Placing Violence Against First Nation, Métis and Inuit Women in Historical Context

Canada’s colonial history – and the context for violence against Aboriginal women – is revealed through our legal history, our social relations and the attitudes that historically been taught in our education system. Anishinaabe activist Jana-Rae Yerxa’s The Unravelling of a Colonized Mind peels back layers of colonial thinking to connect “to a true source of power that was always there.” In a 1997 speech to the Aboriginal Justice Learning Network – The Historical Relationship between the Canadian Justice System and Aboriginal People – Justice Murray Sinclair, chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, says “The most important thing that we as human beings have to come to grips with is who we are.” In Indian Women in Canada: A Brief History, an excerpt from They Stole my Thunder – Warriors Who Were Behind the Walls: Experiential Storytelling with Criminalized Indian Women, Sharon Leslie Acoose places a gender lens on colonial history.

The Unravelling of a Colonized Mind

Jana-Rae Yerxa

Jana-Rae Yerxa, is Anishinaabe from Little Eagle and Couchiching First Nation and belongs to the Sturgeon clan. Activist. Social Worker. Former professor. Current student. She is committed to furthering her understanding of Anishinaabe identity and resurgence as well as deconstructing Indigenous/settler relations in the contexts of colonization and decolonization. Jana-Rae is currently enrolled in the Indigenous Governance Program at University of Victoria.

Source: Last Real Indians website

Sure everybody struggles. But to be born an Indigenous person, you are born into struggle. My struggle. Your struggle. Our struggle. The colonial struggle. There are many layers to this struggle. For the longest time, I didn’t even know what the true struggle was about yet I couldn’t escape it. It consumed me. Colonialism, as I have been forced to discover, is like a cancer. But instead of the cells in your body betraying itself, the thoughts in your mind work against you and eat you up from the inside out. You’re like the walking dead and you don’t even know it because you are so blinded. You can’t see the truth. Here are some of the perverted ways colonialism infects the mind:

  • With a colonized mind, I hate being Indian.
  • With a colonized mind, I accept that I am Indian because that’s who the colonizer told me I am.
  • With a colonized mind, I don’t understand that I am Anishinaabe.
  • With a colonized mind, I believe I am inferior to the white race.
  • With a colonized mind, I wish I was white.
  • With a colonized mind, I draw pictures of my family with peach coloured skin, blonde hair and blue eyes because I’ve internalized that this is the ideal, what looks good and what is beautiful.
  • With a colonized mind, I keep my feelings of inferiority to white people a secret from others and even from myself.
  • With a colonized mind, I try diligently to mirror white people as closely as I possibly can.
  • With a colonized mind, I desperately want to be accepted by white people.
  • With a colonized mind, to gain the acceptance of white people, I will detach myself from all that does not mirror acceptable “white” standards, whether it is how one dresses, one speaks, or one looks.
  • With a colonized mind, I feel as though I am swearing when I say “white people” in front of white people.
  • With a colonized mind, I believe there is no racism.
  • With a colonized mind, I believe that racism does not impact me.
  • With a colonized mind, I deny my heritage and proudly say, “We are all just people.”
  • With a colonized mind, when discussing issues pertaining to race, I try desperately not to offend white people.
  • With a colonized mind, I do not know who I am.
  • With a colonized mind, I believe I know who I am and do not understand that this isn’t so because I’ve become the distorted image of who the colonizer wants me to be and remain unaware of this reality.
  • With a colonized mind, I could care less about history and think that our history don’t matter.
  • With a colonized mind, I do not understand how the history created the present.
  • With a colonized mind, I do not see how I have been brainwashed to be an active participant in my own dehumanization and the dehumanization of my people.
  • With a colonized mind, I do not recognize how others dehumanize me and my people.
  • With a colonized mind, I devalue the ways of my people – their ways of seeing, their ways of knowing, their ways of living, their ways of being.
  • With a colonized mind, I cannot speak the language of my ancestors and do not care that this is so.
  • With a colonized mind, I am unaware of how colonization has impacted my ancestors, my community, my family, and myself.
  • With a colonized mind, I think that my people are a bunch of lazy, drunk, stupid Indians.
  • With a colonized mind, I discredit my own people.
  • With a colonized mind, I think that I am better than ‘those Indians’.
  • With a colonized mind, I will silently watch my people be victimized.
  • With a colonized mind, I will victimize my own people.
  • With a colonized mind, I will defend those that perpetrate against my people.
  • With a colonized mind, I will hide behind false notions of tradition entrenched with Euro-western shame and shame my own people recreating more barriers amongst us.
  • With a colonized mind, I tolerate our women being raped and beaten.
  • With a colonized mind, I tolerate our children being raised without their fathers.
  • With a colonized mind, I feel threatened when someone else, who is Anishinaabe, achieves something great because I feel jealous and wish it was me.
  • With a colonized mind, when I see an Anishinaabe person working towards bettering their life, because my of my own insecurities, I accuse them of thinking they are ‘so good now’.
  • With a colonized mind, I am unaware that I was set up to hate myself.
  • With a colonized mind, I do not think critically about the world.
  • With a colonized mind, I believe in merit and do not recognize unearned colonial privilege.
  • With a colonized mind, I ignorantly believe that my ways of seeing, living and believing were all decided by me when in reality everything was and is decided for me.
  • With a colonized mind, I am lost.
  • With a colonized mind, I do not care about the land.
  • With a colonized mind, I believe that freedom is a gift that can be bestowed upon me by the colonizer.
  • With a colonized mind, I believe that I am powerless and act accordingly.
  • With a colonized mind, I do not have a true, authentic voice.
  • With a colonized mind, I live defeat.
  • With a colonized mind, I will remain a victim of history.
  • With a colonized mind, I will pass self-hatred on to my children.
  • With a colonized mind, I do not understand the term “self-responsibility.”
  • With a colonized mind, I do not recognize that I have choice and do not have to fatalistically accept oppressive, colonial realities.
  • With a colonized mind, I do not see that I am a person of worth.
  • With a colonized mind, I do not know I am powerful.

