News  Violence exposed

Indigenous women’s activist Rachel-Alouki Labbé sheds light on domestic violence in aboriginal communities

Since 1980, it is estimated that as many as 3,000 indigenous women have been murdered or gone missing in Canada. According to the grassroots advocacy group, Missing Justice, these cases remain largely unsolved – of the 520 official cases on record, more than 300 are still open. Additionally, in Canada, indigenous women are more likely to be victims of domestic violence than any other group of people. This Sunday will mark the first time that the Memorial March for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women – an event that began in Vancouver in 1991 and now takes place in cities across the country – will take place in Montreal. A panel discussion on the injustices faced by indigenous Canadian women will also be held on Thursday, February 11. Rachel-Alouki Labbé, an Abenaki filmmaker and activist, sat down with The Daily to discuss the complex issues surrounding violence against women in indigenous communities.

The McGill Daily: Why do cases of violence against indigenous women go unsolved?
Rachel-Alouki Labbé: Because the Gendarmerie royale du Canada [GRC or RCMP] just don’t care. They’re so used to seeing us in a violent way, so they think we don’t care, and they don’t care. They don’t follow up. They don’t take it as if it were important, like it were someone from their community.

I have friends in Winnipeg that were involved in a domestic problem – a couple. She told the police, and they didn’t think it was true. They thought she was a liar. She almost died. There are a lot of cases like that, and unfortunately [the authorities] don’t pay attention.

MD: Could you talk about what is being done to empower women in indigenous communities?
RAL: We have maisons d’hébergement [safe houses] outside the communities – close to 11 or 12 here in Quebec. Women know now that they can go out of the community to be safe, with their children. If they stay in the community, the problem is nobody will talk, and also often it’s the uncle or the husband [who is committing the violence]. Now they are going out of the community, and the women who take care of them are indigenous too.

But also, there are a lot of circles of women that meet now once a week so they can talk. We show films now, and when they see that, they realize that [what is depicted] is the same story [they experienced], so they start to talk.

MD: Could you talk about your work in film, and how you came to see film as a tool for problem solving and change?
RAL: We began with N’a qu’un oeil, a film that aims to educate about domestic violence. It [went] around to the communities, and to conferences. It works. It’s not very fast, and we still have violence. But you have women who didn’t know [something] was violence, and [after seeing the film] they know.

MD: You’ve made a film about the femicide issue in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. What connections did you see between missing and murdered indigenous women in Mexico and in Canada?
RAL: We are sisters. When I talk to people here, they don’t know what’s going on there. They only know that we can go to Mexico and lay on the beach and have a good time. When you start to talk about femicide, the gangs, the drug cartels, what happens to these women, [people] don’t know.

I decided to go there to show [the situation], that these women are almost all aboriginal women from the south – poor women.

The problem [in Mexico] is the same as here – they just don’t care, they don’t want to resolve the problems because [they say], “These are just aboriginal women. Why should we spend money to find out who killed these women?” It began to be very easy to kill women there.

MD: What do you think is needed from the Canadian government in order to stop violence against indigenous women?
RAL: First, they have to listen. They have to be involved in the problem. They don’t listen and they don’t look and they don’t want to know because it’s not good for Canada. In Canada everywhere you go, people think they are taking good care of aboriginal people, and this is not true at all. If we could show everyone around the world about [violence against indigenous women], Canada wouldn’t be the best place in the world to live. I think [the government] wants to keep their rank. They have to listen to us. If we decide to make a film, they have to show it. Sometimes they don’t, because it’s not good for the image. So I think things have to change, of course, but it’s not only aboriginal women who have to change it, it’s [everyone] together.

MD: Have you seen changes to the condition of indigenous women in recent years? In what ways?
RAL: I see improvements. When I was younger, it was worse, because women weren’t talking about [violence]. Now, we have social workers, and [many of them] are aboriginal. Since 20 years ago, we have made a lot of [progress]. But the violence is so extreme. Sometimes you go to a community and it’s more than 87 per cent [who have experienced] violence against women and children, and sexual abuse. We have a lot of work to do. We are still dying of it. We all have someone we know who went to the hospital [because of violence]. This is not normal.

If we could all come back to our traditional thinking, sometimes…Of course we are in 2010, but just think about our soul, how we were before. Because we are forgetting that we are aboriginal, and we are part of the earth. I wish we could think about what and who we were, all the peace we had. [Violence] is not the way of thinking of the aboriginal people.

— compiled by Amelia Schonbek