If we don’t understand the violence and exploitation that Indigenous girls face, we won’t be able to fully tackle the issue before us.
On August 3, 2016, the federal government formally launched the long-awaited, hard-won National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Indigenous women and girls and their allies across the country celebrated the launch of this inquiry as a victory unto itself, as advocates had been pressing for this crisis to be acknowledged and taken seriously by all levels of government and the general Canadian public for decades.
While the launch of the inquiry does illustrate a shift in the response to this issue, we need to move forward carefully. The inquiry will only happen once, and we’ll need to make sure that we actually get to the root of the issues that so desperately need to be addressed. With an inquiry time-period of two years, to the end of 2018, and a budget of $53.86 million, some advocates are rightly concerned that both the time frame and the budget may not be sufficient for it to meaningfully investigate and address such complex and multi-layered issues.
In some ways, the broad terms of reference are a good thing, as they will allow the commissioners to address a wide range of issues and provide them the flexibility to shift focus so that they are most productive. One key group they should be keeping in mind is Indigenous girls.
While the inquiry’s title and terms of reference include women and girls, there is a risk girl-specific issues may not be addressed meaningfully. Addressing girl-specific issues will allow for a more comprehensive investigation into the root causes — to expose, address, and end the lifetimes of male violence experienced disproportionately by Indigenous women and girls. Too often Indigenous girls are the victims of incest, sexual abuse and sexual exploitation. When they grow up many are then trapped in violent relationships with abusive men or are sexually assaulted and prostituted as adult women.
These incidents of male violence form a continuum that has been experienced by too many Indigenous women and girls over the course of our lifetimes. If the unique circumstances and barriers faced by Indigenous girls are not specifically addressed by the inquiry, we won’t be able to gain a comprehensive understanding of the issue. We will fail to examine the child welfare system, the youth criminal justice system, the harms of sexual exploitation and prostitution, the education system, and the hypersexualization of girls by adult men and other institutions and circumstances, which affects girls in profound and particular ways.
To remedy these situations there have to be recommendations that are unique to women. One way we can begin these discussions is by making sure that we keep the focus on women and girls in our research, statistics, and examination, but in arriving at solutions. We need to ensure that we are consistently naming who is doing what to whom, and that we provide specific and concrete recommendations that take issues of power and inequality (sexism, racism, classism) into consideration.
This brings me to the large-scale invisibility of the perpetrators, when we talk about missing and murdered Indigenous women – in the terms of reference for the inquiry, in the media, and elsewhere. If we don’t name the problem, if we don’t explicitly start by naming who is doing what to whom, we will be far less likely to get to the actual root of the issue.
Naming men as the perpetrators of the violence against Indigenous women and girls is a vital step in addressing these root causes. It provides an important framework for the inquiry to provide concrete recommendations that address the vulnerabilities of Indigenous women and girls and the men who take advantage of and exploit those vulnerabilities. If we are explicit and brave in our language, and discuss masculinity head on, we can also begin to look at what kind of shift needs to happen so that boys don’t grow up with the messaging that male violence against women and girls is acceptable and part of being a man. It is incredibly important that the inquiry examine the issue as one where race, class, and sex intersect, and that it position male violence against Indigenous women and girls as the starting point for an uncomfortable, brave, but necessary investigation.
Having had the honour of working with a group of Indigenous girls in an anti-violence drop-in group, I can say that having girl-only space and support allows girls to speak freely about their experiences and share their analyses of male violence against Indigenous women and girls. These groups can provide sufficiently generalized terms of reference, and the inquiry can be conducted with an Indigenous feminist analysis that consistently names who is doing what to whom and focuses equally on the circumstances of women and girls.
We have one chance at this national inquiry, and it will take great courage from all who participate and engage with the inquiry to say and hear what needs to be said and heard. Hopefully, this inquiry will make us angry, uncomfortable and frustrated; hopefully, we will feel rage, despair and sadness, as we clear room for healing, safety, liberation and peace. This will not be an easy process, but it is a necessary step as we work toward reclaiming values of collectivity, interconnectivity, honesty and respect for all, including Indigenous women and girls, the earth, sky, waters and all our nonhuman relations.
Photo: Geraldine Mattinas, Attawapiskat First Nation
This article is part of the Public Policy and Young Canadians special feature.
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