Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen of the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development.
I want to thank you for this opportunity to address you today. I want to begin by acknowledging that we are meeting here on Algonquin territory, the traditional indigenous peoples of this area.
The Native Women's Association of Canada is founded on the collective goal to enhance, promote, and foster the social, economic, cultural, and political well-being of indigenous women in Canada. NWAC is an aggregate of 13 native women's organizations from across Canada and was incorporated as a non-profit organization in 1974.
Back in the 1970s, our women were struggling to be reinstated in their communities. Women were removed from their communities because of gender discrimination and sex discrimination in the Indian Act. When an indigenous woman married a non-indigenous man, she was removed from the community. She received a cheque from the government for $12, and a letter that said, “You're no longer an Indian”. That meant she no longer had the right to live in her community. She no longer had the right to even return to her community without permission. She lost her land, her home, and the right to be buried in that community.
It was this clear gender discrimination that organized our women. Our women have been activists at the community level for generations, starting with homemakers clubs, where to the outsiders it looked...They spread the image that they were there to trade recipes and talk about stain removal and laundry, but they were there behind closed doors to talk about how to better the lives in their communities.
This was the beginning of a very long tradition when our women went all the way to the Supreme Court over what eventually became Bill C-31. They actually lost at the Supreme Court level.
This was our experience where we realized that the voice of our women and our communities had been silenced, that Indian Act governments, band councils, and chiefs had superseded our traditional forms of government, and had silenced the voices of our women. That was why our associations were created.
We are now the modern incarnation of those traditional indigenous women's councils that happened in our traditions all across the country, those circles where our women had equality and had a voice in our communities. We're the contemporary incarnation of our traditional women's councils, our grandmothers lodges, the clan mothers, depending on which nation you arise from. We as the aunties, mothers, sisters, and daughters collectively recognize, respect, promote, and defend our ancestral laws, spiritual beliefs, languages, and traditions, but most importantly our families and our nations.
We are the voice of aboriginal women in part because many national, provincial, and local organizations do not have defined or well-developed avenues to allow aboriginal women's voices to be heard.
Since we were founded in 1974, we have fostered trust, we have listened to our women, and we have created the forms and the venues for our women to have their voices heard. Our ability to listen has generated many positive outcomes, including Bill C-31. After we lost at the Supreme Court here in Canada, we went to the international human rights watchdogs, the international human rights laws, to ensure that our women were treated with equality. As a result, tens of thousands of indigenous women and children were reinstated to their communities.
However, this gender discrimination is still continuing because they were not given back their original status. They were put back as reinstatees. Many communities still, in fact, refuse to accept the women and children back into their communities. We're still facing this ongoing discrimination simply because we're indigenous women.
We have been working since we began on bringing to light the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in Canada. We've been working to bring to light the issue of the extremely high levels of violence that our women and girls face in our communities.
Fleeing violence is the number one reason our women leave the communities. It's not for an education, not for a job, but to find somewhere where they can be safe. Unfortunately, many of our women, when they enter into the urban settings having left their communities, find that because of the additional racism, they're even less safe. They are slipping through the cracks because of systemic racism.
This issue has been brought to light not only in Canada but in international forums. As we all know, we are now heading into the national inquiry. Despite being consistently underfunded from our inception, we have brought to international attention this human rights crisis that we're facing here in Canada. We have done this collectively, with our history of strength and our capacity to listen, act, and inform our women.
We have many priorities. Many of the issues and challenges for our women and girls exist and are all related to this history of oppression, dispossession, and the imposition of a foreign governance on our communities that replaced our traditional role as women. It's very difficult, when we're looking at the issue of violence, to determine; there is no one, easy answer. It's a complex web of poverty that is making our women unsafe. Our women are not vulnerable; they are put in circumstances where they become vulnerable, because of broken treaties, because of communities that are living in third world conditions.
It's not about choosing a high-risk lifestyle. We've heard this conversation many times, that indigenous women and girls are going missing or are being murdered because of high-risk lifestyles. We agree that our women have high-risk lifestyles, not because they chose a high-risk lifestyle but because of lack of choice, because of lack of opportunity when you're in a community that doesn't have clean water, when you're in a community that doesn't have schools, that doesn't have housing, that doesn't have many of the basic things we see as human rights here in Canada. They're living in third world conditions in the middle of one of the richest countries in the world.
This is why ending violence against our women is our number one priority. You cannot focus on your education, you cannot write a paper, when you cannot go home at night because it's not safe. How do you apply for a job when you're trying to cover the black eyes and the bruises? How do you keep your family together when you have no housing? Children and welfare? You don't want to report, because the first consideration is that they're going to take the children out of the home because they believe it's unsafe.
All of these factors are going together and tearing our families apart, putting our women in danger, and this should not be happening. This has been identified very clearly as a grave human rights violation against indigenous women and girls here in Canada.
We need to continue to focus, number one, on ending the violence, on making sure that our women and girls have safety, so that we can focus on empowerment and building capacity in employment and education, and can begin to address the over-incarceration of our women, who are being thrown into prison and doing time for stealing food to feed their families. They are sentenced to 30 days for stealing food. Of course, you know this means that the woman's child ends up on child welfare, and the cycle goes on and starts with the next generation.
There are the mental health issues because of the ongoing issues of violence, because of the lack of follow-up and healing from residential schools, from the Sixties Scoop, from the ongoing trauma, not to mention the post-traumatic stress of living consistently with this experience of violence.
