Advocates say there are more than 1200 missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada, but these stories seldom garner national press. And Indigenous women in the provinces report a rate of violent victimization that is about 2.5 times higher than the rate for non-Indigenous women (Statistics Canada).
We spoke with two Indigenous advocates and experts about what we should be talking about when it comes to sexual violence and Indigenous communities.
Cyndy Baskin (The Woman Who Passes on the Teachings), Mi'kmaq Nation, worked in anti-violence and healing with communities for many years prior to becoming a professor of Social Work at Ryerson University where her focus is on decolonization and the value of Indigenous knowledges for all people. A survivor of violence and the mother of a daughter who died prematurely through violence, she continues to be involved in anti-violence work through volunteering with Sisters in Spirit, No More Silence, Walking With Our Sisters, and Native Women's Resource Centre of Toronto.
Leslie Spillett has made vast contributions for more than three decades to Winnipeg's inner-city and Indigenous community as an activist and advocate. She brings Indigenous and non-Indigenous Manitobans together on a wide range of issues that touch many aspects of the human spirit. Leslie founded one of Manitoba's most visionary Indigenous organizations, Ka Ni Kanichihk to support women and their families.
Interviewer: What are the challenges you've seen in mainstream media reporting on sexual violence enacted against Indigenous women?
Leslie: "Right from the very beginning of the conquest, Indigenous women's bodies... and our sexual solitude was always defined as problematic. Fast-forward to today's settings, [and] you see how the media defines [Indigenous women] through that narrative, through that lens. We have to understand it from a historical and cultural lens to see how this continues in contemporary landscapes."
Cyndy: "I would also like to see realistic analysis on cultural issue, like poverty, etc. [And] I also would really like to see dialogue around why is it okay to commit violence around Indigenous women? Why is it that men rape and why is it ok to do this? Why don't we look at the people who are doing the violence rather than only [Indigenous women]?"
Interviewer: How have you seen Indigenous women creating consent culture?
Leslie: "You can't have a consent culture within a colonial system. If you look at the structures that are oppressing women: women can't parent, so many obstacles and barriers that are created, they don't have safe places, they live in communities that are very hostile and violent...
What I see is a lot more women taking leadership... stepping forward and taking on issues around the environment, missing and murdered Indigenous women, poverty, oppression, race... I find that to be very hopeful and as a sign of resistance, and a sign of people picking themselves up and standing up.
"Recognize that Indigenous women had alternate consent culture before colonization. I see it so often: you come to a place where we start having conversations that, actually, Indigenous people had before Europeans arrived. These are not new; these are old concepts to us. This is not the brilliance of white supremacy that we're talking about here. This is what we had."
Interviewer: Often survivors are portrayed as white, straight, cisgender, able-bodied women. How can the media avoid minimizing stories about sexual violence against survivors that do not fit this narrative?
Cyndy: "Indigenous women, racialized women, transgender women, etc... they are the people who tend to face this violence way more... With colonialism and racism, it's certain bodies that it is ok to do violence to. I think that the media could take a very serious look at this issue .... A white woman goes missing, the entire country knows about it. 1200 indigenous women go missing and be murdered and what do you do? Most Canadians don't even know about this issue."
Leslie: "I see a lot of women in the communities that are voiceless, that are faceless, that don't have the kind of attention, that aren't meeting the standards of Western ideals... [Mainstream media coverage] does not reflect the women that I work with in those communities. They don't get that kind of recognition."
Interviewer: Statistics show most survivors do not report. Why is it important to have diverse representations of survivorship in media reporting?
Leslie: "There has to be a better community response where women can go to organizations [where] people have to be trained to take reports and have to know how to support the women once they do make a report so that they are going to be treated with respect, with dignity, like they are telling the truth. I don't like creating victims, I like creating more survivors, more people that are not living perpetually in victim roles. We have to have third party reporting processes that are available to women."
Cyndy: "Our communities are over-policed, so that if it's an Indigenous man who has raped you and you have a relationship of some kind with that person... it doesn't get reported because women know how Indigenous men are going to be treated by police and [the] criminal justice [system]... So it's over-policing at one end, and no policing at the other end. This stuff has been documented: a woman has called the police, they don't come. They end up finally showing up and she's dead."
Interviewer: There's been a swell in media coverage of rape culture in recent months. What conversations are you glad to see happening, and what do we still need to address?
Leslie: "In reporting, we need to shift our focus not on women.. but on the rape culture that exists within Canada as a colonial state, including the rape of our lands. We should educate Canadian about Indigenous truths, but also about the truths of Canada."
This post is part of a series of interviews femifesto is publishing on media reporting and sexual violence in diverse communities across Canada.
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