Cameron Freeman Internet Marketing, Soci-Cultural Antropology

Cameron Freeman

Identity, Social Invisibility, Institutional Structures of Violence and the Mortality of Aboriginal Women

Abstract: This paper explores the trajectory of how aboriginal women lived and functioned prior to settler-colonialism, with an examination of how colonial intrusions, such as the Indian Act of 1868, have fragmented aboriginal identities and subsequently disrupted aboriginal gender roles. By analyzing how aboriginal women's identities have been reconstructed through racialized and discriminatory social structures, I will show how invisible, discardable human subjects have been formed, subjecting them to higher than normal mortality rates. Subsequently this has resulted in 1000 missing or murdered aboriginal women between 1980 and 2012. Lastly, I will show how Aboriginal women are pushing back to reconstruct their identities and social visibility as a form agency and protection.

According to a 1996 government report, Aboriginal women are five times more likely to be murdered than any other group of women in Canada (Priya et al. 2005:10). In a 2014 RCMP report, 1017 aboriginal women were murdered between 1980 and 2012 (Scownen 2014:A4). Why are aboriginal women more likely to be murdered than other women? What structures—historical, cultural, institutional and societal—are contributing to the racialization, discrimination and marginalization of aboriginal women and how do these structural forces facilitate invisible, discardable human subjects? What can be done to reconcile these disparaging transgressions? How can aboriginal women enforce their agency and protect themselves? In what ways can aboriginal women construct identities that are visible, and empower and initiate changes within Canadian culture?

Historical Intrusions and Shifting Gender Roles

Prior to settler-colonial intrusions, aboriginal society, generally speaking, was organized matrilineally. Gender norms were informed within the various bands as separate but equal, whereby men had their place, and women and other gendered identities had their places (Barker 2006:132). Furthermore, aboriginal women and other gendered peoples had opportunities within their bands in governance, ceremonial life and trade, giving them public and empowered positions as diplomats and traders (Barker 2006:132). Inuit women, old enough to remember life as it was in the camps, commented that family violence was considered despicable and rare compared to present day domestic violence. Instead, the lives of husband and wife were intermeshed and marriage was not optional; in fact, it was a matter life and death (Billson 2006:72). A husband was needed to hunt and feed the family and the woman was needed to make clothing from seal and caribou so the man would not freeze to death on the hunt (Billson 2006:72). Husband and wife got along. If a husband beat his wife he would be chastised by the rest of the community and required to change his ways or leave (Billson 2006:72).

It was these social relations and cultural beliefs that were targeted by settler-colonialism and systematically restructured by the Indian Act of 1868, which gave Parliament control over Indians and Lands set aside for Indians. Furthermore, the Indian Act defined the laws and procedures of band governments, terms of land occupancy and land use by bands on these land trusts and reserves (Barker 2006:130). This led to the creation of the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (DIAND), whose agents were commissioned to oversee band operations, management of reserve lands, resources, housing, as well as all related program funding, including health and education (Barker 2006:130). Moreover the DIAND maintained full control of the Indian Registry, which listed by band all those whom, according to the Indian Act, were considered Indian; and only those designated as "Indian" could participate and vote in band elections, hold a band government position, occupy reserve housing, be employed by the bands and receive band services (Barker 2006:130). However, it was due to the 1876 amendment to the Indian Act, that the "rights" of Indian women were undermined and gender-based inequalities exacerbated (Barker 2006:132). Although patriarchy and sexism existed within Indian communities before 1876, it was the amendment to the Indian Act—which defined "Indian status" by partrilineal descent—that Indian social and interpersonal relations were restructured, separating Indians from their cultural histories, oral traditions, beliefs and practices, with devastating and long lasting consequences (Barker 2006: 132). Reinforced by colonizers who refused to negotiate with Aboriginal women on issues of land and people, and forbidding Aboriginal women to sign treaties (Pedersen et al. 2013:1036), the 1876 Indian Act amendment promoted the status of Indian men in their cultural roles and responsibilities, empowering them with more political and economic power while devaluing and disempowering Indian women (Barker 2006:132). Moreover, these colonial policies helped to further shape the devaluation of Aboriginal women by altering gender regimes, which in turned increased vulnerability to intimate partner violence, especially amongst non-Aboriginal men (Pedersen et al. 2013:1036).

