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In honour of missing and murdered indigenous women, the Walk4Justice began in Vancouver on June 21, Aboriginal Day, and ended with a rally of about 250 on Parliament Hill on September 15.
The following article (part two in a series) explores the profound systemic flaws discussed during speeches at the rally; flaws that continue to encourage a deep-rooted Canadian prejudice against indigenous women, which is being supported by the 2010 Olympic Games and Canada's oil economy, specifically the Alberta Tar Sands.
Part one of this article can be read here.
MONTREAL – When it comes to women losing their homes, Alberta and BC are among the worst in Canada.
Alberta’s "successful" tar sands economy has created a severe lack of affordable housing, transitional housing and shelter spaces, particularly for women.
Women are often dissuaded from pursuing the resources and abilities essential to benefiting from the booming industry. Unequal wages, gender discrimination and sexual harassment are all significant deterrents. Those profiting most from the oil and gas workforce are predominantly male; current male-female ratios are 79 to 21 per cent for geoscientists and 96 to four per cent for trades.
Contributing to this imbalance is the fact that the exorbitant cost of rent makes it next to impossible for many women in Alberta to afford a home, unless their wages can compete with those in the oil industry.
In the oil town of Fort McMurray, where the housing crisis is rampant, none of the shelters accept minors. A report released by the region's Homelessness Initiatives Steering Committee found that some teenagers are resorting to sex-work in exchange for shelter for a night.
For those women who do manage to find a shelter, Alberta has no transitional housing program. As a result, there is often nowhere for them to go from a shelter, except back to the street.
“A longer-term transition house is what is needed, one that can be used for as long as people need. A house that has passion for the survival of a whole generation to get past this terrible point of life, in which they did not mean to live,” says Nicole Tait, a youth attending the Walk4Justice rally.
Under the Harper Conservatives, cuts to legal aid and income assistance, the closure of women's centres, political assaults on women's advocacy and support services, a lack of childcare support, cuts to welfare and changes to eligibility for welfare, the rising cost of living, and low-income work all contribute heavily to the significant disadvantage that many First Nations women face. The BC Human Rights Commission and Ministry of Women's Equality, both considered tools to fight discrimination, have also been eliminated.
The number of homeless in Vancouver doubled in 2005 and is predicted to triple due to the 2010 Olympic Games. These figures do not account for a much larger population that pays for sub-standard housing. According to the 2005 Greater Vancouver Homeless Count, there are 300,000 (official) homeless in Greater Vancouver, 30 per cent of whom are First Nations people, despite the fact that they make up just two per cent of the city's total population.
An endless host of Canadian development projects, from massive tar sands extraction sites to ventures intended to facilitate the 2010 Games, have rendered homeless many First Nations people who originally subsisted on their traditional territories or on government-assigned reserves. Many are compelled to move to large urban centres in search of work or to escape their consequently depressed communities.
The same pattern of forced displacement of First Nations communities and individuals is happening all over Canada.
For example, in Alberta, Indigenous people living on reserves close to tar sands plants, residing downstream from tailings ponds, or dwelling on land slated to accommodate government pipelines have a hard battle to fight: against health problems of all kinds – including soaring rates of cancer which are picking off their friends and family members at an alarming pace – and against a government that is constantly attempting to push them farther off of their land for the purpose of extraction and exploration. Many of these people, such as those in the northern Alberta communities of Fort Chipewyan and Fort MacKay, are fighting to stop the pollution and destruction of their homes, some are deriving what benefit they can from jobs in the tar sands industry, and others are leaving their reserves with little or no money to attempt a better life in Edmonton, Calgary, or Fort McMurray.
Similarly, the Olympic Games are acting as an unwelcome catalyst for many First Nations people living in BC, a number of whom have been embroiled in bitter land rights battles with the Canadian government for most of their lives. Rivers, mountains, lakes, creeks, and old-growth forests, along with trap lines, hunting grounds, salmon stocks, animal habitats, sacred sites, and important food and medicine harvesting areas are being substituted by tourist resorts and highway expansions, like the Sea-to-Sky Highway from Vancouver to Whistler. With vast areas of unceded land, on which indigenous communities depend for their general survival, being destroyed, many First Nations people have been, and continue to be, drawn into cities to seek out new modes of subsistence, often only to discover that they lack the resources necessary to make a living in foreign urban surroundings.
The Secwepemc people of Skelkwek'welt and the St'at'imc people of Sutikalh have long resisted the establishment of Sun Peaks and Cayoosh ski resorts (intended to attract and accommodate tourists, Olympic athletes and trainers) on their land. Powerful and well-thought-out demonstrations of their opposition have been disregarded, ignored and covered-up by the BC government in attempts to profit from a territory for which treaties were never signed.
Native Youth Movement (NYM) member Kanahus Pelkey of the Secwepemc and Ktunaxa First Nations recalls the tactics employed by Sun Peaks to facilitate the construction of their ski resort:
The province bulldozed our home on International Human Rights Day. They hired Sun Peaks employees to tear down our sweat lodges. So you get an idea what happens when Native people stand up and fight for their freedom. We announced it to the media, and all the corporate media, they showed up at Sun Peaks, but the roads were deactivated. They [Sun Peaks] made big, huge ice blockades so no vehicles could get through. And Sun Peaks resort has many, many snowmobile businesses, but all the businesses were given orders by Sun Peaks not to rent any snowmobiles to any media, or anybody that day.
