organizations. Witnesses demanded that police organizations be held
accountable for the mishandling of investigations into the disappearance and
murder of Aboriginal women.
The Committee also heard that on-reserve police are not always
sufficiently trained or resourced to properly investigate serious cases of
violence against Aboriginal women. In addition, jurisdictional wrangling
between on-reserve police forces, city or provincial forces and the Royal
Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) can jeopardize investigations. Ellen Gabriel,
President of the Quebec Native Women Inc, called upon the police to implement a
2006 resolution from the Special Assembly of the Chiefs of Police of Canada
that recognized the need for a special protocol to be developed to deal with
murdered and missing Aboriginal women.
The Committee heard from police organizations about initiatives
whose aim is to prevent more deaths or disappearances and to investigate
- Project E-PANA, created in 2005, is investigating cases of
murdered and missing women along northern British Columbia’s Highway 16,
commonly referred to as the Highway of Tears.
- The High Risk Missing Persons Project (HRMPP) was established in
2003 by the RCMP and its police partners in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta
in response to concerns of unsolved homicides and missing persons cases.
- Project KARE, the third phase of HRMPP, is conducted in
co-operation with the Edmonton Police Services and aims to investigate cases of
murdered or missing persons, especially sex-trade workers in the Edmonton area.
Their pro-active team works towards prevention by creating communication
networks with sex-trade workers and social agencies.
- Project Disappear, established in 2007 in Manitoba by the
Manitoba Association of Chiefs of Police, reviews data and addresses provincial
standardization of policies and procedures with respect to missing persons.
- The Manitoba Integrated Task Force for Missing and Murdered
Women, established in 2009 by the province of Manitoba, the RCMP and the
Winnipeg Police Service, reviews cases of homicide and missing persons where
the victim is female.
In Budget 2010, the Government of Canada invested $10 million over
two years to address the issue of missing and murdered Aboriginal women by
improving law enforcement and the justice system, including through a new
National Police Support Centre for Missing Persons, enhancements to the
Canadian Police Information Centre database, and appropriate amendments to the Criminal
A number of witnesses recognized the important role which NWAC’s
Sisters in Spirit project had played in raising awareness about the missing and
murdered Aboriginal women, and providing an important bridge between their
families and the authorities. NWAC spoke to the Committee, on February 3, 2011,
of a contribution agreement with Status of Women Canada in the amount of
$500,000 for a project entitled Evidence to Action I, which will develop tools
and strategies to empower Aboriginal women and their communities to end the
cycle of violence. An announcement, made on February 25, 2011, stated that NWAC
will receive $1,890,844 over three years for Evidence to Action II, which is
intended to assist communities in preventing and responding to violence against
Aboriginal women and will include training for police officers, educators,
justice officials, frontline healthcare workers, social service providers and
When you think about someone in your life that has gone missing,
you want them to be home every day. You think about it every day. There’s trauma
every day. When you’re in that traumatized life and trying to come to terms
with the fact that someone has gone
missing and they’re not in your life anymore, you have loss and grief. Then,
when they’re found murdered, there’s a whole process of grieving. Somebody you
know is not in this lifetime anymore.
Witnesses spoke of the need for victim services and support for the
families of missing and murdered Aboriginal women. A majority of the missing
and murdered Aboriginal women were mothers, leading to a significant
intergenerational impact as children must cope with the loss. Beverley Jacobs,
former President of NWAC said that the families of the missing and murdered
women need resources for searches, funding for cultural healing services, loss
and grieving counselling, assistance in dealing with the police and the courts,
and family gathering funds.