Status provisions as defined by the Indian act were created with the intent of assimilating Indians into Canadian society, as Canadian citizens (Barker 2006: 131). Indian men with status passed status onto women to whom they married and subsequently their children. Women with status could not. A status woman, when married, lost her status in her father's band, and if the man she married had non-status then she too would be designated a non-status Indian, losing her birth status as an Indian (Barker 2006:131). If a status woman married a status man, she would lose her father's band status and receive the status of her husband's band. But, should her husband divorce her, she would not only lose her husband's band status, she would not be reinstated to her father's band status, thus designated non-status (Barker 2006:131). Consequently, the only way for a non-status woman to regain her status as an Indian woman would be to remarry a status Indian. This restructuring of gender and status relations caused many Indian women not to marry and thus the status of their children as Indian could only happen if paternity was proven to be that of an Indian status male (Barker 2006:131). Status men on the other hand, could marry non-Indian, status women or non-status women and bestow status upon them and their children. Furthermore, a status male could never lose his status based on whom he married (Barker 2006: 131). However, a status male could lose his status under the enfranchisement provisions, as designated by the Indian Act, should he serve in the Canadian military or be educated in a public school. Moreover, should an enfranchised status Indian be married, he would not only lose his status, his wife and children would lose their status too and be declared Canadian citizens (Barker 2006:131).

The status provisions of the Indian Act structurally attacked Indian women and their roles, disempowering them while normalizing and legitimizing privilege amongst Indian males within the band government, including land and resource access and use, social benefits and services as well as social politics (Barker 2006: 133). Thus, for Indian males, the Indian Act system provided a relative position of power and entitlement that forged the sexism and domestic violence and sexual abuse that is pervasive today in band governments and reserves.

Domestic and Sexual Violence

Restricting aboriginal movement and forced sedentarization through the reserve system has exacerbated isolation, community stress, marginality and substance abuse, thus increasing domestic violence and female victimization and diminished female well-being (Billson 2006:71). Nunavut's domestic violence rates are several times higher than the national rate (Billson 2006:72). Spousal assault is considered the most pressing problem expressed by both young and old Inuit women (Billson 2006:73).

In Inuit communities resettlement had disrupted the balance between the "home and the hunt" which led to a shift in the gender regime during the first decade of the post-resettlement of the mid-1970s. Inuit women demonstrated stronger adherence to schooling and abstinence from substance abuse, whereas Inuit males succumbed to drug and alcohol abuse and experience lower self-esteem due to educated Inuit women working outside the home and becoming primary household providers (Billson 2006:74). This pattern has continued in Inuit communities, whereby Inuit women are completing a post-secondary education, outpacing Inuit males well into the millennium (Billson 2006:74). Subsequently, due to role reversals where Inuit males are no longer the major provider to their families, Inuit men have reacted with increased domestic violence, substance abuse and depression (Billson 2006:75).

Inuit communities are not alone in their experience of higher than normal rates of domestic and sexual violence. According to a review of Aboriginal Women's physical and mental health status in Ontario (2003), seventy-five percent of Aboriginal women in Canada have been victims of family violence; fifty-five percent of First Nations women reported physical abuse; and forty-five percent reported sexual abuse (Grace 2003:175). In another report on the health disparities in Aboriginal Canada (2005), studies showed that family violence was reported by forty-four percent living on the reserves and was eight percent higher than those women living off the reserve. Furthermore, sexual abuse and rape on the reserve was reported higher than those living off the reserve (Adelson 2005:S54). Moreover, seventy-five percent of women who reported themselves victims of sex crimes were women under the age of 18, with fifty percent of those being under the age of 14 years and twenty-five percent under the age of seven (Adelson 2005:S55). Children recall, that on the reserve, their parents' drinking parties were dangerous affairs, with a history of violence and sexual abuse; "We'd have to sneak out the window and go sleep in the bush in the middle of the night ... come out in the morning when everyone was passed out" (Niezen 2009:184).

Indicative of unbalanced gender regimes, physical and sexual acts of violence perpetrated upon aboriginal women and girls lead to compromised female well-being in one generation and often acts as a precipitator of violence in subsequent generations, creating a perpetual cycle of domestic and sexual abuse, trauma, parenting and family dysfunction and alcoholism and drug addiction (Billson 2006:77).

From the Reserve to the Urban Centres

Approximately 3,000 to 5,000 Aboriginal women live in the Downtown Eastside Vancouver earning an average income of less than $12,000 per year (Culhane 2009:160). The City of Vancouver is host to some 28,000 Aboriginal people; with over fifty percent of urban Aboriginal households headed by women, who are concentrated in low-income sectors (Culhane 2009:161).

