What actions could end the shocking disparity between the prosperity of Canada and the deprivation of First Nations? In our series Rich Country, Poor Nations, a range of contributors argue for one idea that could make a difference.
Nahanni Fontaine is special adviser on aboriginal women's issues for the province of Manitoba. She has spoken prolifically on the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls on a number of regional, national and international platforms. She was most recently recognized with the Governor-General's Award in Commemoration of the Persons Case (2013).
Canadians are guaranteed "equality" under Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but do we all experience it? Most indigenous women and girls would answer with a resounding "Are you kidding me?"
If we were to undertake one action in transforming the lives of indigenous women and girls across Canada, it would simply be to courageously execute and decidedly practise equality.
In the same way that Prime Minister Stephen Harper's daughter is guaranteed the right to live within an equitable space that affords her a myriad of opportunities to pursue her dreams and live a full and authentic life, indigenous women and girls must be assured the same.
Equality is not some equivocal, unattainable concept. Within an indigenous reality, its manifestation is literally the difference between life and death in the lives of indigenous women and girls every day across this country.
Indigenous women and girls have always been, and continue to be, collateral damage in Canada's story of colonization, settlement and development. Canada's narrative is born within the heart and womb of indigenous women, with little acknowledgment of the major role they played in our country's advance and the forged relationships carried out between newcomers and the First Peoples of these lands.
The lack of equality for indigenous women and girls is so clearly illustrated by epidemic levels of poverty; cultural, spiritual and physical dislocation; lack of secure housing; absence of economic opportunities; limited access to justice or reproductive health; aimed systemic racism; and the pervasive force of child and family services that women and girls confront unceasingly.
Altogether, these inequalities create the conditions from which spring the many critical issues that our people, as a whole, withstand daily – not the least, the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls.
Equality does not only mean, "I believe you are equal with me." It is situated within the execution of equitable policies, legislation and social development exercises that are designed to create equitable and meaningful opportunities for indigenous women and girls.
- Equality means that each First Nation child has access to education from kindergarten to Grade 12, and that respective communities are peopled with well-paid teachers and schools and homes that are free of mould and decay.
- Equality mean redirecting millions of dollars presently allocated to non-indigenous agencies to indigenous organizations to undertake that most important work of social and economic development from within an indigenous paradigm and protocol.
- Equality means legislating elected representative seats for indigenous women in regional, provincial and national legislatures, ensuring that our realities and voices are reflected in the very structures enacting policy and program change.
- Equality means that all Canadians shift their socially constructed narratives of indigenous women and girls as “sex-trade workers” or “prostitutes” or “whores” or “hookers” to those of sexually exploited women or girls. It follows, too, that equality means we must move the discourse from “john” to perpetrator. Equality means shifting the blame from exploited women and children (who “put themselves at risk”) to those who sexually exploit women and children and whom are rarely considered in the broader discussion of prostitution in Canada.
Within the totality of this inequitable space, the most savage levels of violence are perpetrated against the bodies of indigenous women and girls with utter ferocity and impunity. Indeed, one need only look to the stolen lives of Tina Fontaine, Jenilee Ballantyne, Sunshine Woods, Meagen Mancheese, Claudette Osborne, Cherisse Houle, Hillary Wilson, Jennifer McPherson, Fonessa Bruyere, Sylvia Ann Guiboche, Simone Sanderson, Amber Guiboche, Felicia Solomon Osborne, Jennifer Catcheway, Glenda Morrisseau, Kelly Morriseau, Mildred Flett, Lorna Blacksmith, Carolyn Sinclair, Tanya Nepinak, Diana Rattlesnake, Vanessa Prince, Julia Hunter, Myrna Letandre, Alinda Lahteenmaki …The list goes on.
At length, indigenous women and girls deserve an equitable Canada in which to live their most courageous, authentic and uncompromising lives. Until that is fully realized, we leave to them this shameful legacy.