Capital News Online: Human rights and Canada

Nahanni Fontaine’s first memory of abuse was when her mother tried to drown her as a child.

“I remember her trying to wash my hair and she got so frustrated because I was so scared, like most children are when you’re trying to rinse their hair in the water,” she said.

“She just held my head under the water, I specifically remember that all these years later. And you know it just escalated from there.”

After years of physical, emotional and sexual abuse, Fontaine, now the special advisor on Aboriginal women’s issues for the Aboriginal issues committee of cabinet in Manitoba, recognizes that she was part of a cycle of intergenerational violence stemming from Canada’s colonial past.

It is critical that we shine a light on this devastating issue, listen and learn, and take strong actions collectively to end this senseless violence.— Flavia Mussio

“Indigenous women and girls’ spaces looked very different pre-contact… Indigenous women understood themselves to be independent and autonomous and were understood by the collective as being really sacred beings,” she said.

“We see that start to deteriorate in the language that newcomers started to use in respect to indigenous women and girls…. [newcomers] couldn’t understand what they were seeing because their particular context of women and girls was that they were the property of their fathers, and then that property transferred to their husbands…that’s where you see the discourse shift from sacred to Indigenous women as promiscuous, because they had control over their own sexuality.”

The inquiry

Fontaine is from the Sagkeeng First Nation and she is one of only two special advisors on Aboriginal women’s issues in the country. She was appointed to the position five years ago and was asked to advise the committee, as well as to develop and implement a strategy that would help to lower the striking number of missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Manitoba.

Aboriginal women account for 4 per cent of the overall Canadian female population, but 16 per cent of female homicides and 11 per cent of the cases of missing women according to a 2014 report produced by StatsCan and the RCMP. For years Canadians have been calling for a national inquiry to be launched that would address why Aboriginal women are so often targeted and what can be done to help.

The new Liberal government has committed to launching an inquiry and to spending $40 million over the next two years on the issue. Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett has already begun consultations with the families of missing and murdered women and girls in preparation.

“The unacceptable high rates of violence against Aboriginal women and girls should no longer be tolerated in Canada,” said Flavia Mussio, a Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs spokesperson via email. “It is critical that we shine a light on this devastating issue, listen and learn, and take strong actions collectively to end this senseless violence.”

The inquiry will be conducted in partnership with the minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs along with the minister of Justice and the minister of the Status of Women, in order to “seek recommendations on concrete actions that governments, law enforcement, and others can take to solve these crimes and prevent futures ones,” according to an email statement from the department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, previously Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada.

Fontaine said that she hopes the proposed inquiry will bring some sense of closure to the families.

“We all have faith that a national inquiry will show the voices and narratives of families affected, but that it will also situate violence in this colonial context, that it presents recommendations that are followed up on and executed, so that we’re not talking about this in another 10 or 15 years.”

University of Ottawa law professor Larry Chartrand agreed and said that he expects the inquiry to assess how Canadians have responded to evidence of violence against Aboriginal women.

I think it’s going to jar a lot of people. But something like that needs to come out and people need to know about it. They need to be jarred into action.— Larry Chartrand

“Have police agencies, for example, responded to the issue? And how have they conducted their investigations when they are notified about murdered or missing Aboriginal women?”

Chartrand, whose research focuses on Aboriginal law and history, said another important piece of the inquiry will be to take a look at the Canadian criminal justice system, in order to critically examine how cases of violence against Aboriginal women are handled.

“Even though we all have human rights and human rights protections, there still is a lot of those… prejudicial views of Aboriginal women in society that put them at risk,” Chartrand said.

“I think it’s going to be really challenging for a lot of Canadians to realize that… certain groups are safer than others and a lot of it has to do with racism. I think it’s going to jar a lot of people. But something like that needs to come out and people need to know about it. They need to be jarred into action.”

Reducing violence

Chartrand said an important step in reducing violence is to improve access to women’s shelters and other culturally sensitive safe spaces where Aboriginal women can seek help.

“If there aren’t places for women to go in those communities, and the tools that are needed to ensure safety, how do you rebuild a woman’s life after they’ve been victimized?” he said.

“I think the attitude of the Harper government that Aboriginal women victims are no different than any other victims in society was wrong. Most of the evidence points to the impact of colonization. But I’m hopeful that this government is more aware of the need and more attuned to the evidence.”

Fontaine agreed.

“Having public awareness or prevention is beautiful, but women also need physical spaces that they can go to for physical protection, and First Nations need the resources to be able to execute that,” she said.

Healing and reconciliation

Lisa Muswagon is an accountant for Métis Child and Family Services in Winnipeg and the creator of Native Model Studio, a studio that trains Aboriginal models and helps them network their way into the mainstream fashion industry. She is also a member of the Pimicikamak Cree Nation who has suffered abuse.

“One of my first relationships was an abusive one. It was quiet for awhile because I didn’t know how to talk to anybody about it, and I didn’t know how to come to my parents about it,” she said.

Muswagon said she had a loving family and a good start in life, so after being raped as a teenager and being in two abusive relationships, she drew on the traditional tools they recommended.

“I was broken. I was a broken young woman trying to obtain my education, looking for these healing tools, and then I would start picking them up, and one of my healing tools would be my hand drum,” she said.

The drum, which was given to her when she was about 13, helped her to literally raise her voice to overcome violence and oppression. She began to play and sing at social gatherings.

“You hear about it every day you know. Somebody’s being pulled out of the water, someone’s being found, someone’s being beaten, fights are happening… it angered me just as much as everybody else,” she said.

Muswagon is hopeful that if the right people are consulted in the inquiry, it will have a healing effect similar to that of her hand drum.

“I try to use this analysis of father sky and mother Earth. We have seasons like spring and summer, the sun replenishes and makes things grow right, and so that’s the same way we’ve got to take care of our women,” she said.

“We need to treat them like our world. We’ve got to learn how to respect mother Earth… it all starts from our home, and the healing comes from our families, as well as the support that comes from the community. So as long as we can bring all those together, I know that there can be a lot of positive changes. And I feel more confident with the current government that we can do that.”

Header Image [Photo © Kate Hawkins]

Kate Hawkins is a fourth-year journalism and anthropology student at Carleton. Originally from Fredericton, New Brunswick, Kate works as a communications officer with the Canadian Teachers' Federation and has a penchant for social policy reporting. She likes pizza, traveling and people watching on the bus.

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