Families also call for ongoing updates from the police regarding
the status of the investigations. Chief Kennedy, of the Assembly of Manitoba
Chiefs, spoke of their agreement with the RCMP that led to the creation of a
First Nations community liaison worker in 2009. A central role of the officer
is to act as liaison between the parents of missing and murdered women and the
A wide-ranging number of concerns were raised relating to the way
the justice system deals with violence against Aboriginal women and girls. This
included concerns with the police system, the judicial system, and the
Witnesses raised concerns of the non-response of police services to
cases of violence against Aboriginal women. In domestic violence situations,
police do not always respond in a timely manner to calls for assistance. Witnesses
also stated that police sometimes dismiss claims of sexual assault if the woman
is Aboriginal and leads a “high-risk” lifestyle.
The Committee heard of challenges with the application of the laws,
where double charges are applied by police and Aboriginal women are treated as
offenders, rather than survivors or victims. In domestic violence cases, a
woman is charged along with the man who has assaulted her, or in the sex trade,
a woman is charged for defending herself against a violent john or pimp. The
unanticipated effect is that these women are less likely to contact the police
during a future episode of violence.
Women who are charged are often not aware of their rights. Janine
Benedet, a law professor at the University of British Columbia, stated: “We
continue to see women routinely pleading out to lesser offences, offences they
may not be guilty of at all, simply to
avoid the threat of federal sentences or life sentences, depending on the
offence with which they are charged.” Cuts
to legal aid make it increasingly difficult for these women to be informed of
and defend their rights.
In northern or remote communities, women face serious barriers in
accessing the justice system. Judges are flown into town infrequently and their
appearances can be postponed by weather. Emergency protection orders are
difficult to obtain and enforce because there are often no judges and
prosecutors in the local area. In addition, witnesses in a number of
communities explained that women sometimes have to testify in public places
where the court is temporarily set up, such as the local bar. A lack of access
to police support was also highlighted, with witnesses in Yellowknife
referencing 11 communities in the North that do not have RCMP access and
rely on officers to come from other communities.
The Committee has heard mixed testimony about whether alternative
justice approaches are appropriate for domestic violence cases. In Iqaluit,
witnesses told the Committee that Elders rarely ask that people be removed from
communities, but prefer to deal with the accused as part of a family unit and
as part of the community. Melanie Nimmo, assistant professor in Criminal
Justice, University of Winnipeg, and Member of the Board, John Howard Society
of Manitoba, said that their restorative justice program instils accountability
on the part of the offender while helping to heal the victim and that 89% of
their clients successful complete the program conditions without reoffending. However, other witnesses voiced concerns that restorative and alternative
justice practices were not a safe resolution for women who have experienced
violence. Witnesses suggested that standards and screening guidelines must be
established to ensure that female victims are not re-victimized or put in
danger in the process.
Racism continues to be a concern for Aboriginal people—in relation
to both the police and the judiciary. Witnesses spoke of establishing a
requirement to screen judges and police for prejudices before hiring and of
offering anti-racism and anti-oppression training, specifically related to
Aboriginal women. The case of ex-judge David Ramsay was referenced; in 2004, in Prince George, Ramsay was charged, pled guilty and was convicted
for sexual assault of Aboriginal girls whose cases he had presided over in
Witnesses told the Committee that the Criminal Code offenses
related to prostitution increased the vulnerability of women in the sex trade
by forcing women to work in unsafe conditions and to distrust the police. While
there was no general consensus on whether or how to amend the Criminal Code offenses, witnesses were in agreement that the burden of enforcement should not
be on the women in the sex trade, but rather on their customers. Kate Rexe, the
former director of Sisters in Spirit, stated that women who are arrested for prostitution
are rarely given diversion programs, while male consumers are often given
opportunities for “john school.” The
result is that Aboriginal women end up with criminal records, pushing them into
a deeper spiral of marginalization.
The ongoing criminalization of Aboriginal women and girls has led
to their disproportionate representation in prison. According to Kim Pate,
Executive Director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies,
self-identified Aboriginal women now make up more than a third of the federal
jail population. These Aboriginal women are further marginalized by society when they exit
prison and are offered little assistance with reintegration.
