Putting Ind ige­nous Women Firs t

Herizons - - Arts & Culture -

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.

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