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Canada Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre report aims to dispel harmful stereotypes about Indigenous women

The Downtown Eastside Women's Centre has compiled a new report, prepared as part of submissions for Canada's National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, based on interviews with 128 individuals.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

Indigenous women must be included in leadership and decision-making roles to meaningfully address systemic impoverishment that they face, according to a new report from the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre.

The report, prepared as part of submissions for Canada’s National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and released on Wednesday, is a combination of research, artwork, photography and the personal anecdotes of 113 Indigenous and 15 non-Indigenous women. It aims to dispel harmful and pervasive stereotypes while “shifting the lens from pathologizing poverty toward amplifying resistance to, and healing from, all forms of gendered colonial violence.”

The women’s centre’s project co-ordinator, activist Harsha Walia, co-authored the report with the centre’s victim services worker and long-time community leader Carol Martin in partnership with the 128 women who shared their personal experiences. Ms. Walia said the document provides an unfiltered look at a range of issues affecting these women, such as violence, the legacy of residential schools, colonization, policing and the overdose crisis.

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“These are stories that, separate from government, the public needs to know about,” Ms. Walia said on Wednesday at a news conference for the report’s release.

Among the stories is that of Sophie Merasty, a Denesuline and Woodlands Cree woman originally from Manitoba. She spoke of her sister’s murder – falling out of a window to her death attempting to escape from a sexual assault in 1981 – called the police response callous, and said the man convicted in the case spent only 30 days in pretrial custody due to requirements that judges take Indigenous background into consideration in sentencing.

“My sister’s life was not valued in life or in death,” reads Ms. Merasty’s account. “She was seen as a drunk, addict, and all these other victim-blaming stereotypes.”

Debra Leo wrote that she and her sister ran away from home in their teens to escape abuse at the hands of their father, whom Ms. Leo believed learned his habits from abuse he suffered in residential school. The girls stayed with older men in the Downtown Eastside and were introduced to drugs, alcohol and sex. When police would find them, they would bring them home – to the father, and the abuse, they had fled.

Suzanne Kilroy of the Okanagan First Nation spoke of her sister’s murder, of her struggles with substance use, and of police inaction when she reported being raped. No one cared much about any of that, she said, because she was a drug user, a sex worker, Indigenous and transgender.

“I’m surprised I am still alive,” reads one part of her account. “Out of 17 of my friends who came from the Okanagan, I am the only one who is still alive. All the rest are dead from being murdered, or overdosed, or got real sick.”

The report includes 200 recommendations, including 35 labelled urgent.

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“Our most pressing recommendation, that all 128 collaborators and participants were unanimous on, was active, Indigenous women’s leadership in all levels of decision-making and full Indigenous jurisdiction over Indigenous lands, services and laws,” Ms. Walia said.

“For us, that is the overarching issue: The full implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and that every single service, and decision and policy must flow from that basic implementation and recognition of Indigenous laws and jurisdiction.”

Other urgent recommendations include legislative reforms to decriminalize sex work and drug possession; immediate access to drug treatment and counselling; and an increase in shelters, affordable housing and income assistance.

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, called the report a “manifesto.”

“What I absolutely love about this is [that] this report here is not a passive document that’s a part of a government-sponsored inquiry process,” Mr. Phillip said. “This document comes from the very women that have suffered the pain and the agony of disentitlement, disenfranchisement, disempowerment.

“It’s our job to ensure that the recommendations in this report are followed through.”

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The commissioners leading the national inquiry are expected to release their final report, with recommendations, on April 30.

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