A number of communities spoke of an improving relationship with
police services. In Sioux Lookout, the First Step Women’s Shelter staff said
the Ontario Provincial Police respond immediately to reports of missing
Aboriginal women and will conduct an ongoing search until they find her. Kari Thomason, a community outreach worker with the Métis Child and Family
Services Society, said that trust has been developed over the past
10 years between the police and the women in the sex trade so that now the
women are starting to report bad dates.
Police services spoke of challenges with funding and resources. Funding
agreements with Aboriginal police agencies result in different levels of pay
for the various police services. On-reserve police were said to be underfunded
when compared to their neighbouring communities.
The Committee heard from Staff Sergeant Mike Bartkus of the
Edmonton Police Service of the concerted and innovative efforts to address
violence against Aboriginal women, with a special focus on domestic violence.
Staff Sergeant Bartkus said that receiving more resources depends on a paradigm
shift in the community that would prioritize the issue of violence against
A meeting with a group of Aboriginal women and service-providers at
the Indian and Métis Friendship Centre in Prince Albert concluded with
witnesses telling the Committee: “We are a grieving nation. If only people took
time to get to know who we are.” Indeed, the Committee has heard all across
Canada that the on-going legacy of colonization and the residential schools has
led to a great deal of dislocation, anger and sadness. This is compounded with
the ongoing stresses placed on Aboriginal people in Canada today, including
poverty, sub-standard housing, and racism. All of these contribute to violence
against Aboriginal women.
This report has presented some of the larger systemic issues which
need to be addressed to break the cycle of violence. While it is important to
reduce the range of living conditions that continue to place stress on First
Nations communities, it is also important to provide healing opportunities for
communities, families and individuals to help break the intergenerational cycle
of violence and addictions.
Many witnesses emphasized that the needs of Aboriginal women for
services had been “researched to death”. Indeed, a report entitled Researched
to Death made a number of recommendations in 2005 which were echoed in
testimony to the Committee across the country, calling for culturally relevant
and holistic healing services:
What is required is on-going funding to support culturally relevant
Aboriginal programming and services that are designed, delivered and
implemented by healthy, Aboriginal women, Elders and community workers. The
programming and services need to include a counselling component specific to
intergenerational trauma issues and be delivered from a holistic approach to
healing, meaning, that the victim, offender, the victims’ and offender’s family
would all need support in their healing to create long term community change.
This section will provide a brief overview of the kinds of services
witnesses identified for communities, families, and individuals. These services
are provided by a wide diversity of service-providers, including non-profit
Witnesses emphasized the need to support community efforts to heal
communities as well as to provide opportunities for families and individuals to
get the support they need to heal.
Witnesses told the Committee that Aboriginal Healing Foundation
projects had allowed communities to start to address the root of violence by
giving them the opportunity to tap into the strengths which exists in
their communities. Witnesses emphasized the importance of supporting
community-driven healing initiatives. The Committee has seen how communities
have shown great courage, strength and creativity in developing opportunities
for their community members to re-appropriate their voices.
Ayas Men Men Squamish Nation Child and Family Services in British
Columbia, for example, hosts a variety of ceremonies to develop pride within
the community: Elder honouring ceremonies recognize the value of Elders,
puberty ceremonies recognize an important life moment for youth, and an
Honouring Our Children ceremony invites family groups of all types, including
biological and foster parents, to celebrate children. Other communities have
provided opportunities to reinforce traditional teachings and languages so that
the community can heal from the loss of its cultural connections. For many
Aboriginal communities, community healing starts with retrieving their
teachings and traditions.
My grandmother's and mother's life stories combined with my own
experience have taught me first-hand about the intergenerational nature of
violence against Aboriginal women. It starts young, with violence against Aboriginal
girls, and goes far back in history.
The violence is serious and comes in many forms, that is to say it
is physical, psychological and sexual. It is more widespread, but also more
serious than among non-aboriginals. It starts earlier, in childhood. It is
expressed over a very long period of life.
