Celebrating Women’s Day This Year With an Aboriginal Crisis

Today is International Women’s Day. Although there is much to celebrate, there is much more to be done as well.

Natasha Bannan notes that women in the U.S. are still employed in precarious work. Minorities, especially Latinas, are overrepresented in the lowest paid segments of the economy.

The situation isn’t much better in Canada. In some ways, it might be worse.

A new report by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) slams Canada for its inaction over Aboriginal women. The study was prompted by inquiries by the Feminist Alliance for International Action (FAFIA) and Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC), triggering article 8 of the Optional Protocol. The basis for these concerns were as follows:

  • Aboriginal women and girls experience extremely high levels of violence in Canada, particularly the high number of disappearances and murders of Aboriginal women;
  • Aboriginal women report rates of violence including domestic violence and sexual assault 3.5 times higher than non-Aboriginal women; and,
  • young Aboriginal women are five times more likely than other Canadian women of the same age to die of violence;
  • Aboriginal women and girls experience both high levels of sexual abuse and violence in both their own families and communities as well as within society.

Article 8 allows for a committee to conduct a confidential investigation and inquiry, but only where they have received “received reliable information of grave or systematic violations.” The very fact that an inquiry was launched under this Article is itself cause for concern in Canada.

The report expressed concern over the disproportionately high rates of violence against Aboriginal women, compared to both men and non-Aboriginal women. What was of greater concern was the state inaction in response to this known problem, in particular by addressing socio-economic conditions and addressing their vulnerability to sexual exploitation.

Other significant areas of state involvement include widespread distrust among Aboriginal women of law enforcement and the lack of an independent police complaint mechanism. Perceptions of profiling and bias by officers has created a culture of distrust and fear of retaliation.

Despite comments by the federal government suggesting a commitment to access to justice, the report finds that the justice system is not sufficiently responsive to the needs of Aboriginal women,

147. The Committee finds that the historically rooted fractured relationship of Aboriginal women with all levels of the justice system and the lack of adequate measures taken to address the over-representation of Aboriginal women in contact with the justice system, whether as victims or as offenders, will necessarily delay any progress in building trust. The Committee considers that the response of the justice system to the high rates of violence affecting Aboriginal women, as a disadvantaged group and a minority of the population, offers only insufficient protection.

171. The Committee considers that the disproportionate levels of violence experienced by Aboriginal women and the numerous forms of violence that they face call for specific policies, measures and programmes in order to ensure that the justice system as a whole is capable of adequately responding to such situations. In addition to the economic, social and cultural situation described above, the historical distrust of the Aboriginal community against the police and the justice system, as well as perceived racism and discrimination within the State party’s institutions, create further barriers for Aboriginal women to access justice.

Of course one of the unique challenges with Aboriginal populations in Canada is the constitutional jurisdiction of the problems. The report responds to these challenges by invoking Article 27 of the Vienna Convention on the Law on Treaties which indicates a country may not use internal law as the justification for failing to comply with a treaty. What this means is that all levels of government, not just the Federal level, is responsible for addressing the issues around Aboriginal women.

At a summit on women’s equality in Toronto today, MP Carolyn Bennett stated that people mistakenly believe that Aboriginal women are automatically the victims of violence from Aboriginal men, whereas in fact they typically have a lower rate of domestic or intimate partner violence than non-Aboriginal women.

Toronto City Councillor Joe Mihevc drew a parallel between our foreign policy, wars abroad, and a culture of patriarchy at home. The way we deal with conflicts abroad signals to our population how we should resolve our own personal conflicts.

Several attendees wondered why the issue of terrorism, and Bill C-51, receives far more attention in the media and politics than the issue of Aboriginal women. The proportionate loss of lives is significantly higher with the latter, but doesn’t carry the same political capital.

Beyond our governments, the issues around Aboriginal women, violence and poverty are issues for all of us to be concerned about. Women’s issues are always men’s issues too. But this International Women’s Day, the focus should be specifically on Aboriginal women, who have a significantly worse situation than all other women in Canada. This is nothing short of a national disgrace.

The problem is so severe in Canada that the committee found the situation to be a grave violation of human rights. The solution, according to the report, would be a National Public Inquiry and a subsequent plan to address many of the violations.

Canada has 6 months to respond to the report and any of its findings. Let’s hope the response is one of action.

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