No Sound Heard : Violence Against Aboriginal Women in Canada

Dedicated to my sister in arms. Peace and Love HoneyBlades

 

Violence against women typically draws a lot of attention, and rightfully so. The abduction of the 200 girls in Nigeria drew worldwide coverage, as have a string of rapes in India. However, here in Canada, aboriginal women deal with an epidemic of violence, and there`s nary a peep to be heard. According to a study published in The Law and Society Association, aboriginal women who go missing in Canada receive 27 times less news coverage than white women; they also receive “dispassionate and less-detailed, headlines, articles, and images.” ( Gilchrist, Kristen (May 27, 2008). “Invisible Victims: Disparity in Print-News Media Coverage of Missing/Murdered Aboriginal and White Women”. AllAcademic.com. Retrieved June 8, 2011.). Although Gawker reports that in Canada, when indigenous women vanish in the night, their disappearances are met with one-sixth as much media attention as those of white women (http://gawker.com/canadas-highway-of-tears-and-the-women-we-forgot-1579002464). Either way, this is unacceptable and pathetic.

The Numbers

Aboriginal women in Canada face a disproportionate amount of violence in Canada. According to The Native Women`s Association of Canada : “Aboriginal women 15 and older are three and a half times more likely to experience violence (defined as physical and sexual assault and robbery) than non-Aboriginal women” and “Statistics Canada reports that rates of spousal assault (physical or sexual assault and threats of violence) against Aboriginal women are more than three times higher than non-Aboriginal women” (2010 NWAC SIS report). The rate of murder of aboriginal women is equally shocking, almost 7 times higher among aboriginal women, according to the Human Rights Watch 2013 report Those Who take Us Away. And finally, The NWAC reports  “Aboriginal women also report experiencing more severe and potentially life-threatening forms of family violence, such as being beaten or choked, having had a gun or knife used against them, or being sexually assaulted (54% of Aboriginal women versus 37% of non-Aboriginal women)” and “27% of Aboriginal women reported experiencing 10 or more assaults by the same offender (as  opposed to 18% of non-Aboriginal women)” (2010 NWAC SIS report).

 

Let the number sink in and it is horrifying.  Aboriginal women are being victimized in their own homes by the people they love and trust. They are being murdered at seven times the rate of non-aboriginal women. Literally every other aboriginal women you meet is likely to be the victim of serious family violence. This speaks to a culture of violence towards women. I have seen several twitter discussions about this, with several brave aboriginal men saying there needs to be changes in how aboriginal men treat their women. I cannot speak directly to this, as I am not aboriginal, but I think that it is true. Only aboriginal people themselves can change the way they treat each other, but given Canada’s long history of abuse towards native cultures, I would hope that they would treat each other better. The Native Women’s Association of Canada works towards this goal and has teaching packages and lots of information.

 

This is not an attack on aboriginal men. The behavior takes place within a cultural context of systematic institutionalized racism and multi-generational abuse at the hands of the state. It is merely another symptom of the problem, and there are many symptoms. According to research, aboriginal people are sicker (“Aboriginal Canadians: By the Numbers” Montreal Gazette, Jan 11, 2013, S. Kirbey and J Fekete), more likely to commit suicide, at twice to as much as ten times more likely to commit suicide (Suicide Among Aboriginal People in Canada. 2007. The Aboriginal Healing Foundation) and much more likely to be in jail, representing 17% of incarcerated people while only being 2.7 % of the population of Canada (“Aboriginal Victimization in Canada: A Summary of the Literature”. Victims of Crime Research Digest No. 3. Canada Department of Justice. 2013-04-30). These problems, among others lead to higher rates of alcohol and drug abuse, gang participation and general cultural decays. It can be seen as nothing less than an attack on an indigenous people.

 

The problems do not end there for aboriginal women. When faced with domestic violence, these women are left with no escape. They rarely turn to the police, having faced decade after decade of abuse and neglect, they have rightfully lost trust in policing services (see Human Rights Watch 2013 report Those Who Take Us Away; especially disturbing, they claim that women in 5 of the 10 towns they visited reported assault by police officers ). If they do, they are then let down by the criminal justice system. As previously mentioned, over a quarter of native women are assaulted over ten times by the same person. Ten Times. Ten Times. These women face re-victimization from people who would receive long sentences if their crimes were committed against a white woman.  If beating a woman ten times is not enough to qualify for a long prison sentence, there is something very wrong with our courts.

 

This is then multiplied by the lack of concern given to aboriginal women by the general population. This quiet structural racism is typified by the huge discrepancy in media coverage. We are all familiar with missing white woman syndrome, where a missing white woman will receive huge media play and front page status, whereas missing aboriginal women are generally ignored (or other women of colour in other countries). This is a most insidious form of racism, and it teaches aboriginal women that people don’t care if they go missing or are victims of violence. It tells them that their lives do not matter when compared to caucasian women. And sadly, this is reenforced by the public. I have witnessed rallies for the cause of missing and murdered native women in two cities, and while I was pleased to note a number of native men there, I was sad to note the distinct lack of white people. I have seen repeated amber alerts, but cannot recall a single one for a missing aboriginal child.  The media is partly to blame for this, giving only token coverage to the rallies, but as Canadians, we all have to look in the mirror and see that our silence is equal to complicity.

Consider also that these stats are woefully inadequate to describe the situation these women are really facing. Crimes like sexual assault are massively under-reported anyway, because many victims fear they will not be taken seriously or worse, slandered and re-victimized by the criminal justice system. Now imagine the rate at which the aboriginal people must under-report these crimes, given the mistrust they feel of the system, and the lack of results they see on a regular basis.

Canadian aboriginal women face a special kind of torture. Abused at home and by strangers, unable to turn to authorities and ignored by the media and the general public, they are shackled in a prison of no escape. Faced with violence at every turn, a vanishing culture and no options, is it any wonder that drugs or prostitution are the outcome. We as Canadians have to change this situation. While petitioning politicians is always an option, it is unlikely to produce many results. A better target is the mass media. As a consumer driven enterprise, it will respond much more quickly to consumer input. We need to vote with our dollars and our views and clicks, and let them know that ignoring the plight of aboriginal women is no longer acceptable. If the situation receives more coverage, more people will become involved and changes will begin to occur.

 

As Canadians, we also need to change our culture and ourselves. While aboriginal communities need to be respectful of their women, that is their internal struggle.  As a larger culture, we need to ask ourselves why we allow this to continue. Canadians think of themselves as open accepting people, and in general we are. But our multicultural society does not seem to include the First Nations people. We love to look down our noses at how the Americans treat the African-American community, but we are no better, if not worse, in our treatment of our aboriginal people. These women are our people too, this is not just a problem with the aboriginal community, it should be a problem for everyone

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