It usually starts in childhood and continues into adulthood. It is a daily
occurrence, trivialized and part of a family relationship dynamic, and thus
arises between spouses, and it is trans-generational.
Witnesses described the impacts of colonization, of residential
schools, and of missing and murdered Aboriginal women as being
intergenerational and intimately connected with the violence that is manifest
in many Aboriginal communities and families. The violence, too, becomes
intergenerational, as children come to accept violence as a “normal” part of
family and community life.
Across the country, witnesses identified the urgency of breaking
the cycle of violence, working within the family, with violent men and with
boys before they become violent. While they called for more services for women
who are victims of violence, they also called for services that meet the needs
of the whole family, and the men who perpetuate the violence. The Committee was
reminded that while Aboriginal men are perpetrators of violence, they are also
victims of ongoing colonization and oppression.
Too often the only “service” available to them is incarceration, though few
programs in jails and prisons are in place to assist in their healing and
Witnesses pointed out that while women were in a shelter or
transition house, they often returned home to men who had received no support or
services that might help them contribute to a safer family life. In that
context, the Committee heard of the need for addiction services and mental
health services for men; programs to help men who were being released from
jail, programs to help young boys learn about healthy relationships, and
programs which allow men to be peer mentors for one another and to encourage
each other to maintain healthy relationships.
However, the Committee has heard that there are very few programs
to help Aboriginal men address issues of violence. Service providers told the
Committee that First Nations communities do not get enough money to meet the
need for counselling services, either through the health funding through the
First Nations and Inuit Health Branch nor through INAC’s social service funding
Where such programs have been developed, the Committee heard that
they are welcomed by communities and intervene with children as well as adult
men, to contribute to the respectful relationships that many saw as key to
ending the cycle of violence.
Across the country, successful programs are locally developed and
incorporate a cultural component. For example, the Committee heard about
innovative peer support programs initiated by Aboriginal men to help other men
stop the cycle of violence. These include the “I am a Kind Man” model and the
Warriors Against Violence group in Vancouver. These use traditional approaches
Warriors Against Violence, a Vancouver-based organization, works
with men to prevent violence and trains facilitators to take the model to other
communities. Using culture and traditional values, the program brings men
together to develop a spiritual connection among them, and to teach that
violence is not among the traditional responsibilities men hold in Aboriginal
families and communities.
In the communities, they often say it takes an entire community to
raise a child.... [Many] parents don’t provide any encouragement because they
have alcohol and drug addiction problems. As a result,
a child grows up thinking that it’s perfectly normal to use these substances.
And violence reigns; the children don't know where to go and they don’t know
what a normal life really is.
Because it is common for the local schools in remote First Nations
communities to end at grade nine, many First Nations youth move to urban
centres such as Winnipeg to finish their high school education. The cultural
dislocation and distance from their families makes them easy targets for gangs
and drug dealers, drawing them into a culture of addictions.
Witnesses at all sites talked about how substance abuse, including
alcohol abuse and prescription drug abuse, has a devastating impact on the
whole community. They identified the high levels of alcohol and drug use as
being both contributors to violence against Aboriginal people as well as a
symptom of that violence. Some described it as self-medicating, as a mechanism to cope with all the other
challenges in the family and community. Generally, addiction treatment and
mental health services were combined in most communities.
Further, many programs do not recognize and take into account that
addictions are more potent now, and thus need longer rehabilitation periods.
For Aboriginal women seeking treatment, there is a dearth of services available
in many communities, and what services do exist often will not accept the
women’s children with them, raising the spectre of apprehension of child
apprehension while in treatment. Both serve as barriers to treatment among
Insufficient follow-up to the programs makes it easier for people
to fall back into old ways when they are returned to their communities. Witnesses
suggested that there is a need for better post-addiction treatment, including reunification
of the family in a supportive environment. Witnesses suggested the need for
more family treatment centres, for services in or near First Nations
communities so that women do not have to leave their children behind.