The Secwepemc people, rendered homeless and faced with the threat of arrest if they continued living on their land, retreated, some to Vancouver. Many had endured previous arrests for similar involvements and did not want to risk imprisonment with no chance of bail.
First Nations women living in the city are more susceptible than men to losing their homes due to abuse or conflict with a spouse or caretaker upon whom they are financially dependent. Because women are more likely to have children to look after, and are less likely to feel safe on the street or in shelters where men are also present, many return to abusive relationships when there is no alternative available.
Across Canada, there are more women among the Aboriginal homeless population than are found in the non-Aboriginal population. According to Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC), 35 per cent of the Aboriginal homeless population in Greater Vancouver is female, compared to only 27 per cent among the non-Aboriginal homeless population.
First Nations women are also vastly overrepresented in Canada’s community of sex-workers, and continue to be brutally criminalized by the police and simultaneously marginalized and taken advantage of by society in general.
In 2003, Pelkey, forcibly separated from her baby boy, spent two-and-a-half months in prison for her involvement with the Sun Peaks protests. During her incarceration, she met many First Nations women who had been imprisoned for sex-work and drug abuse. Most of the women's stories involved sexual molestation during childhood. Many women had experienced these abuses in residential schools, while others were the children of residential school survivors.
Aboriginal rights lawyer and President of the NWAC Beverly Jacobs stresses that often police lack an understanding of the cycles of abuse that occur within Native communities, and, as a result, do not possess the empathy necessary to view women on the streets as part of the public. As such, they do not feel responsible for the protection of these women. Jacobs has worked with Amnesty International as a lead researcher and consultant on their report “Stolen Sisters: Discrimination and Violence Against Indigenous Women in Canada.”
The controversial BC Coalition of Experiential Communities (BCCEC), the first sex-worker co-operative in Canada, is the brainchild of sex-worker Susan Davis, who has been trying to pressure the government to create legal brothels for the upcoming Winter Olympics in 2010. Despite the decriminalization of sex workers being one of the BCCEC's primary motives, the issue is contentious both among Canada's political elite and among sex-workers themselves. The move had the support of Vancouver’s then-Mayor, Sam Sullivan, and VANOC (the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games), but has so far been refused by Canadian Justice Minister Rob Nicholson.
Tait finds it difficult to understand sex-workers who support the move, and does not envision the legalization of brothels solving the problem of police brutality and societal marginalization.
“They are [Vancouver is] basing their research on one woman’s point of view for creating [legal] brothels in the DTES [Downtown Eastside]. This woman [Davis] is a prostitute by choice who doesn't have to make a living from the streets. She says that she enjoys what she does. I never met one woman who said that they enjoy being a prostitute, they say that’s just the way things happened. Others are trying to make a living for their family, which includes young mothers who are trying to put food on the table for their babies.”
Tsimshian youth, co-ordinator of North Coast Enviro Watch and member of Native 2010 Resistance Dustin Johnson notes that the Olympic tradition of catering to the elite as a means of social control can be referred to as a policy of "sex, screens and sports," a phrase coined to describe the 1988 Seoul Games. A massive influx of prostitution, coupled with the pseudo-legalization of the sex industry for the benefit of elite athletes and businessmen, has always been an Olympic norm.
Johnson maintains that not all sex-workers even made a career choice to begin with.
"You actually see, at some of the elementary schools in Vancouver, sexual predators, just waiting around to try to kidnap young Native kids. Some of these kids end up in the sex-slave industry, they get shipped all over the world. This is the kind of industry that VANOC and the people that are organizing the Olympics in Vancouver are trying to continue.”
Jacobs, too, stresses that the issue of violence against Aboriginal peoples in general and Aboriginal women in specific is not a three-decade concern, but instead extends to the past 300 years. The crisis is one of historic proportions. A report she wrote for the Native Women's Association of Canada looked to the history of colonization, and how it has affected Aboriginal women.
“Because a lot of First Nations cultures were matriarchal, women have suffered the brunt of colonization,” says Jacobs.
Her studies reveal that white policymakers noted the remarkable strength of First Nations women, and found ways of demeaning it. Despite the fact that many clans, and by extension, the status of individuals, were once determined matrilineally, the Canadian government’s invention of the status card changed this: status became determined by the male alone, creating a severe disconnect between Native people and their cultures. The previously significant responsibility of men to act as protectors was also adversely affected by this forced shift, creating internal oppression in First Nations communities that is still very present today.
“The responsibilities and the roles that come with being a Native woman are very highly respected, or at least they were. [First Nations people are] still having to deal with the issues internally within our communities because we’ve learned those patriarchal values and we’ve learned them really well,” observes Jacobs.
About half-way through the colourful roster of speeches on Parliament Hill, one of Prime Minister Harper’s aids came to formally accept the women’s documented demands. Dressed all in grey, he gripped the bright pink folder firmly, saying, “I will deliver this to Mr. Harper” as the crowd murmured their skeptical thanks.
But Akwesasne Elder and Bear Clan mother Harriet Boots quickly brought people back to the core of the matter.
“Every person today has a lot of tears. Let’s make it our strength. Let’s go ahead and cry. Take it all out of our system. And then let’s go for that justice.”
Maya Rolbin-Ghanie is a freelance journalist, creative writer, and barista living in Montreal.
An original version of this article was published by Oil Sands Truth (Fall 2008 print issue).
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.