The colonial struggle, as I said earlier, has many layers. I am no longer being eaten from the inside. Yet it is no less painful. What is different today is that I am connected to a true source of power that was always there. It’s like my friend once said, “I come from a distinguished people whose legacy shines on me like the sun.” I now understand this and it is because of this understanding that my mind and my soul are freer than they have ever been. It is because of that gift- that awakening which came through struggle – that I will proudly continue to struggle for freedom. My freedom. Your freedom. Our freedom.

The Historical Relationship between the Canadian Justice System and Aboriginal People

Associate Chief Judge Murray Sinclair

April, 1997

In April 1997, the Aboriginal Justice Learning Network (AJLN) held a gathering of Aboriginal Elders, policy makers and academics in Alymer, Quebec. Associate Chief Judge Murray Sinclair of the Provincial Court of Manitoba, now Chief Commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, spoke to the network on the historical relationship between the Canadian justice system and Aboriginal peoples. This article is excerpts from a transcript of that speech. Justice Sinclair also chaired Manitoba’s Aboriginal Justice Inquiry (AJI), and refers to the AJI report in his remarks.

The most important thing that we as human beings have to come to grips with is who we are. That is the biggest question in life, who am I? The biggest question of life necessarily leads us to ask other questions, such as, where did I come from? And why am I here? And probably the most important question is, where am I going, and what’s going to happen to me after my life is over on this earth and I go to the next world? What happens to me over there? And our Elders always tell us that those questions are very basic to open for every human being.

What I see for our young people or all Aboriginal people who come before me in court, is the tremendous imbalance they are confronted with. How out of balance each and every one of them is in their life, that they end up coming to me in the process. I’m often involved at the very end of a very tragic set of circumstances and I’m presented with just enough information to decide whether they should go to jail, and for how long. But I’m never presented with enough information to decide what I can truly do, to help this person to find his balance.

…when the justice system can be fallible where Aboriginal people are concerned, it is fallible. It fails at virtually every point in the process.

The unfortunate thing is what our inquiry [Manitoba’s Aboriginal Justice Inquiry] and every other inquiry in Canada has found, concerning Aboriginal people in the justice system. That is, when the justice system can be fallible where Aboriginal people are concerned, it is fallible. It fails at virtually every point in the process.

This is understandable because, quite frankly, Aboriginal people and the Euro-Canadian justice system they come into contact with are inherently in conflict. So it is understandable that where a system orients people to do things a certain way vs. Aboriginal people who come from a system that orients them to do things differently, will naturally do things at odds with the system. So the first thing we have to understand is the system is in conflict with the very people it purports to assist and help, and our report in Manitoba talked about that.

We spent a lot of time and a lot of words talking about where in the process the system fails Aboriginal people and how we think the changes we recommended could address those shortcomings.

But there is an even more fundamental issue at play here we need to talk about and I want to give you a bit of a history lesson because it s important for you to learn it, if you are to understand who you are as players within or outside of the system or if you are to understand who you are as an Aboriginal person. You have to understand where it is we have come from, to get to this point in time.

Beginning with Confederation in 1867, the government set out on a deliberate attempt to undermine the very existence of Aboriginal communities, to undermine the very nature of Aboriginal families within society.

Beginning with Confederation in 1867, the government set out on a deliberate attempt to undermine the very existence of Aboriginal communities, to undermine the very nature of Aboriginal families within society. The view was, it would be better for Aboriginal people to assimilate into Canadian society and to therefore, become more civilized.

There was a belief existent among the policy makers at the time that Aboriginal people were inherently inferior and needed to be brought up to a state of civilization more advanced than what they were offering the rest of the world at that time.

So because of that, they passed laws designed to assimilate us. They passed laws designed to undermine some of the institutions of our existence they felt had created our state of inferiority.

They passed laws, for example, that said Indian people living on reserves were incapable of entering into contracts, were incapable legally of selling anything that they produced, anything they manufactured, anything they discovered.

If they had minerals or resources in their community they could exploit, they were forbidden by law from selling or leasing those resources unless the government gave its consent. Part of that was the government believed they were inferior and incapable of contracting. Another part of it also was the government had a deliberate policy that it did not want the Aboriginal communities of this country to flourish economically. They did not want Aboriginal communities to become self sufficient and stable. They wanted Aboriginal people to assimilate, to leave their communities and integrate with the rest of society.