While the National Native Alcohol and Drug Abuse Program provides
funding to First Nations communities, the Committee has heard that the funding
levels are not high enough to meet the needs, nor even high enough to cover the
salary of a person with the required credentials to do the job.
There is a need for programs that go beyond crisis shelters and
pilot projects. Witnesses identified the need to address the socio-economic
challenges in communities, to put in place violence prevention programs
starting with children, to do ongoing awareness-raising, and to put in place
well-funded, long-term health and social services. The Committee heard that all
levels of government need to help with the establishment of long-term projects;
pilot projects are damaging because of their inconsistency and short-term
Many organizations meet needs of their communities by patching
together funding from various government departments and levels of government. Witnesses
identified a number of concerns with the way all levels of government allocate
project funding to organizations. Witnesses applauded multi-year funding
programs, such as those provided through Status of Women Canada. Witnesses
suggested that program funding must have more long-term options, so less work
is put into applying for grants and more effort is put into providing programs.
They told the Committee that it was difficult for them to respond
to short turn-around times between the announcement of funding criteria and the
deadlines to submit applications for funding. Unilateral changes in funding
priorities by federal and provincial/territorial governments make it difficult
to continue offering successful programs to people, and make it necessary for
organizations to tailor programs to meet the needs of funders rather than the
needs of their communities.
Long delays in processing applications have a number of negative
consequences for organizations. Smaller organizations experience a lack of
continuity in the services they provide. Larger organizations sometimes
shoulder the costs of continuing programs as they await a funding decision. Delays
in confirming funding create challenges for service-providers, their staff, and
most importantly, the clients who rely on those services.
There are other funding regulations which make it difficult for
organizations to serve Aboriginal people. The inability to include the cost of
food as an allowable expense in some programs poses a challenge in working with
people who are coming from places of real hunger and real challenge in terms of
their food security. Some organizations told the Committee that project-based
funding will not allow for the organizational costs such as paying for the
executive director or for the management structure. As Leslie Spillett,
Executive Director, Ka Ni Kanichihk Inc., told the Committee:
The challenge is that you need a management structure to
effectively administer an organization, and the project-based funds don’t
permit that. Reporting is a challenge. We have multiple reports, monthly
reports, and we’re doing it.
For women seeking to escape family violence, or even to prevent it,
housing challenges can serve as a major deterrent. A safe and healthy home
requires adequate space for family members. To leave when violence occurs,
emergency shelters must provide a place to which a woman can escape, ideally
with her children. To relocate her family, even within a reserve community,
requires adequate affordable housing to which she and her family can move.
Aboriginal women and service providers told the Committee that these housing
resources are rarely, if ever, available, leaving too many with little choice
but to stay in a violent situation, or to return to one. While the situation of
women in smaller and isolated communities and those living in or relocating to
larger cities are different, the lack of services and shelter spaces is a
constant for all Aboriginal women seeking to escape violence.
When somebody is in a place where they're ready to finally leave
that abusive situation, sometimes that window of opportunity is very small.
Maybe they go back into the home, where they continue to be dominated, and it's
not safe for them to come out until sometime later. So when those opportunities
come when somebody is ready to leave, and they want to leave now, it's really
imperative that we have some place to place them.
This message from staff of a shelter in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan
that is operating at 99.9% capacity highlighted for the Committee the urgency
of being able to provide shelter space when a woman is ready to leave. Yet, the
Committee heard across Canada that there are simply not enough shelters.
Funding restrictions often result in limits on stays of as few as six days in
some Quebec shelters, to
three weeks in Edmonton shelters.
The Committee also heard that there is little second-stage or
transitional housing available for Aboriginal women leaving violent situations.
We knew that we had to support the existing shelters that were
underfunded and we knew that the women keep asking us for services for their
partners, so with limited funding, how do you do that?
For many years we’ve been trying to get funding for a women’s and
children’s shelter within the grand council area, but many struggles have
occurred, and we have not been able to access any funding.
