Native Women's Association of Canada

What Happened

Attacks on core and project funding for the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) began under the regime of Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien but surged under that of Conservative Stephen Harper. By 2015 NWAC was hemorrhaging badly even as it remained the most significant civil society champion of Indigenous women. Its peril confirmed the endangered state of democracy in Harper’s Canada.


Background

NWAC is Canada’s leading champion of Indigenous women’s rights on and off reserves. Indigenous and female rights-seekers have rarely found friends in Ottawa’s higher circles but NWAC has been especially vulnerable to the ascent of reactionary politics in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Just over four decades old in 2015, NWAC has a distinguished record of challenging both sexism and racism in mainstream and Indigenous communities. Much of its agenda has focused on equality under the Indian Act and before the law generally and recognition for Indigenous women in negotiations with federal and provincial governments. Its determination to combat violence against Indigenous women and girls is the special focus of this case study. As the February 2015 Review of Reports and Recommendations on Violence against Indigenous Women in Canada by the Legal Strategy Coalition on Violence against Indigenous Women makes abundantly clear, such abuse has been widely and repeatedly documented.

Ottawa’s Liberal and Conservative power-brokers have been deeply uncomfortable with the prospect of sharing power with Indigenous leaders. Their resistance has been especially visible when NWAC made claims for women at constitutional tables overwhelming dominated by Indigenous and settler men. NWAC’s feminist sympathies were similarly suspect when it connected violence against Indigenous women and girls firmly to pervasive racism, sexism, and poverty. Its demands for systemic change directly challenge neo-conservatives’ preference for privatization, criminalization, and austerity for the disadvantaged.

NWAC’s Unique Position

NWAC embodies the complex politics of identities in Canada. One scholar summed up this complexity: “Rights, then, functioned for Indian women in defining themselves within multiple historical contexts and identities—as racialized Indians, as tribal, as women, as women of color, as feminists, as international and civil rights activists” (Barker). From its founding in 1973-4 as an umbrella group of provincial and local Aboriginal women’s organizations, NWAC demanded “as women, to be part of the policy and legislative processes that are being set up to define, develop and interpret their forms of Aboriginal government” (McIvor 36). It looked forward to the day when Indigenous women would no longer be “citizens minus” (Jamieson).

By the 1980s, NWAC “took the lead in protesting state actions that disadvantaged Aboriginal women,” challenging both Aboriginal men and mainstream politicians (Fiske, 2000: 14). Despite its protests to Canadian governments and the United Nations, it was excluded from constitutional discussions surrounding the Charlottetown Accord (1992).

In its efforts to forge a distinctive politics that acknowledges the impact of both gender and race, NWAC has always walked a fine line. Some critics, especially the advocates of the early Indian brotherhood organizations, condemned the influence of western feminism and its criticism of Indigenous men. Relations with mainstream feminism, which struggled to escape its own history of racism in these years, were similarly bumpy. Nevertheless by 2015, NWAC was key to both the Assembly of First Nations and the Feminist Alliance for International Action Canada/l’Alliance feminist pour l’Action internationale Canada prioritizing an end to violence against Indigenous women and girls.

Confronting Violence Against indigenous Women

In the 21st century, violence against Aboriginal women and girls has increasingly taken centre stage even as a cascade of evidence, especially after the 1989 Montreal massacre, roused the mainstream women’s movement. Revelations associated with serial killers John Martin Crawford in Saskatchewan (convicted 1996; Goulding) and Robert Pickton in BC (convicted 2007; BC Missing Women Commission of Inquiry) underscored violence as a special issue for indigenous activists but many earlier murders, such as that of Cree twenty-year-old Helen Betty Osborne, in The Pas, Manitoba, in 1971, supplied ample proof of historic victimization.

Although laughter greeted a feminist MP, NDPer Margaret Mitchell, in 1982 when she raised the question of violence in the House of Commons, Canadians increasingly condemned its prevalence. In 1991, Brian Mulroney’s Conservative government appointed the Canadian Panel on Violence against Women in a tactic widely regarded as an effort to seize an embarrassing issue from NWAC, the National Action Committee on the Status of Women and mainstream feminist critics of state inaction. “The glaring absence of specific communities of women” from Panel membership confirmed a rift between Ottawa and the organized women’s movements with their demands for action (Gotell 56). While women of colour, immigrant women and women with disabilities remained largely ignored, Aboriginal women secured “the addition of four 'Aboriginal Circle' members, chosen by and responsible to their organizations” (Gotell 57). Such last minute inclusion reflected emerging public recognition of the particular plight of Indigenous women.

