Still fighting for our seat at the table: Keep the national inquiry focus on Indigenous women and girls

national inquiry

Our lives as Indigenous women and girls are severely impacted by male violence, poverty, and other expressions of patriarchy, capitalism, and racism. We should, therefore, be allowed to prioritize issues that directly impact us. But some Indigenous and non-Indigenous individuals believe that we should now, at the eleventh hour, rethink and redo decades of focused political strategy and no longer support a national inquiry into disappeared and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Rather, they say we should expand the national inquiry to include disappeared and murdered Indigenous men and boys.

As Indigenous women and girls, our lives are shaped by historical and contemporary processes of colonization that impact us in particular ways. One would think that women in Canada in 2016 would have the ability to choose if we want to engage in a relationship or not and if so, with whom; whether or not we want to have children; or where we want to live, among other things. Unfortunately, for Indigenous women in Canada today, our personal boundaries are constantly being violated.

Alarmingly high incidences of rape and sexual assault show us that Indigenous women and girls do not actually have the ability to always determine who we engage with sexually. The life-saving work of transition houses show us that battering men do not always allow women to freely leave abusive relationships. In fact, women are sometimes murdered by men for deciding they want to leave a relationship. Abortion services are not readily accessible to all women in Canada, limiting our ability to control our own reproduction, and male violence or the threat or consequences of male violence can push us out of our communities thereby playing a role in determining where we live.

The rates of violence perpetrated against Indigenous men (likely by other men) show us that men’s lives are impacted by violence too, but their lives are not shaped by male violence in the same ways our lives as Indigenous women and girls are. There is a difference in the root causes, types, and consequences of male violence that Indigenous women and girls face. For example, the violence faced by Indigenous women being battered by their husbands or boyfriends (Indigenous and non-Indigenous) is not experienced by men in terms of rates of occurrence, the types and severity of the violence (rape, murder, sexist verbal assaults), threats of violence and the fear that accompanies that, as well as the blame placed on Indigenous women for staying in these relationships and the disbelief and inaction they experience when the abuse is disclosed. Patriarchy ensures that men do not experience these types of violence or consequences of this violence at the hands of their wives and girlfriends.

As a result of these differences, taking already-limited time and resources away from the national inquiry into violence against Indigenous women and girls and allocating these already-limited time and resources to also examining violence against Indigenous men and boys will once again marginalize Indigenous women and girls who just want to be heard in our own inquiry.

Focusing on Indigenous women and girls does not imply that Indigenous men and boys do not matter — of course they do matter and of course they should not experience violence. But to expect us to broaden our focus at the last minute is not a reasonable request and leads us to ask the question: Where do we draw the line? What about violence against non-Indigenous women and girls? Violence against non-Indigenous men? Should this inquiry become a national inquiry into violence against all people?

As advocates, activists, and researchers, we are constantly choosing where we position ourselves, where we fight from, and what issues we focus on, and that’s ok.

Indigenous women and girls are allowed to set boundaries. We are allowed to set boundaries in our personal lives and we are allowed to set boundaries in our political lives. We are allowed to campaign for and limit the scope of our inquiry to male violence against Indigenous women and girls. In fact, this pressure to now — after so much work has already been done — include men and boys in the inquiry is an example of exactly what we’re up against as Indigenous feminists: male entitlement from both Indigenous and non-Indigenous men.

When Indigenous women say “no,” that “no” should be respected, whether it occurs in the home, public, or political spheres. Given our history of struggle against both the government and male-dominated Indigenous organizations to have Indigenous women’s issues heard and to get “a seat at the table” (see the history of Indigenous women’s challenges to sex discrimination in the Indian Act as a good example) it is shocking, yet not surprising, that some are again calling for Indigenous women and girls to step aside in order to accommodate Indigenous men.

What we need are allies — we need more Indigenous and non-Indigenous women and men to get behind us on this issue, support us. There is lots of work to be done and the national inquiry will be an uphill struggle to make sure the complexity of the issue is thoroughly examined.

Despite the government’s launch of the inquiry, which was hard-won and appreciated, our government is not a feminist one. It is one thing to claim the title of “feminist” and it’s another thing to engage in feminist action and policy-making. A government that does not recognize the importance of protecting the water, land, sky, and our other non-human relations is not feminist. A government that refuses to eliminate all sex discrimination in the Indian Act is not feminist. And a government that refuses to ensure First Nations children on reserve have access to the same services as other children is not feminist.

Indigenous women and girls have long been silenced in every arena, and this should not be a situation where we are struggling to be heard, again.

The fact that the Canadian Association for Equality (CAFE) — a group who claims they are not a men’s rights group but whose actions and political positions demonstrate otherwise — supports expanding the inquiry to include Indigenous men and boys speaks volumes. CAFE is a group that believes women and girls do not suffer oppression under patriarchy at all, and therefore don’t need special rights and attention. This is not a group that cares at all about women or girls and their support and involvement should cause those advocating to expand the inquiry pause to reconsider their position.

I agree that a critical examination of masculinity is in order as it relates to violence against Indigenous men and boys, but I believe this should be examined separately. The realities of and particular solutions to this violence will differ from an inquiry into male violence against Indigenous women and girls and should be given attention — just not at our expense.

Wherever this pressure is coming from to include Indigenous men and boys in this national inquiry into murdered and disappeared Indigenous women and girls, we, as Indigenous women, do not have to move over, step aside, or give up our seat (again) in order to include men at this table.

Cherry Smiley is a feminist activist, artist, and researcher from the Thompson and Navajo nations. She is a co-founder of Indigenous Women Against the Sex Industry and was the recipient of a 2013 Governor General’s Award in Commemoration of the Person’s Case and the 2014 winner of The Nora and Ted Sterling Prize in Support of Controversy. She is currently a PhD student at Concordia University where her research works to end sexualized male violence against Indigenous women and girls. Follow her @_cherrysmiley_.

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  • Karla Gjini

    “Focusing on Indigenous women and girls does not imply that Indigenous men and boys do not matter — of course they do matter and of course they should not experience violence. But to expect us to broaden our focus at the last minute is not a reasonable request and leads us to ask the question: Where do we draw the line? What about violence against non-Indigenous women and girls? Violence against non-Indigenous men? Should this inquiry become a national inquiry into violence against all people?”

    Cherry, you’ve said this so perfectly. Thank you for this article!

  • anne cameron

    I am the grandmother of five First Nations granddaughters. It is my duty and responsibility to speak for them until they are able and prepared to speak for themselves. I learned SO MUCH about racism when my treasures were small, just learning to walk and to move into the world…a woman, a neighbour, someone I had thought was a friend watched me playing with my darlings on the swings in the playground and she said “Oh, they’re so cute when they’re that age…”. As if they would not be cute, or pretty, or beautiful or miraculous when they were adult… shortly after starting kindergarten my granddaughter asked me what a “chug” was…she wasn’t even five years old and already.. and THAT is a form of violence!
    Oh, for sure I am radical. And you know what… I encourage them to be radical, too. Because some people… most people… actively work overtime to avoid confronting the racism which exists in Canadian society. We really should be ashamed of ourselves.