The Committee heard that shelters and their programs are funded
from a variety of sources, ranging from INAC for some on-reserve shelters, to
federal funding through Aboriginal Healing Foundation or Homeless Partnering
Initiative or Status of Women Canada funding, to provincial funding through
social services departments. The uncertainty of funding, its project basis, and
the short-term nature of some funding programs all contribute to limit the
services that can be provided to women seeking to leave violent situations.
The lack of second-stage housing was also evident in large and small
communities across the country. Compounded with the lack of affordable housing,
this shortage often forces women to make difficult choices when they leave
shelters. Many still require counselling and help with life-skills issues
before they can successfully transition to living on their own, but this is
often not available. For too many women, this means returning to an abusive
Aboriginal women in northern remote communities have a very unique
experience, not the same as what we have in Toronto or the experience of a lot
of the women around the table, in that we could take a taxi cab to a shelter,
but if you have to get an airplane to fly out of your community, the option to
just flee violence becomes extremely more complex. And without taking these
very real circumstances into consideration, the governments, whether federal,
provincial, or municipal, or our first nations governments, and our communities
are not addressing the unique situation of Aboriginal women or in fact
protecting their right to live free from violence and to be safe.
The Committee heard that 70% of northern and remote communities do
not have safe houses or emergency shelters. When women in these
communities have to relocate to city centres to get to a safe house, in
addition to cultural and language barriers, they may be faced with costs that
are not anticipated in the budgets of the service providers in their own
communities or in the communities to which they must travel. If such funds are controlled by the Band, for example, in small communities the
victims may be seeking funding from relatives of the perpetrator of the
In communities accessible only by plane, women fleeing to a shelter
must secure a flight out of their communities. Representatives of a shelter for
women in Sioux Lookout told the Committee that the shelter covers the cost of
flying women out of their communities to the shelter, since these costs are not
covered by communities. Whether funds were budgeted and by whom varied across
the country, Further, the costs are another obstacle to leaving with children,
creating another significant barrier for many women who want to leave a violent
Finally, in some cases, women aren’t aware that there may be funding
for them to seek services elsewhere, so they don’t even consider leaving
The Committee explored whether shelters should be built on reserves
and in other smaller communities, and found that witnesses were divided about
the need for shelters on reserve. While the transportation costs and cultural
and language barriers suggest that a more local solution would be preferable,
some witnesses suggested that in small communities where everyone knows each other,
it would not be safe or appropriate to have shelters. Indeed, the Committee
heard of at least one case where a shelter is being used by the community to
absorb the unmet housing need of the community rather than for its initial
In this situation, as in others, witnesses cautioned against using
a one-size-fits-all approach to developing and sustaining safe shelter for
women who are victims of violence. In some communities, particularly larger
communities, it would be useful to have a well-funded shelter. In other
communities, it might be more appropriate to ensure that there is enough
funding available to transport women to a shelter outside of their communities,
either in a larger First Nations community or in a neighbouring city.
In the non-Aboriginal safe houses, they talk a lot about feminist
approaches, and women are encouraged to find a certain self-sufficiency when
they are victims of violence. They are encouraged to take care of themselves.
The often talk about being self-sufficient and taking care of themselves.
However, we don’t talk like that to Aboriginal women. These women don’t want to
leave their husbands. They want to unite the family. In their minds, when
you’re married, you’re married for life.
Whether shelters are provided on or off reserves, witnesses
emphasized the importance of ensuring that there are culturally appropriate
services available to Aboriginal women fleeing violence. The description above,
offered by staff at an Aboriginal shelter in Montreal, is similar to what the
Committee heard across the country. Witnesses emphasized that people in First
Nations communities view violence in the wider context of the family and
community, so services that emphasized the need to break with the past and to
focus on their own safety alone would not address that larger context.
