Last Thursday the Aboriginal Law Association of McGill hosted the panel discussion, Stolen Sisters, addressing issues of violence and discrimination that Aboriginal women continue to face within Canadian society.
The discussion was a part of the event: “13 Days to Honour Aboriginal Women,” which aims to celebrate Aboriginal women, as well as raise awareness about missing and murdered Aboriginal women.
Official statistics estimate that since the 1980s, approximately 520 Aboriginal women have been murdered or gone missing.
Walk4Justice, a women’s grass roots activist organization founded by Gladys Radek and Bernie Williams Poitras, estimate that the actual number is almost 4,000.
Both Radek and Poitras spoke candidly at the panel discussion about the prejudice that Aboriginal women face.
“You are a fucking squaw. What have you done for our community? What have you contributed to Canada?” said Poitras, with reference to personal experiences.
“This is how Indian women are treated,” she stated.
Ridek and Poitras also referenced strong societal prejudice against Aboriginal women as extremely damaging, to both individuals and communities.
“When one woman is violated it affects a whole community, when one woman goes missing it affects a whole community,” said Radek.
“These are racist attacks against our women. Society has told [the children of these women] that your mother was a whore, your mother was nothing but a drug addict, your mother was society’s throw-away,” added Poitras. “We [have] to tell their children that this [is] not so. Your mother loved you.”
Speaking about “the Highway of Tears,” a stretch of highway in northern British Columbia closely linked to many missing women’s cases, Poitras explained that many women were victimized when trying to escape violent situations.
“If they are leaving a violent situation in those isolated communities the only way they can come out is highway 16 and, more often than not, they will be caught on that highway,” said Poitras.
“They don’t have to be hitchhiking, they don’t have to be sex trade workers – they could be walking along that highway and they just disappear because there, at that moment, is a moment of opportunity for a predator,” she continued.
Panellist Craig Benjamin, a national campaigner for the human rights of Indigenous peoples for Amnesty International, explained that part of the problem is the lack of national policies regarding the status of Aboriginal victims of crime, for police to use.
“In 2001 [Amnesty International] could not find a single police force that had implemented a single policy or procedure in recognition of this pattern of violence,” said Benjamin, who interpreted the lack of real statistics as an affirmation that police forces have not been active on this issue.
“There is no good reason that the federal government has not directed the RCMP to establish a national standard that says this is why you must record the Aboriginal identity of violent crime. There is simply no good reason why this is not happening except that it is not a priority,” he added.
In his concluding remarks, Benjamin spoke to Canada’s failure to protect Aboriginal women.
“The failure to provide services and support, to show that Aboriginal women are not endangered is the first point; these are basic human rights violations and should be unacceptable to anybody,” he said. “We are talking about the society we all live and participate in, we all have the responsibility for bringing about this change.”