Alicia Elliott is the author of A Mind Spread Out on the Ground.
Why doesn’t Canada think of Indigenous women as valuable? As an Indigenous woman, it’s a question I’ve asked my entire adult life, but it feels especially pertinent in light of recent events. Last month’s release of a 115-page report on the death of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine, as well as Jody Wilson-Raybould’s expulsion from the Liberal caucus this week, haunt Indigenous women in this country, pointing out that there are seemingly endless ways to be viewed as a problem when you’re an Indigenous woman, but very few ways to be viewed as a person of worth.
Tina was an Anishinaabe girl from Sagkeeng First Nation who had experienced unimaginable trauma. Like Tina, her mother was involved with – and failed by – Child and Family Services when she was a child. Tina’s father suffered a violent death, for which Tina herself received no counselling. She started skipping school, eventually dropped out, then ran away to Winnipeg, where jurisdiction battles between social-services providers left her alone in shelters and hotels. Her great-aunt tried to keep tabs on her, calling the social workers in charge of keeping Tina safe. Instead, Tina was ignored. On the day she died, police, social workers, doctors and nurses who could have intervened to help her either did nothing or didn’t do enough. The man charged with her murder was found not guilty of all charges last year. Every line in the report on her death reads like evidence that, as a young Indigenous woman, Tina didn’t matter to Canada.
Jody Wilson-Raybould’s story stands in stark contrast to Tina Fontaine’s. Ms. Wilson-Raybould has seemingly done everything right – at least according to Canadian standards of success. The daughter of Kwakwaka’wakw hereditary chief Bill Wilson, Ms. Wilson-Raybould went to law school, worked as a Crown prosecutor, as a treaty commissioner in B.C. and served as regional chief in the B.C. Assembly of First Nations, where she was incredibly well-liked and enjoyed unparalleled support until her move into Liberal politics. She eventually won a Liberal seat in Vancouver-Granville in 2015, and shortly after became the first Indigenous person to serve as the minister of justice and attorney-general of Canada. Ms. Wilson-Raybould seemed to believe that she could change the colonialism of the Canadian government from within that same government. Like a good sport, she toed the party line – calling the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People “unworkable” and falling in line when Justin Trudeau’s government decided to buy the Kinder Morgan pipeline. In the “Good Indian”/“Bad Indian” dichotomy – “Good Indians” being those who support Canada and don’t cause problems, and “Bad Indians” being everyone else – Ms. Wilson-Raybould was definitely a “Good Indian.”
And yet, not long after the SNC-Lavalin scandal broke in February, Mr. Trudeau and much of the Liberal Party, which once held Ms. Wilson-Raybould up as a star MP, turned on her. On Tuesday, she was turfed from the Liberal caucus, along with another former cabinet minister, her friend Jane Philpott, one of the few Liberals willing to back Ms. Wilson-Raybould.
If a woman who was considered by many to be a “Good Indian” can be used and disregarded this way, what does it mean for those of us who are considered “Bad Indians”? Those of us who have suffered tremendous trauma and loss, such as Tina Fontaine?
Indigenous women have always been specifically targeted by colonial violence. You can see evidence of this in the Indian Act, which legislated Indigenous women who married non-Indigenous men, as well as their children, out of their nations and communities until 1985. Gender discrimination still hasn’t been fully removed from the Indian Act, with current Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett fear-mongering about the possibilities of “hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of new Indigenous people” now needing funding under the Indian Act. Apparently Canada should be concerned about what it would mean if Indigenous women were legally given the same rights as Indigenous men.
A comprehensive study of the mortality rates of Status Indians found that Indigenous girls between the ages of 15 and 19 living on reserve face a mortality rate that is five times higher than non-Indigenous girls of the same ages. For Status Indian women between the ages of 10 and 44, the rate is three to four times higher than non-Indigenous women. These rates have not improved for women and girls living on reserve for 30 years.
For the Indigenous women who manage to survive, the possibility of achieving material success and security is bleak. We are less likely to find employment than non-Indigenous women, particularly if we live on reserves. We are two and a half times more likely than non-Indigenous women to experience spousal abuse. Our disappearances and murders in this country are so prevalent they are a recognizable hashtag: #MMIWG.
But despite this all, our women have endured to start and lead movements – everything from Idle No More, to the land reclamation at Kanonhstaton, to the organizing around MMIWG, which was on our radar for decades before the rest of Canada cared. We’ve been able to accomplish this much with all of these odds stacked against us. What could we accomplish if people in Canada actually treated us as valuable?
It’s well past time we find out.