The Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) has done an incredible job of both raising the profile of the issue of murdered and missing Indigenous women and maintaining that profile, both on a domestic and international level. This was work done by passionate, dedicated Indigenous women all over Canada on behalf of those without a voice. There are few in this country who do not know what the Sisters in Spirit (SIS) campaign is all about and even fewer who are not awed by the accomplishments of those who worked on it.
NWAC has shown the families and communities of those murdered and missing Indigenous women that those women were (and in some cases still are) an integral part of our Indigenous peoples and Nations. Without our women, our communities and Nations can’t move forward on our collective goals of nation-building and cultural revitalization. NWAC has proved that despite all the assimilatory policies, discriminatory laws, and racist attitudes of police and governments who allowed this to happen to our women, that we, the women, can and will stand as warriors and defend ourselves.
Yet, despite all of the hard work done by NWAC, their provincial and territorial affiliates, and others over the last five years, the Conservatives, in their usual take-no-prisoners style, thought they could “run roughshod” over NWAC and the Indigenous women they represent. The Conservatives, using their token female Minister Rona Ambrose, thought they could hide their treachery under the guise of a grand announcement that was allegedly promoted to help murdered and missing Indigenous women in Canada. However, as the details were slowly released to the public, we now know that this announcement had very little to do with murdered and missing Indigenous women and more to do with increasing police powers and capacity.
Parliamentary Secretary Shelly Glover (the ex-cop) very clearly told the press that SIS is “finished” – that we should not “mix apples and oranges” and that we all must “turn a new page” and realize that this announcement related to a new program to which NWAC could “apply”. MP Rod Bruinooge (no longer head of the Conservative’s Aboriginal caucus) confirmed on APTN that this was in fact the case. Even if NWAC does apply for funds to this new program, it will be in competition with many others and there is no guarantee they will get a dime. Aside from that, NWAC would be forced to change its name to “Evidence to Action”, can no longer use the well-known name of Sisters in Spirit, can not do any advocacy work, and even worse, NWAC can no longer maintain a database on the ever increasing number of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada – which now amounts to 582.
I for one am sickened by this decision of the Conservatives and even more so that the women MPs in the Conservative Party would allow this to happen. They all bear personal responsibility for this Neanderthal decision. The Conservative government might be able to be forgiven for a bad decision once in a while, but not when this decision is one of many which directly attacks the basic equality rights of Indigenous women. Bill C-3 will knowingly and purposefully deny equality to Indian women and their children and Bill S-4 will give them an enpty shell of a legislative promise – no accessible justice.
The way in which the Conservatives tried to hide their actual intentions does little for reconciling the relationship between the Crown and Indigenous peoples and only increases the level of mistrust. Despite all the hype around the Conservative announcement, we now know that the proposed amendments to the Criminal Code have NOTHING to do with murdered and missing Indigenous women, but instead increase police powers which I explained in my last blog does not bode well for our people. In case there was any doubt about what this means for our men and now even our women, I would refer you to the newly released report by Correctional Investigator for Canada, and federal ombudsman for prisons, Howard Sapers:
“The disturbing reality of Aboriginal overrepresentation in Canadian correctional
populations is well-known. Aboriginal people — First Nations, Métis and Inuit —comprise less than 4% of the Canadian population but account for 20% of the total federal prison population. On any given day, approximately 2,600 Aboriginal offenders are incarcerated in federal prisons.”
He specifically went on to note that:
“In the case of Aboriginal women offenders, the situation is even worse. Aboriginal women offenders comprise 33% of the total inmate population under federal jurisdiction. The Aboriginal women offender population has grown by almost 90% in the last ten years, and it is the fastest growing segment of the offender population. The Office’s work in this area of corrections continues to document the inequitable and differential outcomes for Aboriginal offenders resulting from federal correctional policies and practices.”
People really have to think about that. It is not that Indigenous women are more “criminal” than non-Indigenous women, they are over-represented because of “federal correctional policies and practices”. We should be very concerned that our wrongly incarcerated Indigenous women as well. The Conservatives have not only failed to take any action on addressing these justice issues for Indigenous peoples generally, but they have taken giant steps backwards in addressing equality issues for Indigenous women – specifically those issues that put their very lives and freedom at risk.