We've heard the crisis that has been declared because of the high level of suicide attempts. This community, which had 11 suicide attempts last Saturday, is just one of the many communities struggling with this issue. We have to address mental health, maternal child health, diabetes, health conditions, housing, poverty, environmental concerns.
Indigenous women have the role, since time immemorial, as the carriers of water, as the protectors of the water because of our role as women and the givers of life. We need to make sure as indigenous women and as one of the national aboriginal organizations who have fought hard to get a seat at the table, that the voices of our women and children are heard. We're very concerned right now that we have seen the potential that our voices will be silenced yet again, pushed back from the table. We say we cannot let this happen.
We have struggled too long to get a seat at the table. We have struggled too long to hold our families and our communities together. But the fact that we're still here shows that we can declare victory because we have survived, and we will continue to do so.
The Thunder Bay Centre for the Ontario Native Women's Association is looking at that wraparound model in which we bring in partners. In many of the things we do, we have partnerships with not only first nations but with the Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres and with the Métis Nation of Ontario.
Whether it be the housing corporation, so that we can provide housing, or employment and training initiatives, or the health outreach workers, very often our workers will have an entire family—the woman and her children—as clients. If it means that our worker goes with them to court, we go with them to court; if it means that we go with them to the housing office, we go with them there, to make sure that these families are getting the maximum supports, that they're not just being bounced around and told they need to go across town.
I don't know how many of you are parents, but if you have ever tried as a parent to get three little kids ready in the morning to get to an appointment, only to arrive there and be told that you missed this one thing and now you have to go across town to get something else.... Very often, people give up. Those kinds of systemic hoops are the reasons many people don't get the services they need and are entitled to.
That's why having those supports, having that person with you who knows what your rights are, who knows what services are out there and can facilitate getting them—that wraparound model to make sure that we're not losing clients, not losing families because of lack of understanding, when there are many opportunities and lots of partnerships—has been very successful in holding families together and addressing poverty. If their kids are going to be taken away because they have no housing, we get them housing, rather than paying triple the amount—thousands of dollars—to put those children in foster homes. How be we get that family food? How be we get those children jackets? These are the kinds of common sense solutions that can be found, if we're working in partnerships.
What I was pointing out was that this is a very vicious cycle. Ending violence helps to end poverty because it allows our women to get an education, to get employment, to take care of their families; and at the same time, the poverty is contributing to the violence and the lack of safety. It's an unfortunate never-ending cycle where poverty reproduces the violence and the violence reproduces the poverty.
I just wanted to be clear on that.
As well, with the issue of online, violent, sexualized content, we have seen significant research that shows that generations of young people now, and young boys specifically, who are being exposed to explicit, violent, sexualized content depicting the degradation, dehumanization, and objectification of women leads to increased violence.
We need only look at the situation that happened with Cindy Gladue to see one of the most extremely offensive, horrific atrocities that is the outcome of that kind of violent content. The fact that this perpetrator's computer, which had hundreds of graphic images of what could only be described as sexual torture, was not allowed as part of the evidence in his trial for the brutal murder of Cindy Gladue—who was then herself degraded and dehumanized by having pictures of her most vital body parts passed around the jury as evidence—shows exactly the kind of horrific outcome that happen when explicit, sexual, violent content imprints in young minds.
I think we are really just beginning to see the outcome in this next generation of what is a very different environment.
As a mother, and as representing the Native Women's Association, we know how many times children accidentally stumble onto some of the most horrifying sexual violence on the Internet when they are innocently typing in something. We're seeing that kind of long-term shaping of attitudes towards women and girls, shaping of attitudes towards sex, and shaping of attitudes towards relationships that then become based on violence. We're seeing it more and more because of the violent content on the Internet that, increasingly, large numbers of young children are being exposed to.
Okay, so yes, yes, and yes.
Indigenous women, unfortunately, are the most over policed, but less likely to get justice. Our women are targeted, and they're being monitored because of racial issues.
We know that justice is intimately connected to the representation you can purchase. It's intimately connected to poverty as well. If you don't have the funds to buy a lawyer, and if you don't have the funds to get justice, then you're going to end up with the least favourable outcomes. They're going to end up in jail.
There was a clear example of this when we were in Vancouver during the Stanley Cup riots and there were young men coming in from the suburbs and lighting police cars on fire. Across the country there were arguments about why a young man should not go to jail because he had a beautiful career ahead of him and a scholarship to some Ivy League university. This was not a matter of boys being boys, but they were actually going to set police cars on fire. That's large-scale damage and potential danger, and yet an indigenous woman who defends herself.... If somebody has their hands around my throat, I'm going to fight back, too. That's real honest. Often many of our women end up in jail because they have stood up for themselves, or because they have fought back in violent situations. Double charging means they end up in jail, too, if he says, “He hit, she hit back”. We've seen again and again that our women are over-policed. Because of the high levels of violence when women fight back, they end up in jail because of racism. Because of the absence of indigenous women on juries, and because of court processes, our women don't get justice. We get harsher sentences.
Often, when indigenous women end up in jail, one of our primary concerns is that some of the women who are sent there on essentially trivial charges can then be subject to indeterminate sentences because of things that then happen while they're in jail. Somebody who is jailed originally for stealing food for her family ends up doing a life sentence because judges can given them indeterminate sentences because of some petty thing that happened while they were in jail, such as throwing their papers at the parole committee, which is considered assault. We've seen it again and again, where they've gone in for petty theft and end up with a life sentence.