Ultimately, despite its boycott by many anti-violence activists, the Panel’s report “reflected feminist discourses and approaches” (Gotell 58), notably in its emphasis on violence as “shaped by complex and intersecting inequalities”(Gotell 60) and the necessity of broad social change. The Conservative government publicly “embraced” much of the report “but refused to commit any new budgetary resources to the battle against violence”(Gotell 68). In 1993, the federal victory of the Chrétien Liberals, with their own law and order agenda and emphasis on cutbacks to transfer payments, made little difference. Anti-violence work by NWAC, as with other groups, continued to depend on uncertain and conditional state funding. Even when the 2000 Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and 2015 Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission presented incontrovertible evidence of historic violence, amounting in effect to cultural genocide, governments remained reluctant partners.

The on-going revelation of Canada’s ‘missing and murdered’ Indigenous women nevertheless kept violence in the public spotlight. In 2003, NWAC president Terri Brown, of B.C.’s Tahitan Nation, built on decades of anti-violence work by Aboriginal women’s groups (see, for example, efforts of the Quebec Native Women’s Association http://www.faq-qnw.org/old/history.html and Breaking Free, a report from the Ontario Native Women’s Association, 1989), to publicly condemn the estimated “more than 500 Aboriginal women gone missing” over two decades. Calling for immediate action, she “underscored the limited investigation” into such tragedies (Sterritt). A year later NWAC launched its Sisters in Spirit (SIS) initiative, which included a campaign asking Ottawa for $10 million to fund research. In 2005, shortly before its defeat, Paul Martin’s Liberal government announced it would provide $5 million over five years.

That funding, continued by the Harper minority government, allowed NWAC to initiate a long-needed database on the missing and murdered. In March 2010, SIS published What Their Stories Tell Us. This set out the critical knowledge gaps, including lack of attention to the ethnicity of victims and injurious stereotypes, as keys to the recurring failure to tackle systematically the abuse of girls and women (Crowder). The Harper government, which, equally revealingly of its attitude to data, abolished the long census in June 2010, at first seemed indifferent.

Funding Directed Away from Aboriginal Organizations

In October 2010, the Harper administration response to What Their Stories tell us was made abundantly clear: Rona Ambrose, the Conservative minister responsible for the status of women, redirected most funding away from SIS to a national police support centre for missing persons. Champions of Sisters in Spirit condemned the shift for its lack of focus on native women. The RCMP’s own highly-publicized problems with sexual harassment only further confirmed the difficulty of trusting its services (Macdonald and Gillis). SIS itself survived within NWAC, struggling to collect data and to support October 4th as the occasion of nation-wide vigils to “honour the lives of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls; and [to] support grieving families and provide opportunities for social change.”

Reductions persisted even as April 2012 legislation removed “key licensing and registration provisions for non-restricted firearms.” As the submission of the Canadian Federation of University Women and the National Council of Women of Canada to the United Nations made abundantly clear, Conservative legislative preferences failed to take into “account women’s disproportionate vulnerability to intimate-partner violence and homicide.

NWAC refused to take violence off the table. Once again tying data to the need for state action, it launched Evidence to Action (ETA). Status of Women Canada (SWC), whose modest budget had already been itself sharply cut by both Conservative and Liberal administrations, funded ETA for 2011-14 with $1.8 million. None of this ‘new’ money could be spent on maintaining the SIS database or on research and policy work (Barrera; Gergin). Such exclusions were in keeping with the Conservatives’ preference for funding services, however meagre, for which it could variously both take credit and find fault, rather than research to which it would be expected to respond.

Despite SWC project funding, NWAC suffered, along with other Aboriginal organizations, cascading budget cuts. In April 2012 Health Canada eliminated funding to projects on the health of Aboriginal women, an issue directly pertinent to the better understanding of abuse. NWAC’s executive director understandably feared “that the government is reverting back to generating Aboriginal health policies without input from Aboriginal researchers” (Claudette Dumont Smith in Webster). In June 2013, another round of federal cutbacks threatened “up to 30 per cent” of its budget (Aanationtalk).

NWAC was not alone in struggling for survival. In May 2015, Ottawa informed the Quebec Native Women’s Association that it was no longer considered an “aboriginal-representative organization”; it was to lose the $175,000 annual funding previously received from Heritage Canada. In August 2015 the website of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada reported the reduction, from 2012 levels, in its core funding of all Aboriginal Representative organizations. Only three of the 46 funded groups–NWAC, the Pauktuutit Inuit Women’s Association, and Alberta’s Women of the Métis Nation–were women-identified.

Diminished support occurred even as the RCMP’s Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women: National Operational Review (2014) reaffirmed tragedy. In fact, its reliance on cases included in the Canadian Police Information Centre, a national police data-base, well-known for its omissions, meant that its figure of 1,017 murdered women was suspiciously low (Legal Strategy Coalition on Violence Against Indigenous Women, c June 2015).

In 2015, NWAC once again rallied. This time, it launched Project PEACE “focusing on gathering more research on perceptions of safety experienced by Aboriginal women and girls and issues of violence experienced by Aboriginal women and girls and Aboriginal men and boys.” Its explicit inclusion of men and boys continued long-standing concerns but the 2015 update to the 2014 RCMP Operational Review offered the Conservative government opportunities to scapegoat Indigenous men. Its preoccupation with family violence appeared especially convenient for conservative politicians “at a time when government funding is being withdrawn from joint task forces investigating the deaths of women in urban settings, or along remote highways where stranger and acquaintance crime is likely to affect them” (Legal Strategy Coalition on Violence Against Indigenous Women, 7).

