Fay Blaney: Organizer, advocate, warrior woman

Fay Blaney speaking at Fleshmapping, an event organized by Vancouver Rape Relief & Women's Shelter.
Fay Blaney speaking at Fleshmapping, an event organized by Vancouver Rape Relief & Women’s Shelter.

Fay Blaney is a community organizer, advocate for Indigenous women and employee at the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre (DEWC). She runs the Warriors Organizing Women group at the DEWC, a social justice project aimed at empowering marginalized women to create social change in their lives and communities. The interview took place in the context of a Warriors Organizing Women group meeting. Other women offered insights that are not included in the body of the interview. Jess Martin extends her gratitude toward these women for informing the content and direction of the piece.

Jess: So the broad purpose of the interview series is to interview women who are tenured in the women’s movement. We don’t always get that perspective, and younger women — my generation especially — need to hear from those with more experience.

My first question is, when did you get involved with the women’s movement or with community organizing and what was happening in your community at that time?

Fay: The first action that I got involved with was in 1982 when the Concerned Aboriginal Women’s group occupied the regional headquarters of Indian Affairs. There were five children that died in a house fire in the community of Lillooet and the women from that community organized that night. The house went down, and they didn’t go to sleep. They gathered women from the community and travelled down to Mount Currie and gathered more.

I got a call early in the morning that this was happening, and I went straight down there. By the time we arrived, there were well over 100 women occupying Indian Affairs, demanding accountability from the regional director general for the shoddy construction that lead to the death of those children.

At that time I was working for the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, and we occupied for eight days straight. There was no place to shower, and it was in the heat of summer. We did have some allies that we were so pleased about. Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter was there. We barred the door and they were on the other side. They were trying to offer some protection to us in case the police arrested us.

They organized a vigil on Georgia and Granville and we could see all these candles. During those eight days the women held talking circles. Back then (I was quite young — in my early 20s) I was listening to the Elders and they were talking about how horrible it was for them in residential schools. I had gone through that experience myself, but I didn’t really have a critical analysis of what happened to me. The eight days of listening to the Elders was quite an awakening. From then forward I’ve always been involved in the women’s movement — since 1982.

In 1995, native women were being oppressed within our organizations — they were unionizing and many were being fired as a result. They went through a long grievance process and two of them were reinstated. We created an informal group at that time, which later became known as the Aboriginal Women’s Action Network.

There were high profile women that were being fired so we had a consciousness-raising. It was very much like this group, where we are now – a group of non-funded women doing advocacy work. We would meet twice weekly and bring in snacks, and we would sit and have talking circles. Within that setting we were responding to issues that were coming up for the women (like racial discrimination and child apprehension).

So we organized protests and got involved in the community.

Jess: Do you mind telling me about a protest that you all organized – what that would have looked like?

Fay: We all participated in organizing [and things like] coming to a consensus around what press releases would look like. We got stats on child apprehension rates and those sorts of things. So, we created a folder. We reached out to anti-violence groups and they supported us. Women Against Violence Against Women (WAVAW) played a big role in helping us with organizing.

It was the mid ‘90s so we were all on the phone as there wasn’t much internet at that time. We called people and we got a pretty good lineup of speakers. We organized a rally at Grandview park with well over 200 people – it was packed! People were coming forward and very anxious to speak to the issues.

We also participated in the two Women’s Marches Against Poverty and Violence. We did one in 1996, and we participated in the organizing committee there. The whole group of us would go to these meetings, so we really cut our teeth there around organizing strategies. This included the labour movement – a lot of the Indian groups were there: women’s groups, anti-poverty groups, all the social justice groups would participate in the organizing.

We organized “A Journey for Justice” in 2000 for the World Women’s March Against Poverty and Violence. We rafted down the Fraser river (Donna was on that journey), starting in Prince George and landing here in Musqueam territory on September the 25th. We were trying to earmark that as the Aboriginal Women’s Day of Action.

At that time we were also very alarmed at the prospect of having native women who were experiencing violence sitting in a sentencing circle with men who may be offenders, where there would be no justice. It would just be a second re-victimization for those women. So, we did that action in 2000.

Jess: That gives me a good timeline and a picture of some of the things you’ve accomplished in community organizing. In terms of your current work, I’m wondering if you’re encouraged by the prospect of a national inquiry under the new federal government?

Fay: Well, the DEWC has been calling for it, which is where I’m employed now. My job here is to facilitate this group, the Warriors Organizing Women Project. In the majority of the two years that I’ve been here, the women in this circle have raised the issue of the murdered and missing women as the number one priority.

Regarding the inquiry, I’m really concerned about the direction that it’s currently taking because there is such an intense focus on the families. I don’t mean to disrespect families, of course. I think that they’re a part of the picture. There are a lot of family members that are searching for answers for what happened. The walk that was just done by Brenda Osborne for her daughter, Claudette, is an example of that.

However, the perspective that’s lost in all of this is the fact that it is an issue of violence against women. When we look at families and when we look at colonization, that’s just a portion of the picture and the gendered violence that women face is completely lost. So, I’m really concerned that the inquiry may be family-driven.

I think one of the dynamics for Indigenous women in the Downtown Eastside is that we’re often pushed out of our own communities. If you’ve seen Finding Dawn, I’m in there. I escaped. I escaped when I was 13, and my mother escaped as well. I think Indigenous women are very much victimized by violence in our own communities and that’s an issue that Indigenous communities have been under-resourced to address.