Ultimately, within a few generations, John A. Macdonald was reported as saying, there will no longer be any Indian reserves, there will no longer be any Indians and, therefore, there will no longer be any Indian problem. That is a quotation from the discussions and debates of Hansard.

The thrust of government policy at that time was not merely to make it difficult to be an Indian, but it was to make it difficult to be as an Indian, for they did other things as well to undermine our existence.

They passed laws for example, that said that all of our children could be taken away from our families at the age of five and locked up in residential schools, away from their families until the age of 18, and they did that. In many of our communities, 100 per cent of the children between the ages of 5 and 18 were taken from their families and put in residential schools and in some cases we are told – and the whole issue of residential schools incidentally, has not been adequately discussed and studied – they would be removed from their families at a young age and told they would never see their families again until they turned 18 and were allowed to leave. Often however, they were not allowed to leave unless they agreed to marry someone else who was in the school system with them.

John A. Macdonald was reported as saying, there will no longer be any Indian reserves, there will no longer be any Indians and, therefore, there will no longer be any Indian problem. That is a quotation from the discussions and debates of Hansard.

The purpose of that was to further the view that we can’t allow these newly civilized Indians who have been raised in this residential school to go back to their communities and marry an uncivilized Indian. We have to keep these people together and flourishing.

And so marriages were arranged in these schools and children were often required to marry each other. This happened with my grandmother and my grandfather. My grandmother was not allowed to leave the convent where she went to school until she agreed to marry my grandfather.

We know the natural instinct of a mother when a child is taken away from her, is to go and do something about that. We know that. All good parents who lose their children in that way will want to do something about it. History records that Indian people tried to do something about that as well.

While all of the treaties and the treaty negotiations of the time reflected a desire by Indian people for their children to grow up, be educated and have careers just like the white man, it was not this form of education they wanted for their children. Indian people often protested and tried to get their children out of this form of education, this institutional situation. Well, the government passed a law that said Indian people could not do that. They made it an offence for any Indian parent to interfere with the education of their child who was taken and placed in an educational system like that.

Incidentally, compulsory education for Indian people doesn’t sound so bad today because we know all of our children have to go to school in this day and age. Compulsory education is the norm for everyone. However, compulsory education was not the norm for Canadian society until the 1930s, and in some cases, 1940s. In those days, white children didn’t have to go to school compulsorily. They did not have to go to school until laws were passed in the 30s and 40s. So in some ways, we were 50 years ahead of time.

Parents were prohibited from interfering with their children. The government inaugurated, in the 1880s, what came to be known as the Indian Pass System. It required that any Indian person who was outside of a reserve who didn’t have a written pass could be arrested by the police and returned to his community. This effectively prevented, of course, parents from leaving their communities to go and get their children out of those schools.

Parents were prohibited from interfering with their children. The government inaugurated, in the 1880s, what came to be known as the Indian Pass System…any Indian person who was outside of a reserve who didn’t have a written pass could be arrested by the police and returned to his community.

They also made it an offence for Indians to protest these things. Of course, the natural thing was families would get together and say well, we are going to do something about this, but that was made to be an offence. It was the Indian conspiracy laws of the 1880s which said if three or more Indians get together in order to discuss a grievance against the Government of Canada, then they were guilty of an offence and could be sent to jail. So, two people could talk about their grievances, but three Indians couldn’t.

Furthermore, they knew that Aboriginal gatherings in the 19th century such as Sundance and potlatch ceremonies and the huge gatherings we saw then and see today in pow-wows were not just social events but were important political events as well. Chiefs would be recognized and births would be acknowledged. Names would be given, marriages would be performed, property would be shared and all of those important things. They also represented opportunities for Indian people to get together in order to grieve their concerns about Aboriginal people about the Government of Canada. Laws were then passed in the 1880s saying Indian people could not have those gatherings anymore. They came to be known as the Sundance and Potlatch Laws. They said it was an offence for an Indian to participate in those ceremonies.

They were very clear about the nature of the ceremony you could not participate in and said an Indian was guilty of an offence if he participated in any ceremony involving the exchange of gifts. This was intended to address the issue of the potlatch ceremony on the west coast.

It inadvertently also caught Christmas in its definition, so in 1888 they amended the definition to allow them to participate in Christmas, a very important Christian event, of course.

If you can’t go and do something about your child who’s in a school you don’t want him to be in, if you can’t gather in order to air a grievance, then perhaps the one thing you want to do is go to court. A very common reaction to those who feel a grievance against government is to go to court, and that is why we have lawyers, lawyers, all over the place. We have about 67,000 lawyers in Canada, all of whom are ready to go to court for you.

In the 19th century there weren’t 67,000, but there were still lots of lawyers ready to go to court for Indians, and all the Indian had to do was just say the word and they were there. However, the government had an answer for that too. They said no Indian could go to court and sue the Government of Canada unless they first got the permission of the government.

There was never any reported incidence of the government giving its consent that we were able to discover, but it certainly had a chilling effect on Indian s accessibility to the legal system. It also had the effect of making lawyers think twice about doing anything about these laws, even those who felt the laws were clearly wrong and there were lawyers who felt that way.

