By: Pamela Palmater
Indigenous women have always played a central role in our Nations as life-givers – bridging the spirit and human worlds to nurture a baby into adulthood with the help of large extended families. It is one of the most important roles in Indigenous nation-building, but it is not the only one held by Indigenous women. Traditionally, Indigenous women also acted as interpreters, negotiators, political advisors and strategists, leaders, decision-makers and warriors. While our Nations were diverse and had varied traditions and practices, Indigenous women were also engaged in picking the leaders, head warriors or making decisions related to land use and hunting/trading areas. It is widely recognized on Turtle Island (what is now Canada-US-Mexico) that Indigenous women are the heart of our Nations:
A nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground. Then its finished; no matter how brave its warriors or how strong their weapons.
It is for this reason – that Indigenous women were so central to the strength and well-being of our Nations – that colonial and modern governments targeted Indigenous women in their attempts to suppress our Nations and dispossess us of our lands, resources and existence. “Indian policy” had always been focused on acquiring Indigenous lands and resources and reducing financial obligations acquired through treaties and other agreements and their primary methodology was to assimilate or eliminate Indians. While government officials engaged in genocidal acts against all Indigenous peoples, like the use smallpox-infected blankets to try to spread disease or scalping bounties to encourage our murders, government officials also took aim at Indigenous women with lethal precision.
From the earliest days, Indian Agents, often assisted by the police, would withhold food rations from young Indigenous women and girls to extort sex from them. Children were literally ripped from the arms of Indigenous mothers and forced into residential schools where many were starved, tortured, medically experimented on, physically and sexually abused, and where thousands died horrible deaths. Indigenous women and girls were subjected to forced sterilization – many without their knowledge or consent. For those that survived, the Canada’s Indian Act targeted Indigenous women and their children for removal from their communities and Nations in ways and to degrees not done to Indigenous men.
This is the real history of how Canada and the United States were founded – on the exploitation and genocide of millions of Indigenous peoples and the specific targeting of Indigenous women for removal from our lands – legally and physically. Yet, the passage of time has not lessened Canada’s approach to eliminating Indigenous peoples, nor from continuing to engage in genocidal policies targeted at Indigenous women and girls. Today, there are more Indigenous children stolen from their mothers and placed into foster care than during the height of residential schools. While Indigenous peoples make up only 4% of the total population in Canada, Indigenous children make-up 50% of all children in care. Indigenous women are the fastest growing prison population increasing by 109% in the last decade. Indigenous women make-up no less than 36% of the prison population and Indigenous girls represent 53% of all youth in corrections. More than 60% of Indigenous children live in poverty in Canada and the majority of those households are headed by single parent Indigenous mothers.
Indigenous women and girls have long been the targets of sexualized violence from government agencies, police and society. There are an estimated 4000 Indigenous women and girls that have gone missing or been murdered in the last few decades. Of the known cases, Indigenous women represent 16% of all women murdered in Canada, but that number jumps to 55% in Saskatchewan and 49% in Manitoba. Human Rights Watch reported that Indigenous women and girls in British Columbia could not go to the police for help because the police themselves were physically and sexually abusing them with relative impunity. In other places like Quebec, widespread reports of physical and sexual abuse by police officers in Val D’or to Indigenous women and girls initially led to the suspension of the officers, but did not result in charges in most cases. Despite many decades of complaints of sexualized violence and justice inquiries and commissions signalling a deep-rooted problem of racism and abuse by police, little has been done to protect Indigenous women and girls.
Some have emphasized the fact that because Canada now has a Prime Minister who is a self-proclaimed feminist that this may result in the much-needed change for Indigenous women and girls. Prime Minister Trudeau did ensure that half of his Cabinet positions were filled by women; most notably, appointing Indigenous lawyer and politician Jody Wilson-Raybould as the Minister of Justice. Additionally, the three cabinet posts most relevant to Indigenous women – the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, Minister for the Status of Women and the Minister of Health were all staffed by women. Unfortunately, little has changed under their leadership. Once the fluffy words are separated from their actions, it is easy to see that no help is coming from Trudeau’s female Cabinet for Indigenous women and girls.
Despite the promise of a national inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls, the three lead Ministers (Justice, Women & Indigenous Affairs) provided such limited time, resources and terms of reference that nearly a year into the inquiry and it still hasn’t begun. Similarly, despite decades of litigation against Canada for ongoing gender discrimination in the Indian Act which still targets Indigenous women and their children, the Minister of Justice refuses to eliminate all gender discrimination. Despite her self-proclaimed status as a feminist, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett recently testified at Parliament that she is opposed to a Senate bill which would finally eliminate gender inequality under the Indian Act. The Minister of Justice also refuses to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) into law – despite Prime Minister Trudeau’s promise to do so.