How could the Conservatives think that they could sell their $10 million dollar announcement as beneficial to Indigenous women? Well over half the funding will go to police and justice services which are government services that are already well funded. The police and justice systems themselves are the very reasons why some of these missing and murdered Indigenous women never had their cases taken seriously. They are the very reasons why some of our Indigenous women languish in jail longer than non-Indigenous women. Yet, the government is taking what little funding NWAC had to combat these grave injustices and giving it back to the government which is already well-funded and has significantly more capacity than NWAC.
It wasn’t our well-funded police and justice services that did all the research and leg work to identify and raise the profile of missing and murdered Indigenous women – it was NWAC and the SIS initiative. It wasn’t the police and justice services that comforted the families and took action on their behalf – it was NWAC and SIS. Now the Conservatives want to take the glory for this work and unceremoniously fund and staff the police and justice services to take it from here. They want to be able to tell the world they addressed the problem – but once again this means taking control over our lives. Assuming Howard Sapers’ report is accurate, the very thought of police and justice services “taking it from here” should scare all Indigenous peoples, not just our women.
It is certainly not like NWAC and SIS were politically motivated – what did they get for standing up for the lives of their women? There were no Senate seats to be had or huge contracts for those who marched in the streets for our women. It is almost like NWAC and SIS are being punished for giving police and justice services a black eye on the international stage. It is once again, Indigenous women who are taking matters into their own hands.
All they were doing was standing up as the women warriors they are, to try to save the lives of our women. How very chauvinistic, presumptuous, and ethnocentric for the Conservatives to treat our women as helpless victims and ride in on their “white” horse to save the day. It was Indigenous women who brought this issue to light and did all the work – it should be Indigenous women who lead the way in developing and implementing the solutions.
Liberal MP Todd Russell made a great point on APTN. He questioned the Conservatives for agreeing to a public inquiry when the salmon went missing from the Fraser River in BC, but don’t care enough about Indigenous women to have one for them. Given that Minister of INAC John Duncan has been vocal against what he refers to as a “race-based fishery” – or as we know it – the constitutionally protected Aboriginal and treaty right to fish – it is no surprise that the Conservatives would look to create links between declining fish stocks and Indigenous peoples and ignore the shameful link between police and justice neglect and murdered and missing Indigenous women.
Is it really any surprise that Parliamentary Secretary Shelly Glover came off so harsh in the media forcefully stating that SIS was over and proudly reaffirmed that the bulk of the money would go to policing? Her experience has been largely limited to policing after all. But who is there looking out for Indigenous women? It certainly isn’t Shelly Glover. NWAC is, and should continue to be the lead on this issue – so long as they get back on track and stand up for themselves.
The fact that President Jeanette Lavell of NWAC would endorse such a “deal” with the Conservatives knowing that it would essentially kill SIS is the biggest surprise of all. As you know, in my last blog on this topic I was highly critical of the fact that NWAC was losing sight of their ultimate mandate in exchange for a rotten deal from the Conservatives, which, since I wrote my last blog, appears far worse than first reported.
I know that it is not NWAC who is killing SIS or legislating inequality for our women in Bill C-3 and S-4, but standing alongside the Conservatives while they do so is just as bad in my books. SIS has become THE symbol of justice and equality for our Indigenous women. NWAC used to stand for those principles as well. NWAC needs to take the risk we all take when we stand up for ourselves and get back to their fundamental mandate of equality for Indigenous women. NWAC has to trust that people will rally around a just cause and a true leader.
When the fate of our women is in police hands, we have over-representation of our women in federal prisons at a rate even higher than that of our men, longer prison sentences, deaths in custody, starlight tours, and hundreds of murdered and missing Indigenous women. Yet, when the fate of our women is on our own hands, we have Sisters in Spirit, country-wide attention, international attention, support groups for the affected families, awareness campaigns, unity marches, and direct action.
Why the hell should any of us want to “turn the page” on Sisters in Spirit and hand it over to the police and the Conservatives’ brand of Neanderthal politics to look out for us?
Stand up for yourself NWAC and your warriors will stand beside you.