Friendship societies were formed of non-Aboriginal people who supported the Indian cause, who themselves were willing to go to court on behalf of Indians. So the government passed a law saying nobody can go to court on behalf of an Indian person unless they also got the permission of the Government of Canada.

Another law was passed saying any lawyer who secretly agrees to represent any Indian person, even as a lobbyist, to represent their interests with the Queen, and there were many cases of people going to England to speak to the Queen, were guilty of an offence if they accepted such a retainer and they could lose their licence to practice law.

So what the government did was effectively take away from Aboriginal people some very essential civil rights, rights we take for granted. Not only did they take away the right to demonstrate, the right to have access to the courts, but they decided by 1890 Indians were so uncivilized they couldn’t vote, either.

Then a law was passed that I think is ironically titled the Indian Advancement Act in 1891, which said any Indian community which is considered by the government to be in an advanced stage of development – and that is the phrase, an advanced stage of development – would henceforth from that point on, have to elect its leadership in accordance with rules and regulations created by the government.

Those rules and regulations said only Indian men over the age of 21 could hold office, and only Indian men over the age of 21 could vote for them, which of course undermined the status of women in society and greatly undermined the matriarchal societies of some of our tribes by creating this form of government, that was modeled on the form of government that Canadian society followed, its so-called democracy.

Incarceration was a relatively easy thing to accomplish because Indians who were prosecuted under the Indian Act, had to appear before a Justice of the Peace designated by the Minister of Indian Affairs, and was prosecuted by someone also designated by the Minister of Indian Affairs.

Government cutbacks were as important in those days just as they are today, so they decided to roll that person into one, and the prosecutor was the Indian agent. Just to keep it easy, the Justice of the Peace was also the Indian agent.

So as you can see, the rule of law we take for granted in our system, that everyone is subject to the equal enforcement of the law, was never there for Indian people. Those laws were in place until 1951 when the Indian Act was amended. Some of them were repealed in 1927, but they were there for several generations, and certainly the Indian residential school legislation is still in the Indian Act today, it’s just not enforced in the same way.

… the Indian residential school system was a part of our lives for almost 100 years. When you think of how many generations of children went through those schools and that kind of lifestyle, you can begin to see how the lives of those children would become disrupted, disoriented, and how they would be out of balance with their Elders and their families.

But the Indian residential school system was a part of our lives for almost one hundred years. When you think of how many generations of children went through those schools and that kind of lifestyle, you can begin to see how the lives of those children would become disrupted, disoriented, and how they would be out of balance with their Elders and their families.

For when you think about it, you cannot take a child and raise that child in an institution, and expect that child to be able to function well and provide a loving or caring environment to his or her family.

You cannot take a child and separate that child not only from his or her mother and family, but also separate that child from his sisters, his brothers, his aunties, his uncles, any adult of any importance to him and put that child in an environment where they don’t see a loving and caring family environment, and then ask that child to return and become a parent and expect them to be able to function properly.

We know the effect of that institutional situation is not going to be immediate because the first generation of children still have their parents living back home to help them when they return, those who did. Even the second and third generations would have their parents and great grandparents to help them because we know that older people continue to have that influence with young children, even to that level.

But eventually, those who were not tainted by the residential school system began to die off and subsequently, lost their importance within the family. As each generation returned, the previous generation would become less and less able to maintain a stable and balanced influence for them.

So we begin to see the impact of it all after five, six, even seven generations in the families, and I think that is why we don’t see any change in the statistics until after the Second World War.

A number of things occurred which added a great deal of impetus to the change. A lot of our men went off to war and returned having fought in battles as soldiers at the frontlines. Today, we know about post-traumatic stress disorder because of studies that were done on Vietnam veterans. We know today what the impact fighting in wars has upon individual human beings and we know today those men returning from those wars to our communities did not receive anything near the support, care and rights non-Aboriginal veterans received when they returned.

We know as well that in the 1950s a lot of provinces changed their laws to allow Aboriginal people into places that served liquor. In Manitoba, the famous report is the Bracken Report in 1956, which allowed Aboriginal people to drink alcohol in a beverage room or beer parlor, as it was called, and we know the relationship between alcohol and crime in our communities.

Also in the 1950s, the Department of Indian Affairs decided these Indians weren’t migrating into urban areas fast enough, so they created a native housing program through the federal government which gave Indians large financial incentives to buy or build houses in urban communities, as long as they moved away from their reserves. Anyone wanting to build a house on an Indian reserve couldn’t get any federal money but anybody building a house in an urban area could get a $10,000 forgivable loan and in those days that could build you a pretty good house.

Our educational system functioned much along the same lines as well. When I went to school, and I’m sure this is true for every Aboriginal person today of my generation, or close to it, that we were taught about the concept of discovery, about the great arrival of Christopher Columbus. We were taught about Jacques Cartier and Samuel de Champlain. We were taught about the massacre of Father John Brébeuf by the Indians of eastern Canada who tore out his heart, as savages are wont to do, and ate it. We were taught how Indians were really nothing more than part of the countryside when the white men arrived and had no real rights. We were taught that Indians were actually pretty lucky that the white men came here and saved them from their life of barbarism and the terrible living conditions the white men saw. We were taught all of that.