There’s no money to address the violence within our community or anything else related to the colonial legacy. There’s no attention being paid to any kind of healing work relating to the violence. The violence has its roots in the residential school system and in the Indian Affairs Act that constructed a patriarchal structure and unseated women, relegating us to second class citizenship in our own communities.

The other problem is that I think the community itself — our Indigenous community — is reluctant to address violence. Back in 1989 when the Ontario Native Women’s Association released a report on violence, the men’s groups said that this should not be up for public consumption because it would reinforce the racist imagination of dominant society. It would confirm that we truly are “savages.”

When the previous government, Minister Valcourt, said that a large number of the deaths of Indigenous women could be attributed to the Indigenous men, there wasn’t any appetite to address that issue because we haven’t addressed it internally.

I’m not condemning our own communities for that. It is an impact of colonization but I’m alarmed that the inquiry focus is on the family, and, secondly – and most importantly – that it seems to be occurring under male leadership. They’ve completely overlooked the women in the Downtown Eastside. This is, first of all, the ground zero for the Pickton massacre. The conditions in the Downtown Eastside have not changed. In fact, I think they’ve gotten worse since the time of the Pickton massacre. Women do continue to organize and speak out for themselves but with very little resources to do so.

Jess: Why do you think that there has been such a focus on the families?

I think it’s a coming together of our patriarchal leadership and our government. The Native Women’s Association of Canada does a very good job of raising this issue, particularly with their Sisters in Spirit campaign which was quashed by the Harper government – effectively silencing native women’s voices. They heard us out West here. We organized the Annual Women’s Memorial March here in the Downtown Eastside, which I’ve been involved with almost from the beginning.

As I said, male leadership doesn’t understand our issues and, in fact, they don’t respond very well to them in our communities. When there is male violence there is a tendency to support men in those instances.

Jess: The other thing is that the media capitalizes on people’s pain without listening to the solutions that experiential people are offering. The media sensationalizes things without addressing the idea of healing.

I’m interested in knowing where you felt like the women’s movement supported you on this issue and where you felt like it failed.

Fay: I think it’s been a growing process for the women’s movement. Attitudinal shifts take a long time. When I was involved with the National Action Committee on the Status of Women for our annual general meetings, for example, I always had white women asking me, “Why do the native women not want to participate in what we’re doing?”

There was never an attempt to look at their own racism in the ways that they organized themselves. It’s very painful to be in a racist environment, particularly as a survivor of violence.

The women’s movement often drink, for example, at their events, without recognizing that alcohol has been a tool of colonization. I hate having the women that I’m working with getting tipsy on alcohol because it reminds me of all the violence that I’ve been through.

I think that the women’s movement needs to look at itself in terms of whether its spaces are accessible. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done to include women with disabilities and two-spirited women. For native women, it’s still a site of racism where you have to shut your emotions down for a while, go into that environment, and work.

I guess the other part of it is dealing with our spirituality. Culture has been at the root of our survival as First Nations women, as Aboriginal women. The women’s movement and other social justice groups, don’t always like our prayers.

We’re very committed to our connection with the land around us, to the animals, and to the spirit world. If we’re going to feel at home in any setting, we need to be able to start with a prayer. We can’t go into the non-native women’s circles and expect to shed our brown. We come in with all of who we are.

Jess: How do you feel like young women could organize in a way that supports that without coopting it?

Fay: I think there’s a huge discussion that needs to happen around our spirituality. I think it is being coopted now. There are a lot of non-native people that want to become part of our communities.They’re very disrespectful in the ways that they do it. The leadership needs to be from us in any kind of cultural ceremony that we’re participating in.

I think we need to be involved at the ground floor of organizing — not just as an after-thought: “Oh my God, look around here. We don’t have any native women! We better reach out and bring some native women in!” Suddenly we’re being brought into this environment where we’re an after-thought and the majority of the organizing has already been done.

Then we’re in a position of resistance. We approach it like “You’ve done this and we want to knock it down because that’s part of colonization.”

Jess: That’s actually a good segue into asking what you’re currently doing where you’d like more support from the feminist movement.

Fay: I’m glad you asked that question because we seriously need help. We’re planning to hold a gathering for Indigenous women across the country. We were hoping for International Women’s Day for this year – 2016. The purpose of it is to talk about inquiry and to talk about the missing and murdered women.

There are so many women that are left out of the discussion. There are so many of our kids that are being apprehended out of our communities and they’re aging out of foster care and being put out into the streets. Those women are here in the Downtown Eastside.

That’s the other scenario. There is such a large number of our young people coming out of the child welfare system. It’s genocide, really, being removed from our communities.

Fay Blaney will be speaking at Vancouver Rape Relief & Women’s Shelter’s annual Montreal Massacre Memorial event about male violence against Aboriginal women on December 5th.

Jess Martin

Jess Martin is a public relations professional, an aspiring writer, and an assistant editor at Feminist Current. She prefers to write about feminist topics, disability, or environmental issues, but could be persuaded to broaden her horizons in exchange for payment and/or food. In her spare time Jess can be found knitting, gardening, or lying in the fetal position, mulling over political theory that no one in their right mind cares about.