Vol. 18  No. 1  Jan. 27, 2006  Next Issue: Feb. 10, 2006
A publication of Carleton University's School of Journalism
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Federal government backs
Sisters in Spirit

OTTAWA | Facing criticism from the United Nations and Amnesty International, the Canadian government is finally starting to deal with violence against aboriginal women by funding a campaign to stop the abuse.
Last summer protesters gathered on Parliament Hill to draw attention to Bill C-31.

The National Aboriginal Women's Association of Canada (NWAC) says the human rights of Aboriginal women are in jeopardy.

According to the few statistics collected by the federal government, aboriginal women are five times more susceptible to violence then non-aboriginal women.

The association estimates 500 aboriginal women in the last two decades have been murdered or gone missing.

"Violence against Aboriginal women is racialized and sexualized," says Sherry Lewis, executive director for NWAC .

Aboriginal women are vulnerable to racial violence because of their cultural identity and systematic violence because of their gender, Lewis says. The result is aboriginal women are doubly marginalized.

Lewis has been pushing to bring attention to the plight of Aboriginal women who have been victims of violence in Canada.

'Violence against Aboriginal women is racialized and sexualized'

Funding the movement

Last November, the federal government responded with a $5 million commitment for the Sisters in Spirit Initiative. The five-year project started by NWAC will work with a number of independent aboriginal women's groups and the federal government to improve the human rights of aboriginal women.

The campaign will include a mandate to research and create policy that will address the racialized and sexualized violence aboriginal women face, as well as educate the public about these issues.

Scarce research and inaccurate statistics are some of the problems encountered by organizations trying to address the problem, explains Cheryl Hotchkiss of Amnesty International Canada.

"There is no indigenous data whatsoever on women and this has a tremendous impact," Lewis says.

Reports published by Amnesty International and the UN show aboriginal women are particularly vulnerable to human rights abuses.

The bigger picture of inaction

The Canadian government failed to ratify the 2003 UN Report of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, the only UN human rights treaty to deal specifically with violence against women.

According to the report, it requires "...the state to accelerate its efforts to eliminate de jure and defacto discrimination against aboriginal women both in society at large and in their communities, particulary with respect to discriminatory legal provisions and equal enjoyment of their human rights..."

Lewis says the justice system is failing aboriginal women because there are insufficient repercussions for people who abuse them.

Healing through culture

Native artefact Take a tour of the Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health in Ottawa.
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In 2004 Amnesty International released the report Stolen Sisters, exposing the alarming number of aboriginal women who are murdered, go missing, or experience violence in Canada.

"Only fairly recently did the Canadian government start to realize the necessity to take action," Hotchkiss says.

But that realization only went so far.

Broken promises?

Those inside the movement fear the new Conservative government will not support measures started by the Liberals.

"There may be a change in what they see as priorities," says Lewis, "We have to educate and convince them again."

The Conservatives have indicated they will accept the targets decided at the First Ministers Conference on Aboriginal Affairs last November, but they have left the particulars of their commitment ambiguous.

"It's an embarrassing secret issue, a taboo, a stigma," says Verna McGregor, from the National Aboriginal Circle Against Family Violence, an organization that works to end family violence in aboriginal communities.

McGregor says women's issues are generally deemed as private matters in aboriginal families and communities and without a more open attitude it will be difficult to reduce family violence and establish human rights.

"We need to put the needs of these women first," Hotchkiss says."The rights of these women must to be enforced."

NWAC is eager to talk to the Conservative government about the funds promised by the outgoing Liberal government. There is no indication yet whether the Conservative government will honour the committments made at the Aboriginal Leaders Summit.

Related Links

Opens in a new window Sisters in Spirit campaign

Opens in a new window Native Women's Association of Canada

Opens in a new window Amnesty International: Stolen Sisters report

Opens in a new window Wabano Aboriginal Healing Centre

Doubly disadvantaged

There are reports and statistics available on the subject of family violence and violence against women in aboriginal communities

However differences in definitions and qualifications for First Nations, Metis and Inuit status, mean there is no commonly accepted data about the extent of violence.

By Stephanie Farrington

Violent example

The Helen Betty Osborne rape and murder case is an example of how the justice system failed to protect the human rights of Aboriginal women. Four non-aboriginal men were charged in the 19 year-old Manitoba student's death but according to a subsequent judicial inquiry, three were eventually acquitted due, in part, to police errors. Sixteen years after the crime was committed one of the men was convicted.

Source: Stolen Sisters

Fighting abuse

The Public Health Agency of Canada provides written and electronic resources to people suffering through family violence as well as definitions of abuse and some statistics.

According to Aboriginal Women on the Move, a charitable organization raising funds to fight family violence, 50 per cent of all Canadian women have experienced abuse.

According to Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health in Ottawa, that figure may be as high as 80 per cent amongst Canadian Aboriginal women.

By Stephanie Farrington

Why the violence?

According to Amnesty International's Stolen Sisters report, aboriginal women in Canada face violence for a variety of reasons:

• Aboriginal culture is not honoured by Canadian policy

• Few economic resources on reserves

• A history of discrimination

• Cultural and community disconnect

• Unemployment and unsecure workplaces

Source: Cheryl Hotchkiss, Amnesty International Canada

Reinstating women's status

Bill C-31 went into effect in 1985.

The bill changed the Indian Act so that the registration system was no longer based on discriminatory rules.

According to the Assembly of First Nations, Bill C-31 resulted in the reinstatement of Indian status for 95,000 Canadian Aboriginals.

Aboriginal women may be identified as First Nations, meaning they are of direct Indian ancestry, as Inuit — an aboriginal group from the North who are not covered under the Indian Act — or as Metis, meaning they are of mixed aboriginal and non-aboriginal descent.

There are also a large number of aboriginal Canadians who are from one of these three groups but do not have native status and who may or may not identify themselves as aboriginal.

By Stephanie Farrington

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