We were taught how Indians were really nothing more than part of the countryside when the white men arrived and had no real rights. We were taught that Indians were actually pretty lucky that the white men came here and saved them from their life of barbarism and the terrible living conditions the white men saw.

It amazes me today that, in some cases, our children are still taught that. I know of a young girl back home, the same age as my daughter, who was expelled from school for two days because she refused to write a paper on the benefits of Christopher Columbus discovery of North America.

We have a situation in our lifetime when growing up in that kind of environment resulted in our inability to find out who we are. The great question each and every one of us had to answer was beyond our capability of answering as Aboriginal people, because who we were, was not who society wanted us to be. I was not what society wanted me to be, and what society wanted me to be, was not what I saw myself as being.

When we looked in the mirror we always saw Aboriginal faces, and for a long time many of us didn’t like what we saw. We didn’t like ourselves growing up in that day and age because of what we had been taught about ourselves. We didn’t like ourselves because of the images of Aboriginal people that we saw in books, newspapers, movies, and on television.

We didn’t like the images of the people we saw when we took the bus to Winnipeg and saw these drunken Indians on Main Street, all of whom were victims of the same kinds of things we were victims of. We didn’t like those images, and so we didn’t want to be that way. But that was never a positive option for us.

In other words, we were not told how not to be that way. We were told simply if you don t do what we tell you to do, you will end up like that. The unarticulated premise of our educational system was, if you don t grow up to be the way we are saying you should be, then you’re going to be a failure like your uncle, you’re going to be a failure like your cousin, who’s living in a Main Street hotel, and that was the great threat we faced.

So the reality then, for us as Aboriginal youth, was growing up with terrible conflicts over who we were. We did not know who we were and our young people today, they still do not know who they are. We have not been able to give our young people their sense of identity today, just as I was not able to get my sense of identity as a young person in the 50s and 60s.

This is the great dilemma we face, because each and every young person who comes before me in court, is weighed down by that burden and that is why, when I look at the options available to me as judge, I think well, I can impose a fine. Now, if I fine him $50 is that going to give him his sense of identity? Well no, maybe not. Maybe $100 will give him a sense of identity or perhaps $500, but that will not give him a sense of identity either. So how about if I put him on probation and make him go and report to a white probation officer downtown, will that give him his answer of identity? Well, I don’t know, maybe it would. It would depend on the probation officer.

Maybe if I send this person to jail, I think maybe that will give him a sense of his identity. The sad reality is, there is an awful truth to that.

Many Aboriginal men who stop a life of crime, tell us the answer for them was when they learned about their culture, and where did they learn about their culture? The first time they learned about their culture was when they were in jail. It’s a terrible thing to say, that you can go to jail to learn about who you are and find your solution there. If that s the only thing to stop him from living a life of crime, then couldn’t we find a way of doing that outside of jail? That is the question I ask.

… for most Aboriginal people, criminality is often a forced state of existence. Criminality is often a direct result of their inability to function as individuals, as human beings in society.

The reality is that some of our men and women do find their answer through learning their culture while they are incarcerated. Incarceration for that purpose seems to me to be a little illogical, but there it is. There are only three things I can do with somebody who is in front of me as a judge. I can take away their money, and the money that goes to their family. I can put them on probation and hope, hope that somebody will help him, or I can send him to jail and perhaps keep him out of trouble for a while. However, more and more evidence is coming before us that sending someone to jail simply increases their criminal activity, and doesn’t decrease it.

Our young people in Winnipeg are joining street gangs in huge numbers. A year ago they were estimating there were 300 to 400 Aboriginal youth gang members. Now they are saying it is about 1,500. I think it’s a scare tactic myself, but even if they are joining in disproportionately high numbers like that, it’s merely a reflection of the need of our young people to find out who they are, who am I? This gives them part of the answer. This gives them a sense of comfort about who they are.

So I think, we in the justice system, are compelled to accept it is our responsibility for a vast majority of the people who come before us, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, to find a way to help them find out who they are. Then we can help them to answer those questions I mentioned earlier, which are, Where did I come from, Why am I here and Where am I going?

We need to find ways to help them confront those questions and find answers. For by answering those questions, each person in society is able to find a way of functioning properly.

The problem with our justice system, as it functions today, is we are often discouraged from even probing into that. We emphasize in our system the need to generate numbers. I remember I was talking one time with judges about doing sentencing circles, and I said the very first sentencing circle I ever did, involved 500 people who were in attendance. 150 of them spoke at that sentencing circle. One judge said, “We can’t take all day to sentence somebody,” and I said, “Well, think about it for a moment, you’re dealing with the rest of this person s life. This is probably the most important thing that will ever happen to this person. Why wouldn’t you want to take all day to do it right?”

Somebody else here said, “What is justice?” Well, justice is doing the right thing, that is really what justice is. It is not any more complicated than that, doing the right thing.

Where Aboriginal people are concerned, we are not doing the right thing. All of the statistics and all of the studies we know about, have all come to that conclusion. What is the right thing? Well, we have to learn that. It’s not going to be the same for our friends in Maniwaki as it is for our friends in Moose Factory.

