The small room rang with the sounds of synchronous drumbeats as community members, including CPT delegates, gathered. Eight women of various ages beat a large drum while their voices cried out the “Warrior Song.” Young girls took their turn leading the song, their voices rising above the beat. These women are the future of Asubpeeschoseewagong Netum Anishinabek (Grassy Narrows First Nation).
The Native Women’s Association of Canada’s Sisters in Spirit (SIS) initiative set aside 4 October to honour the lives of 582 Aboriginal women who have disappeared or been murdered in Canada over the last 20 years. The degree of violence directed against indigenous women is way out of proportion to their representation in the Canadian population (3%). According to SIS, several factors contribute to this violence:
• Until 1985, an indigenous woman who married a non-indigenous person lost her “Indian” status as well as her right to live on reserve and to access other services. This led to cultural isolation.
• Residential schools resulted in a cycle of trauma and abuse that continues today.
• Government policies in the 1960s allowed indigenous children to be removed from their communities and to be placed in non-indigenous homes. Again, this resulted in break-up of families, loss of cultural identity and often, trauma and abuse.
Because of this culture of delegitimization, some men have accurately assumed they can get away with racialized and sexualized violence against Aboriginal women.
In October 2004, Amnesty International released “Stolen Sisters: A Human Rights Response to Discrimination and Violence against Indigenous Women in Canada” (see http://goo.gl/G4Mod). Their findings noted the following:
• According to Canadian government statistics, young Native women are five times more likely than other women of the same age to die as the result of violence.
• Studies suggest that assaults against Indigenous women are not only more frequent; they are also often particularly brutal.
• In only 53% of cases involving murder of a Native woman was someone charged, whereas the average rate for homicide charges among the general population is 84%.
Native women’s organizations are asking the government to develop a comprehensive program to stop this violence.
In a response roundly condemned by Native women’s advocates as duplicitous, the federal government announced on 29 October that it would end the Sisters in Spirit campaign and redirect its $10 million allocation to the Department of Justice and the Ministry of Public Safety. As Liberal MP and Official Opposition Critic for Status of Women, Anita Neville put it, “... a good deal is going to their (the government’s) own justice systems, not Aboriginal women.” The largest portion of the funding will be spent on a generic RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) missing-persons database and amendments to the criminal code to allow more police freedom around warrants and wire-taps.
Despite lack of government action, there are small signs that change is happening at the grassroots level. This was the largest group to gather on 4 October since the annual commemorations began five years ago. In addition to the women, men attended the gathering as allies to remember the lost ones and to call for an end to the violence. And the young women were there.
Judy da Silva, leader of the Grassy Narrows Women’s Drum Group said, “I do not tell my daughters to shut up. I want them to grow up with strong voices. I don’t want them to be silenced.” As these young women sang out clearly, older women from the audience came up quietly to stand behind them and support them in their song.