The current situation for a woman coming to Transition House,
especially when they have to leave their community and come to an urban area—most
of the women live in rural communities—is that they have to go back to their
same situation, to their same community, because there’s no affordable housing
Housing is one of the core issues we work on at Pivot. While
violence happens to women from all socio-economic and cultural backgrounds, for
women living in poverty, lack of access to safe, affordable housing options is
a major issue in terms of preventing violence, escaping violence, and creating
a life of safety for themselves and their children.
Housing issues were raised by witnesses right across the country.
In urban centres, the issues were affordability, and appropriateness: in almost
every hearing, witnesses said that women relying on social assistance were
unable to find housing that was safe and adequate for their families without
spending not only the housing portion of their assistance cheque, but also a
substantial part of money intended to feed their families. The Committee also
heard that in many communities, what affordable housing did exist has been
increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few landlords, which can lead to
rising rents. Given the racism that was described by many witnesses,
particularly with respect to housing, fewer landlords owning more and more
units makes Aboriginal families more vulnerable to discrimination by landlords.
The Committee also heard that the housing challenge is greatest in
the North and on reserves. For example, workers at the Qimaavik Transition
House at the YWCA in Iqaluit told the Committee that there is a six-year
waiting list for housing in that city, making it difficult for women to leave
the shelter. Consequently, that facility is consistently operating at 105–150%
capacity. Similarly, in Labrador and many other parts of the country, there is
no or very little second-stage housing available.
Witnesses told Committee members that overcrowded and substandard
housing causes stressors that can trigger violence. The vast majority of
witnesses emphasized the need for more investment in housing in Aboriginal
communities, including second-stage housing for those moving out of shelters.
Many witnesses told the Committee that the lack of housing options results in
Aboriginal women having no choice but to return to violent homes.
For First Nations women living on reserve, the Committee heard that
Band Councils are responsible for making decisions about how resources are
allocated. This leads to differences between communities in how they deal with
specific incidents of violence. This discretionary power extends to decisions
such as who will be flown out of a remote community to access the services of a
women’s shelter. Ensuring that Chiefs and Councils are sensitive to the needs
of women who face violence requires ongoing work on the part of Aboriginal
women in those communities.
Aboriginal women who addressed the Committee talked about the need
to support grassroots, regional and national Aboriginal women’s groups to raise
awareness about issues of concern to women and their families, and to
facilitate the emergence of strong Aboriginal women who can advocate for those
Witnesses told the Committee that the implementation of the Indian
Act had profoundly changed the role of women in many Aboriginal societies. The
example provided by Dawn Harvard, President, Board of Directors, Ontario Native
Women’s Association, is representative of what the Committee heard:
[Aboriginal women] are still suffering from the legacy of that,
having had to fight for years to try to regain access to that ability to
function, to be Aboriginal women contributing members of [their] communities,
and to have authority and responsibility in [their] families....
Chief Angus Toulouse explained:
Our women enjoyed incomparable respect and even reverence from
their families and from their nations. For example, the Haudenosaunee
maintained a system of governance whereby the women held unprecedented
political and social powers. They owned all the property of their nations. They
maintained their own political councils in a clan system and had the power to
remove their chiefs from office if they failed in their duties. Everyone had
specific responsibilities to their families, to their nations, and to the
Creator. Interwoven with these responsibilities was an essential principle that
our collective existence depends upon our ability to demonstrate respect and to
provide safety and security for the women of our nation. It's important to
point out how things were in the past in order to understand the full horror of
the context in which we, and in particular our women, now live.
While Aboriginal women disproportionately interact with services
within the community, they are not well represented in governance roles. The
Committee has heard that it is critical that voices of Aboriginal women are
heard in developing response to violence. Aboriginal women have called for
ongoing support to access leadership positions.
We live in a society in which Indians are still thought of as
inferior. We’re still thought of as we were historically, as being primitive.