It is not going to be the same for the Ojibways in Roseau River, as it will be for the Crees in Lac La Range. It will not be the same for the people in the Blood Reservation in Alberta, as it will be for the west coast Indians in British Columbia, or the people of the Northwest Territories, or our Inuit brothers and sisters in Inuvik. They will all have different solutions based upon their understanding of how to do things because process is just as important as results. We must never forget that.

The process each will follow will reflect who they are. The results will be the same I think, for all of us if we let that happen.

In the similar way, we said non-Aboriginal judges, lawyers, police officers and probation officers should go there to learn how Aboriginal justice is supposed to work, and it’s all designed, we said, to allow the implementation of one of the major recommendations we made, which is Aboriginal people should be allowed to deliver justice their own way. Aboriginal people should be allowed to have their own justice systems in their own communities to do justice for their people, to do what is right for their people.

We have a lot of ground to cover, and we have a short time to do it. I want to be able to leave this life, this earth, thinking I have moved the conversation along a little bit and I hope you will commit your life to the same thing, that when you are done whatever it is you do, you will feel that you have moved the conversation along a little bit. I hope these words I have shared with you have given you a little appreciation for how I feel about these things.

I do not pretend to have the answers. I sometimes feel I only have questions, but I do want you to know that I have strong feelings about this. A strong feeling about the importance of these issues in this day and age, and also a strong feeling about the important role each and every one of you is going to play, and the resolution of those programs.

So I thank you for listening, meegwetch.

Indian Women in Canada: A Brief History

Sharon Leslie Acoose

Kiishiibii-biizuu Kinew Ikwe

“Circling Eagle Woman”

An excerpt from They Stole my Thunder – Warriors Who Were Behind the Walls: Experiential Storytelling with Criminalized Indian Women, PhD. thesis submitted to the College of Graduate Studies and Research, Community and Epidemiology, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, 2012

Aboriginal Elders have suggested that Aboriginal societies were generally peaceful societies with little crime before contact with the Europeans. Traditionally, Indian women played a central role within the family, including Indian governance, the education of children, taking care of the kill the hunters would bring home, and in spiritual ceremonies. Within Indian tribes or clans there was equality and autonomy between men and women. According to the Report of the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry of Manitoba, “both performed functions vital to the survival of Aboriginal communities. Men provided the food, shelter and clothing. Women provided the domestic sphere and were viewed as life givers and caretakers of life” (1991a, p. 2). It is said that traditional Indian society experienced very little family breakdown and that there was harmony among men and women. Each knew their roles, and there was peace and diversity. Women also figured centrally in almost all Aboriginal creation legends: “In Ojibway and Cree legends, it was a woman who came to earth through a hole in the sky to care for the earth. It was a woman, Nokomis (grandmother), who taught Original Man (Anishinabe, an Ojibway word meaning human being) about the medicines of the earth and about technology” (Aboriginal Justice Inquiry of Manitoba, 1991a, p. 2). Indian women were seen to have great strength and prosperity in order to live and sustain life. “The Dakota and Lakota (Sioux) people of Manitoba and the Dakotas tell how a woman -White Buffalo Calf Woman – brought the pipe to the people. It is through the pipe that prayer is carried by its smoke upwards to the Creator in their most sacred ceremonies” (Aboriginal Justice Inquiry of Manitoba, 1996a, p. 2).

However, life would change for Indian people. Indian society would become a harsh and violent place to live, especially for Indian women. According to Emma D. LaRocque, “We can trace the diminishing status of Aboriginal women to the progression of colonialism” (1994, p. 73). Colonization eroded the lives of Indian women and took away cultural, physical, mental, and emotional ways of sustaining pimatiswim or the good life. Indian women lost much of themselves, and for many a life of crime became the only way to survive.


Colonization began with the coming of the Europeans to North America approximately five hundred years ago. LaRocque defines colonization as:

[…] that process of encroachment and subsequent subjugation of Aboriginal peoples since the arrival of Europeans. From the Aboriginal perspective, it refers to loss of lands, resources, and self-direction and to the severe disturbance of cultural ways and values. Colonization has taken its toll on all Aboriginal peoples, but it has taken perhaps its greatest toll on women. (1994, p. 73)

Joan Sangster writes that “Colonialism often sparks the clash of two cultures and legal regimes, with unequal power relations operating within as well as between those cultures” (1999, p. 35). Michael Hart writes in Seeking Mino-Pimatisiwin that “Colonization is driven by a worldview that embraces domination, self-righteousness and greed” (2002, p. 24). Moreover, according to Jonathon Rudin, “In the early 1800s, British government policy with regard to Aboriginal people was governed by the belief that over time, they would simply be eradicated as a people due to the impact of settler migration” (2005, p. 21). In addition, Rudin writes:

That Canada’s express policy with respect to Aboriginal people was to hasten their disappearance was never really in question. Duncan Campbell Scott, the powerful and influential Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs, said in 1920, “Our object is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question. (2005, pp. 25-26)

Thus colonization involved the desire to civilize and assimilate Aboriginal peoples into European ways of life. The Indian Act, Residential Schools, and child welfare policies were some of the tools deployed to meet this objective.

