Aboriginal women are the real threat to the status quo and pose the greatest threat to the male dominated power structures in Canadian society.
I’ve seen many commentaries on the Idle No More protest movement in the media and on blog posts, but have not personally seen any from the perspective of a First Nations man. While many would argue that the movement is gender neutral, seeing as it encompasses the views, concerns and aspirations of our Elders, adults, and youth regardless of gender, the fact remains that Idle No More sprang from the fertile hearts and minds of four women in Saskatoon, not four men. To dismiss this fact arbitrarily would be to suggest that the effect of colonization is also gender neutral. As I see it, nothing could be further from the truth. Government spokespeople, the media, and many in the general public still view the efforts of Aboriginal women to resist colonialism as an act of sedition unworthy of consideration and they respond by attacking the very integrity of these women, by whatever means necessary.
Since the time of the early fur trade, the settler populations have employed paternalistic, Judeo-Christian biases to their relationships with Native populations. The history of Canada is littered with the detritus of this bias: fur traders refusing to trade with Aboriginal women; the passing of moral judgment of Aboriginal women by the Jesuits; the imposition of band councils and the banning of women from political activity; the loss of status when women married non-Native men; the segregation of girls from boys in residential schools; forced sterilization; and the adopting out of Aboriginal children. Aboriginal women have suffered these losses because of the gendered stereotypes that positioned them as beasts of burden, morally corrupt, unequal to men socially and politically, and as unfit mothers. These stereotypes endure today and are so far reaching and deeply embedded in the Canadian psyche that resistance remains the only viable option to attain equality, justice and respect.
Aboriginal men, on the other hand, had their status elevated merely because they were men – not to the extent that they were viewed as being equal to European men, but elevated nonetheless, to the point that traditional gender relationships based on mutual respect and reciprocal reliance were replaced by violence and separation. The imposition of western morality, religion, political systems and worldviews required the suppression of Aboriginal belief systems. Then, in order to defend these systems of oppression, it was necessary to utilize violence and subterfuge. Without exception, wherever colonization occurred, traditional relationships and gender roles were systematically corrupted.
Aboriginal women have become the new warriors in the fight for justice, arming themselves with BA’s, master’s degrees, and PhD’s from leading universities. As mothers, they have given our youth positive examples to follow. As a result, Aboriginal women are the real threat to the status quo and pose the greatest threat to the male dominated power structures in Canadian society. Idle No More emerged out of a Saskatoon teach-in in November 2012 when four women, Nina Wilson, Sheelah McLean, Sylvia McAdam and Jessica Gordon were discussing what could be done to stop the federal governments omnibus legislation known then as Bill C-45. The name of the protest movement came out of their realization that they could no longer sit idle while the federal government attempted to pass a bill that not only contained clauses that threatened the rights of First Nations peoples, but that also contained clauses that made changes to environmental protection which was a threat to all Canadians. It was clear that the federal government was attempting to enact legislation that would make it easier to bypass consultation with First Nations and to roll back environmental protection laws, in order to make it easier for large conglomerates to extract resources and to build oil pipelines.
There are those who insist that we live in a post-colonial society, but do not think for a moment that the gendered stereotypes have abated. The Idle No More movement is a testament to the continuing bias and the fight against it. As long as Aboriginal men dominate the positions of power in both the Assembly of First Nations and on band councils, and as long as the government and the media ignore the injustices inflicted upon Aboriginal women, the only avenue left open is protest. The pundits who weigh in on the legitimacy of these protest movements are careful to couch their arguments in non-gender specific terms, but the evidence against this neutrality speaks for itself. The women-lead Idle No More movement is often dismissed by the mainstream as not being a movement at all, but rather a cacophony of disconnected voices; a mere rabble without leadership, focus or a clear political message. Yet even as their efforts were being spurned, the movement refused to succumb to low-handed tactics and responded instead with peaceful means of gathering support through public round dances, teach-ins, and the effective use of social media. As national and international support increased, it became obvious that a more forceful tactic would have to be taken to demonize the movement.
The symbolism of the emergence of the Idle No More movement has not been lost upon me. Here is a movement started by three First Nations women and one non-Native woman that speaks to the universality of a movement that defies racial and cultural classifications. It recognizes that Aboriginal women, even more so than other women in Canadian society, have had their traditional roles as pertinent and participating members of Aboriginal social and political structures usurped by a western models of male dominance. So not only were the government’s tactics undemocratic in regards to Bill C-45, but the tactics also illustrated the current government’s sanctioning of the rape of Mother Earth by resource conglomerates. This is best illustrated by the changes to the Navigable Waters Protection Act, contained within Bill C-45 which threatens the rivers, streams, and lakes of Canada – the very lifeblood of Mother Earth, to allow industry the unimpeded access to pristine, virgin territory for the vulgar construction of pipelines to pump dirty bitumen to markets south and west.
