Bodily integrity. The right to self-determination, personal autonomy and to have control over one’s body. Land sovereignty. The right to self-government of one’s own land. Bodily integrity and land sovereignty go hand in hand, especially when addressing issues surrounding the rights of Aboriginal people especially our Aboriginal women. Ever since the settlers arrived upon the shores of our land Aboriginal people, to a great degree, lost both bodily integrity and land sovereignty for which they have not fully regained control up to this day.
Teena whom you heard in the above video is a courageous young woman who is certainly passionate about the plight of her grandmothers, mothers, and sisters. Misogyny, sexism, racism, and discrimination against Indigenous cultures is a serious problem throughout Canada. The associates especially the ones indigenous women face at the hands of their abusers bares a striking resemblance to the way we treat the earth and the destruction of the land. I certainly agree with Teena, we need to love our women, we need to stand up on behalf of our women, we need to protect our women and we need to do the same to our land – “a female entity” – Mother Earth.
March 2017 International Women’s Day
Equal Voice invited Teena and a group of young women from the ages of 18 to 23 chosen from every federal riding in Canada representing their community. The aim for the Daughters of the Vote initiative was to ensure these 338 emerging young women leaders, among others, become familiar with Canada’s political institutions and the people serving in them. From coast-to-coast, these female delegates took their seats in Parliament and communicated their vision for Canada. As you heard Teena’s vision is to “look to the future and imagine the next 100 years of evolution led by women.” Her vision for Canada is a country that is fierce in leadership, one that respects and treat women as equals, a country where all Canadians are treated as equals.
In the 19th century, Aboriginal people not only lost their land, they also lost their traditional livelihood and self-sufficiency. Moreover, social economic and political marginalization, racial stereotyping, discrimination, the loss of culture, language and often pride, left Aboriginal people in Canada with little social or political power that contributed to their economic inequality – even abject poverty. Indigenous women living on reserves were only granted to vote in Canada in 1960 which underscored the deep roots of a racist approach, through the Indian Act, applied to indigenous people overall and other selected groups.
It was not until Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms was passed in 1982 that the right to vote was fully enshrined in Canadian law. Today, nothing of real significance has changed as urban and rural Aboriginal communities still continue to struggle with a lack of education, employment, skills, opportunities and income equity as government and politicians lack the political will to end these inequalities for the aboriginal people. In speaking about our natural land and its relationship to Aboriginal people, we now need to not only think about women empowerment and women’s bodily sovereignty but also land empowerment and land sovereignty for the Aboriginal people. Let us continue Part II of our discussion by examining the area in Northern B.C., in which Teena is from, and surrounding communities.
Northeastern British Columbia
In Northeastern B.C., Indigenous people make up just over 12% of the permanent population. Archaeological evidence shows that Indigenous people have lived in northeastern B.C. for more than 10,000 years and built intricate ties to the landscape and natural environment on which they have relied for food, medicines, clothing, shelter and sacred ceremony.
Amnesty International reports, “In the early years of the 20th century, as the first significant wave of European settlement began in the region, Indigenous leaders tried to protect their way of life by joining the existing Treaty 8 that was originally negotiated between Canada and Indigenous people in Alberta. Treaty 8 was designed to let First Nations “pursue their usual vocations of hunting, trapping and fishing” throughout the territory.” The treaty rights of Indigenous people are enshrined in the Canadian Constitution. The Supreme Court of Canada has found that historic treaties such as Treaty 8 must be given a “liberal,” contemporary interpretation that is consistent with the promises made to Indigenous people during the negotiations and with Indigenous peoples’ own understanding of the agreements reached.”
It is an area of the province that is rich in resource development where both men and women are often known to stay in labor camps when employed by mining companies. These environments are highly stressful which is often accompanied by physical isolation, drug and alcohol abuse at some camps which are often unsafe for women. A few women that Amnesty interviewed reported that some supervisors and co-workers expect female employees to be sexually available to them in exchange for their help. In fact in Northeastern B.C. racism is so prevalent in local communities many do not want to ‘identify themselves as an indigenous person or draw attention to their culture and heritage’. An Indigenous woman working in Fort St. John said “I fear of sharing who I am genuine,” explaining that she felt it would change her colleagues’ attitudes and behaviors toward her.
“Racism in the oil patch is sometimes obvious, but most of the time it is very subtle. Probably because of this, and other factors, there’s an assumption that if you’re an Aboriginal woman you’re an easy lay. Some oil patch men prey on Aboriginal women, and I suspect this racial attitude plays an important part.” ~ David Rattray, Retired Aboriginal Support Worker
Many Indigenous people that Amnesty International spoke with felt these problems are particularly acute in northeast B.C. where Chief Yahey and others draw a link between racism and the impacts of the resource economy. “Resource development brings in tens of thousands of people who have no connection to or experience with local Indigenous communities and no effort is made to educate them about Indigenous societies and their histories. At the same time, conflicts over resource development on Indigenous lands have helped create an impression among part of the public that Indigenous people are a threat to others who depend on resource sector income.”
As noted in Amnesty International’s 2004 Stolen Sisters report, “…pervasive discrimination against Indigenous people can lead to a greatly increased risk that men will feel they can commit acts of racist and misogynist violence against Indigenous women and girls with the approval of their peers and with little likelihood of being held to account. In turn, those facing the threat of violence may be reluctant to seek the help of police and other agencies.”