The Indian Act

The Indian Act was first known as the Gradual Civilization Act which was passed in 1857. This act sought to assimilate Indian people into Canadian settler society by encouraging enfranchisement, eventually culminating in the Gradual Enfranchisement Act of 1869. This act was established to form the elective band council system that remains in the Indian Act to this day. Both the Gradual Civilization Act and the Gradual Enfranchisement Act were consolidated as the Indian Act (Hanson, 2009). The Indian Act was discriminatory at many different levels. The authority instituted by the act has ranged from overarching political control – such as imposing governing structures on Aboriginal communities in the form of band councils – to control over the rights of Indians to practice their culture and traditions (Hanson, 2009, p.1). The Indian Act has gone through many phases of change from its implementation. The act was and still is how Indian people are controlled, whether it is their education or health.

Indian status for women has been a lifelong battle. As the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples explains, the Indian Act would cause Indian women to lose their status:

Recognition as “Indian” in Canadian law often had nothing to do with whether a person was actually of Indian ancestry. Many anomalies and injustices occurred over the years in this regard. For example, a woman of non-Indian ancestry would be recognized as Indian and granted Indian status upon marriage to an Indian man, but an Indian woman in section 12(1)(b) who married a man without Indian status would lose legal recognition as Indian. Moreover, for historical reasons, many persons of Indian ancestry were not recognized as being Indians in law and were, accordingly, denied Indian status. (Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, 1996, p. 279)

And through this process many Indian women would be denied their heritage, lose their identity, and be rejected from their communities. Many Indian women who married outside of their own reserves were not even permitted to come back home.

The equal right of Indian women is an issue that has been under review for many decades. In 1985, the Indian Act was changed yet again, and Bill C-31 was passed and implemented. Bill C-31 would allow those Indian women who had married outside their reservation to apply to gain back their Indian status. However, some discrepancies still existed within the law, and some of these women’s children and grandchildren would not be allowed to obtain Indian status. Recently another amendment to the Indian Act was passed so as to allow children who did not received status when their mothers first applied to now apply for their Indian status.

Residential Schools

In Canada, certain sections of the Indian Act legally removed the rights of Aboriginal parents to their children, giving the government total control over the children’s lives. For over a century, under the authority of Indian agents and enforced by the RCMP, Aboriginal children were taken from their families and incarcerated in Residential Schools. According to Rudin:

The disappearance of Aboriginal people as a people was also explicitly to be hastened by the development of the residential school system. The core belief of this system was that the future for Aboriginal children could only be assured by working hard to remove their Aboriginal self-identity. The residential school experience, as all of Canada now knows, was a failure in almost every respect. It succeeded, however, in alienating thousands upon thousands of Aboriginal people from their communities and from their sense of themselves. (Rudin, 2005, p. 26)

Residential schooling was seen as a way to integrate Indian people into the mainstream of society. It was the hope of these schools to civilize Indians overall and to make the girls into good housekeepers and the boys into good farmers. Children were forcibly removed from their families and their traditional lifestyle. The children would be forced to assimilate into the white culture and would be stripped of their Indian heritage and forbidden to speak any Indian language they might have once known. Their hair would be cut short if it was long, and they would be put in uniforms. These children would suffer physical, sexual, emotional, and spiritual abuse.

The most difficult part of being in Residential School was being stripped of who you were as an Indian. You were made to pray day in and day out, not really understanding what prayer was because you were merely a child. You were stripped of your Indian-ness and taught to be white, which is something an Indian person could never even fully become. Residential Schools were a travesty of justice and a demoralizing process that changed Indian people’s lives forever. The experience broke their spirits and the spirits of generations to come. On a daily basis many of these children were abused mentally, physically, emotionally, and sexually. Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart states, “American Indian children were beaten for speaking their native languages, were removed from their families and communities, sometimes for many years. Some children never returned home and many died from disease and homesickness while in boarding school” (1995, p. 63). Many lives were lost, and many families were ripped apart by a system that did not understand Indian people. It was cultural genocide. The Residential Schools operated for more than one hundred years with the last one closing in 1996. They left a trail of tears, wounds, and systemic abuses that will take generations to heal.

Child Welfare

Indian children have been taken away from their families since the inception of the Residential Schools and since Child Welfare systems have been in place. For example in Manitoba there has been great concern over this issue as discussed in the Report of the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry.

Aboriginal people appearing before this Inquiry have repeatedly expressed their concern that any overhauls of the justice system in Manitoba must also include a re-examination of the child welfare system. They see the child welfare and justice systems as being interconnected and interwoven. To them, the child welfare system is but one more “outside” institution that disrupts their lives and societies. (1991b, pp. 1-2)

This intrusion has been both paternalistic and colonial in nature and has broken apart many Indian families. It has had a particularly bad impact on women because they most often play the role of primary caregivers to children. According to the Manitoba Justice Inquiry:

In most provinces, these child welfare services were never provided in any kind of meaningful or culturally appropriate way. Instead of the counseling of families, or consultation with the community about alternatives to apprehending the child, the apprehension of Aboriginal children became the standard operating procedure with child welfare authorities in most provinces. In Manitoba, the child welfare system “protected” many Aboriginal children by taking them away from their families and placing them for adoption with non-Aboriginal families. This came to be known as the “Sixties Scoop,” but it continued into the 1980s. Although the flaws in this approach would only become evident to most of society later, Aboriginal people immediately condemned the practice. As Anthony Wood of God’s River told our Inquiry: “There was no publicity for years and years about the brutalization of our families and children by the larger Canadian society. Kidnapping was called placement in foster homes. Exporting Aboriginal children to the U.S. was called preparing Indian children for the future. Parents who were heartbroken by the destruction of their families were written off as incompetent people.” (1991b, pp. 10-11)

This era was detrimental to the very fabric of Indian women’s lives for years to come. I believe the impact of Child Welfare services on Indian communities put Indian women in a dark place where many of them would give up because the system was simply too hard to fight. Because many Indian people were seen as unfit to care for their own children by Child Welfare workers, women felt powerless because their children were ripped away from their homes without cause and placed in foster homes.

