I was disappointed to hear Stephen Harper dismiss once again the need for a national inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women, stating that this issue is not a sociological phenomenon, but a crime. As the Executive Director of Ganohkwasra Family Assault Support Services, located on the Six Nations of the Grand River Territory, I experience oppressive practices by the government of Canada daily.
I work to educate funders on why we need and deserve respect and fairness. Even the grants for initiatives that target family violence have built-in discrimination practices. For example, one common requirement is that organizations must be incorporated. On-reserve shelters are not incorporated because it means giving up our rights as sovereign nations; so the on-reserve shelters cannot even apply to these grants. If we become incorporated we would be saying yes, we are Canadian citizens and, as First Nations Peoples, we are not. Our Board of Directors and I do not agree to incorporate Ganohkwasra FASS because it would actually work against the rights of our people. Understanding the intent of the term ‘First Nations’ and how aboriginal people were literally the first nations here on this land, would give insight to our situation. Now that Canada is waving the sovereignty flag, claiming its own sovereignty in the Arctic, it’s a good time for Canadians to reflect on the truth regarding First Nations’ sovereignty.
We consistently deal with institutional racism as it is enacted in the procedures and outcomes of access to funding sources for family assault organizations. We see it in our work – as do other aboriginal service delivery organizations across the country. I don’t see anything being done. I expressed my disappointment and frustration in the document, “Refusal to Treat Indigenous Women with Respect and Dignity.” I put a voice to the very real oppression and racism impacting Indigenous Women and families today. Unfortunately, I do know there are people who have racist thoughts about our women and our people. I put the ownership of these voices, of this attitude and perspective, directly on the Canadian government because I see the federal government fostering this racism in its many actions towards aboriginal people.
What message did Stephen Harper send to Canada upon refusing a National Inquiry? The message I received is: Indigenous Women are not important! So what if over 1,000 Aboriginal Women have gone missing or have been murdered?
A proper inquiry that involves aboriginal people where the issues are – in our communities, where the women come from – would point to the true issues that are really happening in First Nations territories. Hearing Harper’s response to me is just another way Canada is maneuvering its way out of its responsibility for what is going on in the communities. For Harper to say that it is up to the Chiefs to deal with these issues is irresponsible because it is Ottawa that decides what and how much will be funded. The Band Councils in First Nations territories are doing the best they can with the limited resources they are given. They have absolutely no say in what happens with those purse strings. It’s the federal government that has all the say. When Harper questions what the Chiefs are doing for their people, it’s a real slap in the face to our communities. The money that comes to the Band Councils comes with instructions from the federal government; we have limited or no authority over how much we receive for the betterment our communities.
Canada does not want to look into the underlying issues regarding the missing and murdered Indigenous women and discover the truth of this actual sociological phenomenon. From an Aboriginal Shelter perspective and because of our own experiences, we know what the issues are. Many of our shelters are not given enough money to effectively operate. Some of our on-reserve shelters in Ontario are relying on food banks to feed their residents. Our shelters are poor and under-resourced. Often our women and young people have no other route than to leave their communities and go into the cities, where they are even more vulnerable. Frequently it is in the cities where our women and young people die.
As shelters, we are expected to keep our people safe. We could do a better job if we were given the proper resources. We are dealing with layers upon layers of generational and intergenerational trauma, drugs and alcohol addictions, crime, violence, child welfare and mental health issues. Given the wide variety of issues that our people are bringing to our shelters, our staff need to be skilled. We need rightful financial resources to justly and properly compensate and retain skilled workers.
The solution to us is very simple and very clear: equitable resources would be a great start. Mainstream shelters receive more funding than on-reserve shelters. Although we have come to think of this as normal, this is a very sad fact. But let’s call it what it is: racism. If we had the proper resources, I know we could make more of a difference because people do go to the shelters and try to seek support and help. I believe shelters are gems in the communities and with the appropriate support we can be an even better healing force in every community.
Some government announcements will say so much funding is given to shelters, but look at the amounts that actually trickle down to the front lines. For example, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) have to take a certain amount of the funding to pay their staff; another portion is taken to run the family violence prevention programs and ensure accountability. After that the remainder is divided among all shelters as well as urban Aboriginal Centres that work in family violence.
This does not leave nearly enough money to do anything that would make a long-term impact on this issue. What actually trickles down to the Aboriginal shelters is minimal. What they are doing now is funding short-term family violence prevention programs. (ie. conferences, workshops). What we need is an increase to our core funding to hire counsellors. We need more than nine-month project money to truly make a difference. I can’t emphasize this enough!
I don’t put the responsibility for the murdered and missing Aboriginal women in Canada on the First Nations leaders, nor do I blame Indigenous women for being in their socio-economic situations or state of vulnerability. As First Nations organizations, we are doing our best to clean up the mess the federal government has made and we are being told to do it with limited resources.
There is something that we can all do on any level no matter who we are. There is a part for all of us to make a better, safer Canada, especially for Indigenous women. There is room here for a solution from all of us. That’s the kind of thinking that I would have liked to hear from the Prime Minister of Canada. Canadians need to take the attitude “What if that were my mother, my sister, my daughter, my niece, my grandmother, my auntie, my friend?”
We can stop this, but it needs to be a united effort. We need to accept there is a role for each of us to make this a safer world for Indigenous women everywhere.
Sandra Montour is Executive Director of the Ganohkwasra Family Assault Centre,
Ohsweken, Ontario. Ganohkwasra is one of four pilot communities in the Aboriginal Sexual Violence Community Response Initiative, engaging survivors of sexual violence, police, aboriginal and non-aboriginal service providers, governments and youth to cooperatively address sexual violence and service delivery issues in each community.