The current government has a lot riding on the construction of the Northern Gateway Pipeline and the Keystone XL pipeline, so when the Idle No More movement could not be effectively discounted, they craftily used the much maligned Chief Theresa Spence of Attawapiskat to undermine Idle No More. When Chief Spence announced her intention to hold a hunger strike on December 11, 2012 to protest against the government’s lack of respect for First Nations rights and treaty rights, an action taken nearly a month after the emergence of Idle No More, both the federal government and the media latched onto the movement’s support of her efforts and linked them as one and the same.
It must be remembered that Chief Spence and her council at Attawapiskat had already been maligned by the federal government and judged by the media as yet another example of the corruption in First Nations communities. She was accused of misappropriation of funds after declaring a state of emergency in her community, not once, but three times, to protest the housing conditions. After linking Idle No More to Chief Spence, an audit was mysteriously leaked to the media that purportedly showed that Attawapiskat failed to provide proper documentation to the federal government for monies received mostly for housing, infrastructure and education. It is widely believed that it was in fact the feds that leaked the audit.
Outcry over the obscene statistics of disappeared and murdered Aboriginal women have been met with diminishment and skepticism, with headlines like “RCMP questions claims of 600 missing Aboriginal women.” When the New York based Human Rights Watch drew attention to the abuse of Aboriginal women at the hands of the RCMP in northern British Columbia, Prime Minister Harper stood in the House of Commons and announced that these women should seek redress by taking their claims to the very agency who are accused of the abusing them. This insensitivity and criminality would not be tolerated in any other segments of society; however, because Aboriginal women are still viewed through a colonial lens and represent a very small voting sector, their claims are largely ignored.
When Cindy Blackstock, who heads the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, along with the Assembly of First Nations filed a complaint with the federal government under the Canadian Human Rights Act (CHRA) taking issue with the chronic underfunding of child services on reserves, the federal government took exception. Even though these claims are supported by reports from the Auditor General of Canada and the Standing Committee on Public Accounts the government went to great expense to undermine her claims through the courts. After she submitted a request under the Freedom of Information and Privacy Act it came to light that the federal government held a six-inch thick dossier on Blackstock herself, documenting observation by federal employees at over 100 meetings where she had spoken. Even her Facebook page had been accessed by federal bureaucrats and her Indian status file, including information about her family, was accessed on at least two occasions. For defending the rights of First Nations children, Blackstock was treated as an enemy of the state or a terrorist.
Since the 1990’s funding for post-secondary education for First Nations students has been capped at 2% despite population and tuition increases. As of 2007, this has resulted in 22, 500 First Nations students being denied funding. Since Aboriginal women are twice as likely as Aboriginal men to attain certificate, degree or diploma, the federal government cap on funding affects women most adversely. Despite the fact that Aboriginal women are the most vulnerable sector in Canadian society, Aboriginal women’s healthcare was undermined when the federal government cut all funding for health programming by the Native Women’s Association of Canada in 2012. The attack on Aboriginal women is also reflected in Canada’s prisons where their representation has increased by nearly 90% in the past 10 years; these numbers are sure to increase as the full effects of the federal governments ‘tough on crime’ legislation begin to take effect.
Canada remains a colonial society dominated by white-male power structures, much as it was in the past. I realize more than ever, how deeply embedded these gendered attitudes are in Canadian society and that they are not merely reflected in the non-Native population, but have become internalized as well. I too, sadly, have allowed these gendered stereotypes to seep into my psyche throughout the years to negative effect. Consciously or not, I realize that I have never dated nor been involved with an Aboriginal woman, based on the negative stereotypes I grew up with. I also recognize that the shame I felt about my mother was the result of these stereotypes. The cycles of self-recrimination and addiction I’ve experienced throughout my life are a direct result of my inability, at the time, to understand why I was ashamed of my indigeneity.
At the age of forty-four, I completed university and through my studies I came to understand that shame and guilt are weapons utilized by governments to ensure that Aboriginal peoples oppress themselves. Combined with the effects of policy and legislation and the negative spin of the media, stereotypes will continue to be a tool to suppress the public support needed to rectify the injustices and inequities that plague our communities. The second step I took to embrace my First Nations status and learn to ameliorate my feelings of guilt and inadequacy was giving back to my community through volunteerism and taking a leadership role. And thirdly, I stopped believing the lie that past and present governments enacted policy and legislation for Aboriginal peoples with the ‘best’ intentions.
Protest movements led by Aboriginal women embraced these concepts long ago, not only because it was necessary for survival, but because as mothers, they were thinking of future generations. Their devotion to resistance and their resilience in the face of what appears, at times, to be insurmountable odds, speaks to these maternal instincts to protect and to regenerate. The Idle No More movement has recognized and drawn attention to the current government’s dismantling of environmental protection laws that leave the regeneration abilities of Mother Earth vulnerable to profit-driven violence. This recognition was not a result of happenstance, but rather a natural response by Aboriginal women drawing from their own experiences of vulnerability. I believe that the Idle No More movement is the positive example Aboriginal youth can follow to avoid the pitfalls in life that I encountered and to proudly embrace their identity.