The ideal home would instill the values and lifestyles with which the child welfare workers themselves were familiar: white, middle-class homes in white, middle-class neighbourhoods. Aboriginal communities and Aboriginal parents and families were deemed to be “unfit.” As a result, between 1971 and 1981 alone, over 3,400 Aboriginal children were shipped away to adoptive parents in other societies, and sometimes in other countries. (Aboriginal Justice Inquiry of Manitoba, 1991b, p. 11)

As a consequence of these policies, women would lose contact with their children for years. Many would never again see their children.

Consequences of Colonization

Leslie Brown, in her submission to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1994), succinctly describes how the process of colonization has resulted in such devastating consequences for Indian people.

In all cultures the worldview, the values and beliefs, underlie the development of key spiritual, social, economic, educational, communication and political institutions. All these institutions are interrelated and all have, as part of their function, the role of socializing members of the society. If a dominant society controls, overshadows or wipes out this fundamental institutional function then it also takes control of the cultural constructs that become the defining characteristics of the smaller society. As a result, the smaller culture becomes sapped of its traditions and its autonomy – in short, it loses touch with its life blood and a period of social disease ensues. This has been the partially effective strategy behind the Canadian government’s relationship with Aboriginal peoples. The impact of these phenomena are numerous; most notably Aboriginal people feel immense rage and shame that has been internalized (within the individual, the family and the community) through a long-term process of racist victimization. These feelings are apparent in the symptoms of depression, family violence, suicide and addictions that prevail in Aboriginal communities and are described as a dark period in the cultural development of Aboriginal peoples by numerous writers. (Brown, 1994, CDROM; emphasis added)

The legacy of colonization is clearly present in current-day statistics which document the vast social, economic, physical, and mental health inequities that exist between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians (King, Smith, & Gracey, 2009; Gracey & King, 2009; O’Donnell & Wallace, 2011).

Indian Women as Doubly Marginalized

Feminist scholars argue that Aboriginal women in particular have experienced more extreme adverse effects of colonization due to being doubly marginalized because of their race and gender, resulting in Aboriginal women not only having poorer social, mental, and economic well-being compared to their non-Aboriginal counterparts, but also, compared to Aboriginal men (Kubik, Bourassa & Hampton, 2009). In their submission to the World Health Organization’s Commission on the Social Determinants of Health, the Native Women’s Association of Canada affirmed the following:

Both the Crown […] and Aboriginal men must now take responsibility for the change in ways which was forced on Aboriginal peoples, particularly First Nations who fell under the jurisdiction and control of the Indian Act since contact, and disproportionately put power and control into the hands of men. Significant accompanying factors are well documented in this, such as the effects on Aboriginal society, and especially Aboriginal women, by relegation to reserve lands, the imposition of an elected band council structure, disqualification of women from holding council positions, forced removal of children from their families and communities to attend residential schools, and until 1985, women’s loss of Indian status if she married a non-Indian, to name but a few. The point here is that gender became an issue for Aboriginal peoples where it had not previously been, and many dysfunctional through outright abusive to catastrophic results have ensued. (2007b, p. 10)

Aboriginal women experience the highest rates of violent victimization in Canada. In 2009, Aboriginal women were three times more likely than non-Aboriginal women to report having been the victim of violence at the hands of a current or former partner in the previous year (Brennan, 2011). Further, among the women reporting spousal violence, Aboriginal women were more likely than non-Aboriginal women to report (1) exposure to more severe forms of violence (e.g. sexual assault, physical beating, choking); (2) exposure to multiple types of abuse (e.g. financial, emotional); (3) injury as result of their victimization; and (4) fearing for their lives.

Indian women engaged in sex work and/or living in poverty are especially vulnerable to violent victimization as documented in Stolen Sisters: A Human Rights Response to Discrimination and Violence Against Indigenous Women in Canada. As concluded in this report:

The social and economic marginalization of Indigenous women, along with a history of government policies that have torn apart Indigenous families and communities, have pushed a disproportionate number of Indigenous women into dangerous situations that include extreme poverty, homelessness and prostitution. (Amnesty International, 2004, p. 2)

Women who are the victims of violence often turn to alcohol or substance abuse as an outlet to sanity or as a means of forgetting their trauma (Chansonneuve, 2007). Alcohol and substance abuse thus become means to an end. It is easier to wash away years of pain rather than to begin to heal. As described in the following sections, the social distress resulting from the legacy of colonization and current levels of impoverishment have also resulted in an over-representation of Aboriginal peoples as offenders in the Canadian justice system.