Putting Ind igenous Women Firs t
On December 8, 2015, the federal government announced an inquiry into the murders and disappearances of Indigenous women and girls. For many Indigenous women and their allies, this was a victory after decades of campaigning for this crisis to be acknowledged, addressed and acted upon. Old and new challenges continue to surface as this issue is publicly and politically debated. The question before us now is: What will the inquiry look like?
According to many, the inquiry should consider “families first” and be designed with the families of murdered and disappeared Indigenous women and girls at its centre. Prior to the announcement of the inquiry, Minister of Aboriginal Affairs Carolyn Bennett stated, “As we promised, we will listen to the families first, who have good experience with this and good instincts, and then we will engage with the other partners in the Aboriginal organizations, provinces and territories, [and] experts.” At the inquiry announcement, Bennett affirmed the families-first approach.
Popular opinion seems to favour this approach as well. Unquestionably, the families of disappeared and murdered Indigenous women and girls have a vital role to play in the inquiry. They have information essential to uncovering the systemic sexism and racism experienced by them and their loved ones at the hands of police and the justice system. However, I would argue for an “Indigenous women and girls first” feminist approach to the upcoming inquiry.
At this 11th hour, we need to fight harder than ever to keep the focus where it belongs: on male violence against Indigenous women and girls. This includes, for example, not only hearing the experiences of family members attempting to report a loved one as missing, but also hearing about the conditions of Indigenous women’s lives before they encountered the justice system, hearing from Indigenous women survivors of male violence, and critically examining the attitudes and actions of the men who perpetrate violence against Indigenous women in a patriarchal, racist, capitalist context.
Families and communities are not necessarily safe places for Indigenous women. We need to consider women who are estranged from their families, women who have experienced and are experiencing violence at the hands of their own male family members, and women who have been pushed out of their families for reporting male violence to police. While violence from men in our own families and communities can be difficult to name for many valid reasons, we need to speak the truth.
If we don’t name the problem as one of male violence, from both Indigenous and non-Indigenous men, we won’t fully understand the issues. If we don’t name the problem, we can’t solve it. If the inquiry focuses first on the families of the murdered and disappeared, we won’t hear from women without families to speak for them, and we risk hearing a version of a woman’s life that has been filtered through the words of an abusive family member.
Although Carolyn Bennett has acknowledged the importance of listening to survivors as a result of information gathered from pre-inquiry consultation sessions, the inquiry website continues to read, “the views and ideas expressed by participants will help develop an inquiry which honours the victims, provides healing for the families and delivers concrete, achievable recommendations for the prevention of violence against Indigenous women and girls.” This statement fails to acknowledge the participation or expertise of Indigenous women on this issue, outside of our accepted and limited roles as “victims” or even “survivors.” Why can’t we be regarded as “experts” on this issue outside of our own experiences?
Public opinion appears to favour the families-first approach that, in my view, will push Indigenous women to the margins of our own inquiry. The crisis of male violence against Indigenous women and girls is an urgent issue, but the federal government has leaped before it looked. While the inquiry will no doubt include the involvement of Indigenous women, it is vital that the inquiry is shaped by an Indigenous feminist framework that privileges the voices of Indigenous women and girls. We have a great opportunity, but once the inquiry is finished, it’s finished. We need to get this one right.
This inquiry came about because of male violence against Indigenous women and girls, and the inquiry should therefore centre on male violence against Indigenous women who are, of course, members of families and communities, but also autonomous women. This can only happen if Indigenous women are front-andcentre at the table.