The Conservative Status of Women minister Kellie Leitch cited the update in making Aboriginal men the problem (rather as if domestic violence in itself wasn’t sufficient cause for address) and once again denying the need for a national inquiry. Conspicuously ignored was the pervasive “poverty, discrimination and poor education that lead indigenous women into high risk lifestyles” (Galloway and Carlson). The message of systemic racism and sexism delivered by NWAC for more than 40 years was once again rejected.

Relevant Dates

  • June 2015: Missing and Murdering Aboriginal Women: 2015 Update to the National Operational Review (Royal Canadian Mounted Police)
  • 2015: Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada
  • 2015: Report of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, investigating the murder and disappearance of Aboriginal girls and women in Canada
  • May 2014: Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women: A National Operational Overview (RCMP)
  • 2013: UN Commission on Human Rights, investigating the murder and disappearance of Aboriginal girls and women in Canada
  • 2010: ‘Evidence to Action’ project launched by NWAC with SWC funding
  • 2010: Rona Ambrose, federal minister for the status of women, announced shift of most funding from creation of a SIS database to a national police support centre for missing persons
  • 2004: NWAC launched Sisters in Spirit campaign.
  • Oct. 2004: Amnesty International publishes Stolen Sisters: A Human Rights Response to Discrimination and Violence against Indigenous Women in Canada
  • 2000: Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples
  • 1993: Report of the Canadian Panel on Violence Against Women
  • June 1991: release of the House of Commons Sub-Committee on the Status of Women’s report The War Against Women, quickly rejected by the Standing Committee on Health, Welfare and Social Affairs
  • 1989: Massacre of women at the Université de Montréal
  • 1985: Bill-C-31 An Act to Amend the Indian Act ended practice of eliminating status for Indian women marrying non-Indians
  • 1982: Section 35(1), Constitution Act, recognizes inherent right to Aboriginal self-government
  • 1982: Section 35 (4), Constitution Act, affirms that Aboriginal and treaty rights guaranteed equally men and women
  • 1982: Sections 15 and 28 of the Constitution Act affirm gender equality.
  • 1980: Sandra Lovelace of the Tobique First Nation successfully appeals to the UN Human Rights Committee regarding discrimination against women in the Indian Act
  • 1979: Women from New Brunswick’s Tobique Reserve march from Oka (Kanesatake) to Ottawa to mark 110 years of Indian Act’s mistreatment of Native women
  • 1974: creation of NWAC and the Quebec Native Women’s Association
  • 1973: creation of the Indian Rights for Indian Women, national arm of the Equal Rights for Native Women, and the Ontario Native Women’s Association
  • 1973: in case brought by ten provincial Indian brotherhoods the Supreme Court of Canada reverses earlier decision and argues that the Indian Act takes precedence over the Canadian Charter of Human Rights
  • 1971: Janet Corbière-Lavell wins recognition from the federal tribunal that the Indian Act discriminated again Indian women marrying non-status men; Ontario Supreme Court makes the same ruling against the Six Nations Band Council, which wished to exclude Yvonne Bedard and her children as non-status.
  • 1971: Murder of Helen Betty Osborne in The Pas, Manitoba
  • 1970: Report of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women
  • 1968: Equal Rights for Native Women Association created in Quebec; headed by Mary Two-Axe Early, Mohawk of Kahnawake.
  • 1968: Alberta Native Women’s Voices founded by Bertha Clark-Jones, later NWAC’s first president, and others in Fort McMurray, Alberta

Role or Position

NWAC is the leading civil society organization for Indigenous women in Canada. It draws on Indigenous cultural practices and feminist insights into oppression to mount a significant challenge to long-standing colonial and patriarchal practices. State support of or threat to its well-being reveals the health of fundamental human rights. In 2015 Canada’s federal government has marked itself out as a determined opponent of NWAC’s efforts to win justice for Indigenous women.

Implications and Consequences

  • Civil Society: NWAC has been a key civil society champion of Indigenous women and girls. Its determination has done much to educate Canadian opinion and to keep continuing threats to the rights of Indigenous women and girls on the public agenda.
  • Democracy and Equality: Even as governments have failed to protect Indigenous women and girls, NWAC has been their champion. Prospects for democracy and equality would be poorer without its interventions.
  • Transparency: In 2008 Prime Minister Harper apologized for the century and more of abuse perpetuated by the Indian Residential Schools. Despite this public apology with its implication of remedy and repentance, Ottawa has failed to support Indigenous representatives. Its reduction in support to NWAC demonstrates the gulf between the promise of justice and the reality of indifference.

Published: 15 Sept. 2015

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