Canada responds: Nation answers Amnesty International charges of human rights violations; women’s groups are cautiously optimistic

Published in Indian Country Today in 2004. For more on topics like this, see my book, American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle....

Ottawa, Ontario — On November 23, Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada, met with two Canadian ministers — Andrew Scott, of the Ministry Northern and Indian Affairs, and Liza Frulla, of Status of Women Canada — to discuss the organization’s recent report, “Stolen Sisters,” which describes widespread violence and discrimination against indigenous women in Canada. 
“From both ministers, we heard clear recognition that this is a serious and pressing human rights concern that needs to be a priority for the Canadian government,” said Neve.

            Kathryn Fournier, acting director of the Social Services Justice Directorate at the Ministry of Indian and Northern Affairs, confirmed that issue has moved to the fore in her department. “Certainly the tragedy of violence against aboriginal women in Canada has not been fully understood or addressed,” she said.

            Of particular concern to Amnesty International were the approximately 500 indigenous women who have been murdered or gone missing over the past few decades, primarily in urban areas, without adequate police response. The underlying causes of the women’s vulnerability were detailed in the report, including laws that discriminate against them in terms of both race and gender — stripping them of Indian status, therefore of treaty and other rights, for example, as well as excluding them from Canada’s matrimonial-law protections.

            Earlier in November, Ambassador Gilbert Laurin, Deputy Permanent Representative of Canada to the United Nations, cited the Amnesty International document when he issued a national mea culpa in a session of the Social, Humanitarian, and Cultural Committee of the General Assembly. In a speech on human rights transgressions in countries around the world, he closed with a reference to Canada, which in 2004 had two visits from the UN Special Rapporteur for the human rights of indigenous people. Laurin then said: “We expect that [“Stolen Sisters”] will inform our future efforts in this area. Canada recognizes its responsibility to fully promote and protect the human rights of its citizens.”

            “Making sure that women’s voices are heard has been a very difficult process,” said Beverley Jacobs, a lawyer who is president of Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC). “Essentially, we had to go to highly regarded outside bodies — the United Nations and Amnesty International — to embarrass Canada into taking notice.”

            Neve called the ambassador’s speech significant: “Canada stood up in an international forum and acknowledged the validity of the findings. They haven’t contested them. They haven’t defended their position. The same was true in the meeting with Ministers Scott and Frulla; I think we were also all struck that for Minister Scott, this is an issue that has touched him personally.”
“Andy Scott gets it. He sees that it’s a travesty,” said attorney Celeste McKay, a strategic-policy analyst for NWAC.

Wait and See
For her part, Chief Maureen Chapman, leader of Skawahlook First Nation in British Columbia and head of the Assembly of First Nations Women’s Council, was guardedly optimistic. “This issue has become high profile, and members of the current government hope to be more helpful,” she said. “Our sense is that they’d like to do what they say they’re going to do.”

           Both Chapman and McKay pointed to the length of time — more than a century — that the discriminatory legislation has been in place. “Some of the issues, such as matrimonial property rights, have been studied to death without any action being taken,” added McKay. “Skepticism is healthy at this point.” Indeed, a government commission that reported on violence against indigenous people in 2001 has charged that none of its recommendations have been implemented.

           Going forward, Amnesty International is looking for more than handwringing, according to Neve. “Our November meeting with the two ministers was the first one, and it was very constructive,” he said. “We didn’t expect the announcement of a detailed plan, but now we want to see concrete action.”

           An important step will be drawing into the process one minister who was not at the meeting: Anne McClelland, Canada’s deputy prime minister and head of the Ministry of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, which is responsible for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. “Since reforms in justice and policing are central, we stressed to Ministers Scott and Frulla that the deputy prime minister must be involved,” said Neve. “There’s a long way to go in bridging the large gap in trust between indigenous peoples and the justice system.”

         Chapman noted that several ministries have contacted native women’s groups directly and that they, in turn, have met with NWAC to determine which ones might be particularly helpful. “We’ll work with them to take native women’s issues off the back burner,” she said.

One More Barrier
Help may be on the way. However, on the reserves, there is yet another stumbling block that may prevent indigenous women from collaborating with federal or provincial governments to devise effective programs, according to Chapman. When Canada’s Indian Act of 1876, along with other 19th century and modern laws, transformed the nation’s largely matriarchal, egalitarian tribes into patriarchies, they stripped indigenous women of a broad range of rights and isolated them economically and politically within their own communities, as well as in the nation as a whole.

            As a result, Chapman charged, women who try to organize face retribution. Many of the male-dominated band councils are easily threatened by political activity by female band members, according to testimony given to the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Affairs. “Getting involved at all — setting up or even attending a meeting, for example — may mean a woman is threatened,” Chapman said. “Perhaps she’ll be told that her social assistance funds will be cut off.” For many, something as simple as the band council refusing to pay for transportation to a meeting prevents participation.

            One answer, Chapman said, would be forming a national indigenous women’s society that would bypass tribal leadership and fund women’s organizations directly. The royal commission recommended the same tactic, which was not put into effect.

            Unfortunately, the idea is even more difficult to implement today than it would have been then. Fournier cited “the increasing tendency of the Canadian government to deal with the band councils on a government-to-government basis” — a movement toward First Nations self-government that is lauded by indigenous Canadians.

            At the same time, Fournier recognized the urgency of the situation: “We do have to work out jurisdictional and on-reserve, off-reserve issues, which may mean something to the government of Canada, but for an aboriginal woman in a violent situation, all of this may be less compelling.”

            In the end, said Chapman, achieving meaningful reform and resolving the human rights crisis is up to the women involved: “The movement will have to come from the aboriginal women’s organizations and from our communities.”

c. Stephanie Woodard; image c. Amnesty International.

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