Violence Against Aboriginal Women

On March 25, 2011, the Canadian House of Commons all-party Standing Committee on the Status of Women tabled Interim Report: Call Into the Night: An Overview of Violence Against Aboriginal Women (the final report should be ready by the fall of 2011).  Hedy Fry (Liberal, B.C.) is the chair of this committee, and Irene Mathyssen (NDP, Ontario) and Tilly O’Neill-Gordon (Conservative, New Brunswick) are the vice-chairs.  The committee traversed the country between April 2010 and February 2011, meeting with reserve, rural and urban stakeholders.  More than 150 witnesses provided testimony.  In her press release regarding the interim report, Fry said the problem was getting worse.

A Statistics Canada report, released May 17, 2011, provides chilling validation of the committee’s findings.  In Violent Victimization of Aboriginal Women in the Canadian Provinces, 2009, author Shannon Brennan noted that nearly 67,000 aboriginal women reported they had experienced violence in the previous 12 months.  This represents 47% of aboriginal women, 15 years and older, in the provinces.  (The territories (Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut) were not included in this study.)  Aboriginal women were nearly three times as likely to self-report these incidents, as compared to non-aboriginal women.  Males acting alone were primarily responsible for the altercations.

I was saddened to learn the situation remained as bad as this.  More than 30 years ago, I worked in a native organization in which most of the aboriginal women on staff were getting beaten up on a regular basis.  I strongly advised one of my co-workers to leave her abusive male partner, which she eventually did.  However she had to live with a permanent reminder of the failed relationship:  a skeletal disfigurement.

Later I worked in another aboriginal organization in another part of the country.  Aboriginal male partners were victimizing both of my native female co-workers.  The husband of one of them would do things like lock her out of the house in sub-zero weather, and refuse to let her back in for more than an hour–even though she was only wearing her undergarments.  She was under so much strain from the abuse that she would sometimes break down crying at her desk.  I pleaded with her to leave him, but she stayed with him for about another five years.  Fortunately, the other younger co-worker ended her relationship much sooner.

I also learned first hand about the violent rages of some aboriginal men when I was in a relationship with one more than 25 years ago.  I broke off contact with him when he tried to cut off my hand with a knife.  Despite my refusal to have anything more to do with him, he found ways to continue to make my life miserable, e.g., stalking me and manipulating my co-workers.  I did not truly feel safe until I left the area entirely about two years later.  Yes, I know that non-aboriginal men can also be violent, but in my case the only relationship I had that turned violent was with an aboriginal male.  However, I want to stress that I know many aboriginal men are not and have never been violent.

Why does the violence continue to get worse?  I would argue that the constant blaming of forces such as colonization and the residential schools has not helped move the dialogue forward.  Yet many witnesses who presented evidence to the Status of Women committee included these two factors among the main causes.

Don’t get me wrong.  I know that colonization and the residential schools have contributed substantially to the dysfunction, but I maintain it is completely unrealistic for some people to insist that all aboriginal misfortune only started when non-aboriginals arrived on this continent.  Numerous missionary and explorer reports indicate that some aboriginal tribes treated their women well, but others did not.  Surely at least some of the negative reports contain a modicum of truth.

There is a Wikipedia article entitled “Gender roles in First Nations and Native American tribes.”  I cannot vouch for the accuracy of all of this article, but a lot of it rings true based on what I’ve read elsewhere or experienced.  If you look at this article, you will see that there were many variations in practice regarding the role of women.  I have no problem with some aboriginals pointing out that gender equality existed among their ancestors, and I think it is fabulous that they have affirmed and retained this practice.  But it is not accurate to give the impression that all aboriginals historically treated their women well.

In 2007, Australian writer Louis Nowra’s Bad Dreaming was published.  I have not read the book, but I have read a March 7, 2007 article he wrote for The Australian (“Culture of denial”), that covers some of the same material as his book.  Nowra contends that some of the violence does result from traditional practices that are best forgotten.  Australian anthropologist and linguist Peter Sutton came to the same conclusion in his book The Politics of Suffering (2009).  Some researchers have noted there are similarities between the Australian and Canadian experiences, and I believe this to be the case as well.

Despite my reservations about some aspects of the Status of Women interim report, I do think it contains some important findings that will help move the dialogue in the right direction.  These include:

  • A coordinated, holistic approach is required that will help aboriginal men break the abusive cycle
  • Aboriginal men need support to overcome addictions, mental health and other issues that contribute to their violent behaviour.  Peer support groups initiated and run by aboriginal men have proven to be effective in this regard

A holistic approach involves looking at all sides of the story, including factors that may have contributed to aboriginal dysfunction pre-contact.  It also involves getting to the root causes of why some aboriginal men become violent.  I believe peer support groups can be an excellent way to help men break the abusive cycle, as long as the leaders of these groups do not advocate hatred or violence towards non-aboriginals, and bad medicine is not practised.