Despite her reassuring words to the contrary, the Health Minister has also failed to take substantive action to address the Indigenous suicide crisis which is as high as 11 times the national average and is the leading cause of death for Indigenous youth. Some of the First Nations (reserves) in Canada have the highest suicide rates in the world and the majority of suicide attempts are made by Indigenous women. Indigenous people continue to not have equal access to health care which has exacerbated crisis-level rates of diabetes, heart disease and stroke, especially amongst Indigenous women. And where is the Minister on the Status of Women in all of this? Her silence reflects the deep-rooted indifference in government to the plight of Indigenous women and girls.
Given that equality amongst the political elites has not resulted in relief for Indigenous women and girls, others have put their faith in Canada’s laws. At least in theory, Canada has numerous laws which protect women generally and Indigenous women specifically. The Canadian Human Rights Act prevents discrimination on the basis of sex, race or ethnic origin in the provision of public services. There are numerous provincial human rights acts which proscribe the same. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is a constitutional document which specifically guarantees the equality of men and women, while section 35 of the Constitution Act 1982 not only protects Aboriginal and Treaty rights, but specifically guarantees them equally as between Indigenous men and women. In addition to the sex equality rights contained in all of the international conventions and treaties to which Canada is a signatory, UNDRIP also guarantees equality between Indigenous men and women within the context of Indigenous rights.
Despite the many legal protections for Indigenous women in Canada, governments continue to fight against them. They continue to deny Indigenous women equality under the Indian Act despite court’s direction to the contrary; they refused to abide by a decision of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal which directed Canada to stop discriminating against Indigenous children in foster care; and they have failed to act to stop the growing crisis of murdered and missing Indigenous women. If that were not enough, 93% of Indigenous languages are at risk of extinction; treaties are regularly violated; Indigenous lands continue to be taken up for mining and other extractive industries; our waters are sold to corporations, while hundreds of First Nation communities lack secure, clean drinking water; First Nations are chronically underfunded in all social programs and services; and legislation is passed annually without our consent despite laws to the contrary.
In the end, despite the multiple, over-lapping crises faced by our Nations and despite the dual disadvantages faced by Indigenous women and girls, it was our women who educated, organized and helped lead the largest Indigenous social movement in Canada’s history: Idle No More. Indigenous women lawyers, academics and grassroots leaders got together and started conducting teach-ins in First Nations to help inform our people about what was happening with the legislation being imposed on our Nations; the failure to abide by treaties; the many broken political promises and the many crises killing our people. From there, we used our familial, communal, national and political contacts to coordinate and organize additional teach-ins, protests, rallies, sit-ins, blockades, and press conferences. Idle No More became a household name and the movement found support in many other countries, including the US where Indigenous communities held their own rallies and marches in support of our movement.
While the round-dances and media frenzy has died down – Idle No More has forever changed the political landscape. The media is now regularly engaged in Indigenous issues, Indigenous women experts are more frequently media commentators, and the grassroots people have been re-mobilized in places they were not and supported in places where they were already engaged in their own activism. Now the same activists involved in Idle No More are working behind the scenes advising their leaders, educating their families, communities and Nations, and strategizing next steps. One can also find these Indigenous women continuing their Idle No More work as experts in Parliamentary hearings and United Nations forums and/or and behind the scenes advising on important Indigenous rights litigation or in local protests protecting Indigenous lands and waters from further destruction. Indigenous women warriors are the heart of the resistance in many ways but always within the context of their families, communities and Nations working alongside Indigenous men, elders, traditional and political leaders and our ancestors who walk beside us.
Indigenous activism didn’t start or end with the Idle No More movement as our ancestors have been engaged in acts of resistance since contact. Indigenous women and girls are not the only ones to suffer from Canada’s genocidal policies. But, Indigenous women and girls should be acknowledged for taking on the role of warriors in the face of nearly insurmountable barriers. We have not only had to challenge Canada’s political, legal and economic structures, but also our own. Challenging our own male-dominated Indigenous organizations or confronting the inter-generational trauma and dysfunction in our Nations caused by decades of brutal colonization has not been easy nor is the struggle over. Indigenous women and girls have helped re-inspired our youth and helped remind others that we, as women and girls, have a great deal of power within us to affect change. The fact that we have survived Canada’s lethal policies which targeted our grandmothers, mothers, aunties, sisters and children is a symbol of our strength, resilience and refusal to give up our lands, cultures or identities.
Our people and our ways are beautiful – they heal us and sustain us as peoples. Our women have risen up to protect that beauty and in so doing not only protect our Nations but offer hope for our future generations – those children and grandchildren seven generations into the future to whom we are most responsible.
 Marlene Brant Castellano, “Heart of the Nations: Women’s Contribution to Community Healing” in Gail Guthrie Valaskakis, et al, eds., Restoring the Balance: First Nations Women, Community and Culture (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2009) quoting Tsistsistas, Cheyenne at 203.
Pamela Palmater is a Mi’kmaw citizen and member of the Eel River Bar First Nation in northern New Brunswick, Canada. She has been a practicing lawyer for 18 years and is currently an Associate Professor and the Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University.