We are now entering an era where more women are being taken seriously when they disclose their sexual assault. I am happy for these women who come forward; the wind of the #metoo movement is on their backs and propelling them forward. I breathe easier knowing that more women feel safe, are believed and made to feel safe in their communities.
However, as we continue to live on Indigenous land and as the federal government strives towards reconciliation, it is important to realize Indigenous women’s voices are missing—figuratively and literally—in this #MeToo conversation. In 2014,the RCMP found 1,181 police-recorded incidents of Indigenous female homicides between 1980 and 2012. Of the 1,181 homicides, 164 of these women were missing and 1,017 died from homicide.
The RCMP’s 2014 findings show that Indigenous women are over-represented among Canada’s missing and murdered women. Indigenous women represent 4.3% (in 2014) of the Canadian population yet they make up 11% of missing women and roughly 16% of murdered women in Canada.
Too many Indigenous women’s bodies have been sexually assaulted and dehumanized. For example, Cindy Gladue was a 36 year-old Indigenous sex trade worker who was found dead in a motel bathtub of a john. Ms Gladue’s body was further dehumanized when a medical examiner used her preserved vagina as an exhibit to describe her wound to the jury. Ms Gladue is a human being and her body deserving of the utmost respect. She should never have been reduced to an object. Though the Alberta Court of Appeal ordered a new trial, Ms Gladue will never bear witness to her sexual assault in court. She will never say, “me too”.
The Inquiry of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (“Inquiry”) has not yet heard testimony from the most vulnerable groups of Indigenous women, including incarcerated women and homeless women. Women from these at-risk groups almost always are survivors of sexual assault or abuse. For instance, according to Correctional Service of Canada, the average Indigenous woman in prison has often left home at a young age to escape violence. The abuse she escapes from at home continues in the form of physical, sexual and emotional violence. These women do not yet have a safe space to say, “me too”.
As Legal Counsel to the Native Women’s Association, Virginia Lomax has attended Inquiry hearings across Canada. At the hearings, she saw that some Indigenous women scheduled to give testimony at the Inquiry hearings chose not to for fear of retaliation. These women chose not to testify to protect themselves and their families. It’s not safe for them to say, “me too”.
Lomax points out, that the #metoo movement is simply not accessible to the most marginalized women. “If your primary objective is to improve your living conditions. Get your children back from the child welfare system or simply survive, participating in #metoo may not be a priority”, Lomax says.
The inter-generational aspect of the trauma—family histories of residential school, the 60s scoop and other forms of displacement and abuse—makes recounting sexual assault even more painful. Lomax is often amazed at Indigenous women’s courage to come forward during the Inquiry hearings at all. “Why would you ever come forward about sexual violence to a system that actively allowed sexual violence to happen to you and your family?” The risk of re-traumatization is very real. When one’s daily life is about survival, the risks from disclosing a sexual assault is just too high.
In the words of Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Silberman Abella, “We must never forget how the world looks to those who are vulnerable.” I invite you to check NWAC’s website for periodic report cards, which assess the progress of the Inquiry at https://www.nwac.ca/national-inquiry-mmiwg/. You can also watch the hearings online at http://www.cpac.ca/en/cpac-in-focus/mmiwg/. Together, we can hold Canada accountable in creating a safe space for Indigenous women to say, “me too”.
About the Authour
Elana Finestone, Legal Counsel at the Native Women’s Association of Canada
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