Women and the Environment
Eco-feminist theorists have argued a connection among patriarchy’s disregard for nature, for women, and for indigenous people. It is the same colonial/patriarchal mind that seeks to control the sexuality of women and indigenous people that also seeks to control nature. In Gossips, Gorgons, and Crones, author Jane Caputi states:
“Violence against women remains protected by a custom of, indifference, glamorization, and denial. Concomitantly, the culture, language, traditions, myths, social organizations, and members of gynocentric cultures such as those of North American Indians, have been slashed and trashed. Moreover, the basic myths, motivations, and methods behind geocide – the wasting of the organic and elemental worlds and the attempted annihilation of the planet – are rooted in gynocidal and misogynist paradigms.”
God blessed them, and said, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Gen 1:28)
One major complaint colonizers had of Native people was their inability to properly control or subdue nature. For instance, Jane Caputi quotes Governor John Winthrop of Massachusetts Bay declaring that “America fell under the legal rubric of vacuum domicilium because the Indians had not ‘subdued’ it and therefore had only a ‘natural’ and not a ‘civil’ right to it”. George E. Ellis (1880) echoed similar sentiments in that “the Indians simply wasted everything within their reach…” he complains, “They require enormous spaces of wilderness for their mode of existence.” Similarly, Walter Prescott Webb reasoned that free land was “land free to be taken.” This reasoning became the colonizer’s legal basis for appropriating land from Native people.
Unfortunate for the colonizers, nature is not so easy to subdue and control. As we find ourselves in the midst of an environmental disaster, it is clear that no one can escape the repercussions of environmental damage. Any Colonizer who attempts to deny this reality by forcing the expendable people, the “Canaanites” of our countries, out of their natural habitat will face the most immediate consequences of environmental destruction. Their technique mirrors the biblical narratives in which Israelites attempt to explain the disasters they face as the result of the Canaanites. Hardships the Israelites faced were generally blamed on them being too friendly with the Canaanites, especially with Canaanite women. In an attempt to divert “Yahweh’s anger”, they commit mass destruction of the Canaanites so they will not have to face destruction themselves.
Spring 2015, Pope Francis released his critically acclaimed encyclical Laudato Si’, the first dedicated entirely to the environment which identified the climate change and human trafficking as humanity’s top concerns. Of human trafficking he says, “The environmental degradation leaves women more exposed to being taken advantage of and treated as mere objects, imposing forced labor on them or enslaving them to pay their debts. The same kind of actions leads to the sexual exploitation of children and abandonment of the elderly who no longer can be taken care of or the selling of organs of the poor for resale or use in experimentation.”
In Santa Cruz, Bolivia, Pope Francis apologized for crimes committed against the native people during the conquest of America and repeated calls for economic justice for the world’s poor. Let us begin, Francis said, “by acknowledging that change is needed,” saying that something is wrong in a world where there are so many farm workers without land, families without homes, laborers without rights, persons whose dignity is not respected…” Francis called for a structural “process of change” because “this system is by now intolerable: farm-workers find it intolerable, laborers find it intolerable, communities find it intolerable, people find it intolerable… [and most importantly] the earth itself also finds it intolerable.” As a result, we now have a system that imposes the mentality of profit at any price, with no concern for social exclusion or the destruction of nature.
For indigenous people, bodily integrity remains an outstanding issue in many communities. “Kill the Indian, Save the man” was a term used that rang true of not only Native men but with Native women and their children as many countless indigenous people were stripped of their culture and removed by the government’s school boarding system. Furthermore, Indigenous women and girls are frequently sexually objectified and are often still stereotyped as being promiscuous, easy and available; such misconceptions often lead to murder, rape and other forms of violence by non-indigenous men.
Bodily integrity emphasizes the importance of personal autonomy and the self-determination of human beings over their own bodies. Violating the principles of bodily integrity and infringing on the body is an intrusive act that raises questions of ethics and in some cases is criminal. Bodily integrity also means to have the ability to move freely from place to place; being secure against violent [sexual] assault and the freedom of choice in matters of reproduction and opportunities for sexual satisfaction; women’s health, breaking women’s isolation, education, employment, and networking. Though bodily integrity is afforded to every human being, women – especially indigenous women – are more often affected by violations of gender-based violence, sexual assault, unwanted pregnancy, domestic abuse, and limited access to contraception.
Native counselors generally agree that a strong cultural identity is essential if Native people are to heal from abuse, racism and negative stereotyping. This is because Native women’s healing entails healing, not only from any personal abuse she has suffered, but also from the patterned history of abuse against her family, her nation, and the environment in which she lives. No doubt a rigorous, and comprehensive standard of human rights protection is required to address violence against women and public education to eliminate negative stereotyping, misogyny, racism and other prejudices, to combat harmful stereotypes. Report after report from highly regarded organizations including the United Nations has all called for action to discuss root causes of inequality and discrimination that include improving women’s “enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights”.
The rape of Aboriginal women is the story of the destruction of their bodily integrity and their role in child rearing, the destruction of cultural and national sovereignty, and the destruction of the earth. Issues of violence against women and children cannot remain secondary to issues of sovereignty because it is through violence against women and children that colonizers have sought to destroy Native sovereignty. In working to restore Native sovereignty we must strive to give voice to those who often have been neglected when policy makers are making decisions.
This is what Teena meant, in the above video, when she said we aren’t at the point of reconciliation – we are still at truth-telling. And in truth-telling, we should strive to listen to indigenous women’s voices which should form the heart of such decision-making policy while addressing the twin wound of race and gender. Until then and only then we can embark on the road to reconciliation.