So part of this whole process is not only about what’s needed for Aboriginal
communities, but it’s also what’s needed for white mainstream communities to
educate themselves about the role they play as the descendants of treaties, as
descendants of colonizers, because they also need to end the violence of
The Committee was disturbed at the level of racism with which
Aboriginal people are confronted. The Committee heard that this racism comes
from other Canadians in the general public and through the media. Most
disturbing of all was the systemic nature of the racism, affecting Aboriginal
women in their relations with the government agencies tasked with providing them
security, health and social services. Racism is sometimes overt, other times
This racism has many harmful consequences. In the first place,
witnesses talked about the internalization of the racism by Aboriginal women
which results in them not questioning the violence and poor treatment they
receive at the hands of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. Many witnesses
shared personal stories of their experience of racism, such as the story of Sandra
I went through the whole system of education, foster care, and
residential school, and what I learned to do through all of that to survive
emotionally and feel some kind of dignity was to internalize that racism. I
hated being Aboriginal. I was ashamed of Aboriginal people. I missed all the teachings
from my grandmother.
Secondly, the Committee heard that racism which turns a blind eye
to the violence faced by Aboriginal women renders them even more vulnerable to
violence. Justice for Girls in Vancouver told the Committee that Aboriginal
girls are targeted by violent men partly because these men count on the
non-response of the police and the courts to violence against Aboriginal women.
Many witnesses told the Committee that Aboriginal women are afraid
of social services, hospitals, government services and police—some choose to
live with violence rather than reach out from help from these organizations.
The discussion of racism was raised in the context of the many
Aboriginal women who have gone missing or been murdered in Canada. Witnesses
commented that the media feeds into racism in the relegation of coverage of
tragedies involving Aboriginal people to inside and back pages of newspapers. As
well, the media treatment of missing and murdered Aboriginal women often links these
women with “at-risk behaviour” such as hitchhiking or prostitution. Jo-Anne
Fiske shared a story which illustrated this:
When women go missing on Highway 16, if it’s a young, blonde
woman... that child’s picture [is] on the first or second page in every paper
in the nation for days. At the same time, one of my extended family members was
found dead, and the only comment in the paper was that she was found dead where
prostitutes were known to be. Well, thank you just the same, but it’s also
where I walk my dog and play with my granddaughter and have other family
activities. The fact that it was a public park was never mentioned.
Her name was not mentioned—a grievous problem with media, public education, and
the authorities that so identified her.
Witnesses emphasized the need for educating non-Aboriginal people
“about the role they play as the descendants of treaties, as descendants of
colonizers, because they also need to end the violence of racism.” There is a need to address racism at all levels of society and to incorporate
awareness-raising at the earliest levels. Witnesses told the Committee that the
whole mainstream education system needs to change the way history is taught,
and talked about the need for ongoing training in
Aboriginal awareness for all service-providers, to develop relations of
understanding, respect and trust.
Racism arises not only from a lack of education and training of the
general public, but also from the policies and legislation arising throughout
The Committee has heard that this systemic, institutionalized racism continues
to limit the ability of Aboriginal women to benefit from the opportunities
available to other Canadians. Though policies and practices may appear neutral
on the surface, they can lead to terrible acts of discrimination, whether these
are intentional or not. The Indian Act is a case in point. Many
witnesses identified the Indian Act as a source of discrimination for
First Nations people, and more specifically, for First Nations women. One
witness even suggested that “the Indian Act inspired the apartheid
regime in South Africa.” Muriel Stanley Venne, President and Founder, Institute for the Advancement of
Aboriginal Women, identified how systemic racism has played an ongoing role in
the lives of Aboriginal people:
For every aboriginal woman I know, the Indian Act was very
harmful. It went from denying their rights to be an Indian to denying their own
identity to everything else that's included in that act. I have stated many
times that every single act of discrimination against indigenous people has
been legislated by the government. There is no other way to state that.
Everything that has been done has been legislated by the government. When they
were taking away the children, by law they had no defence. We as Canadians need
to address the horrific outcome of legislating against... the people of this