Many aboriginal women with children leave the reserve due to family violence, loss of status and lack of housing access—primarily because aboriginal women who leave abusive relationships cannot remain in their communities because reserve services are made unavailable to those women who leave their husbands (Janovicek 2003:554). And, for those who do leave the reserve community, their claims of sexual and physical abuse are generally not take seriously and are often viewed with disbelief or indifference (Adelson 2005:S55). Furthermore, outside the reserve, Aboriginal women face both individual and institutional discrimination and racism leaving them in a highly vulnerable situation in wider Canadian society. Burdened with negative stereotyping, racialized and discriminated against, Aboriginal women have few opportunities in the large urban centers. Viewed as a gendered survival strategy, prostitution is seen as a way of escaping aboriginal households where a history incessant domestic violence, including childhood sexual assault and childhood physical assault, which were normative experiences.(Farley et al. 2005:252). Fifty-two percent of Vancouver's prostitutes are First Nations women (Farley et al. 2005:242). In another study of the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver it was found that seventy percent of 350 sex trade workers were Aboriginal women under the age of 26; and who in most cases these women were mothers (Culhane 2009:161). Leaving their home communities, where family violence is a major social problem, First Nation female adolescents make their way to the large urban centers where they become extremely vulnerable to sexual exploitation (Farley et al. 2005:257). Once recruited into prostitution, Native women become subjected to further violence, including rape and physical assault and subsequently experience numerous mental and physical health problems, such as HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C and PSTD. Many prostitutes seek relief from the deleterious effects of such as an oppressive lifestyle by self-medicating with drugs and alcohol (Farley et al. 2005:259).

The results of this marginalized and criminal lifestyle results in Aboriginal women being grossly over-represented in Canadian prisons. Thirty-three percent of federally incarcerated women are Aboriginal, even though they represent less than three percent of the population in Canada (McGill 2008:92). Furthermore, imprisoned Aboriginal women are fourteen percent less likely to be freed on conditional release than non-Aboriginal women (McGill 2008:92). These statistics highlight Canada's racist legacy of colonization and racism, and indicates that Aboriginal peoples are over-policed, over-charged and have little access to legal representation. Sadly, it reinforces the likelihood of Aboriginal women's continued experience of violence, alcohol and drug abuse, as well as physical and sexual assault due to their ever-increasing marginalization within Canadian society.

Constructing Invisible Peoples

Aboriginal women's identities have been shaped and designed by the Indian Act of 1869. whereby Aboriginal men have been given a position of privilege, rendered women dependent upon their father's status (if single), and their husband's (if married). Furthermore, Aboriginal women whose status has been removed are stripped of all rights to property, inheritance, prohibited from engaging in social and political participation, and forced to leave their natal communities (Fiske 2006:249).

The 1985 Indian Act Amendment was an attempt by Canada to bring parity to the Act and comply with Canadian Constitution and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Fiske 2006:249). Known as Bill C-31, it was designed to resolve sexist structures implemented by colonial intrusions, but instead, Bill C-31 created new impediments to Aboriginal women and their children seeking status. Furthermore, many C-31's—the pejorative label for those seeking reinstated status—are treated as an incongruity by their natal communities and government bureaucrats (Fiske 2006:249). Furthermore, those who have been urban center dwellers experience that they are no longer welcome and are often in conflict with their home communities and First Nations governments, who, under the Indian Act, have the right to determine membership rules, such as excluding descendants of out-marrying women and limiting the reserve services and benefits to women and children whose status has been restored by Bill C-31 (Fiske 2006:249). As a result, returning Aboriginal women are identified as outsiders and are asked to account for themselves (Fiske 2006:252). Furthermore, due to their ambiguous roles, Aboriginal women move on and off the reserves over the course of the year. During the summer, some Aboriginal women live on the reserve to hunt, fish and harvest berries, and in other months return to the urban centers where their children can attend school. However, in both cultures, their questionable identity is challenged—in First Nations, in their desire to maintain unique cultural communities, C-31's are marked suspicious, whereas, in the urban centers, Federal and Provincial governments are trying to reduce their financial burdens by cutting services and aid and often challenge C-31's claims for assistance (Fiske 2006: 252). In the urban city centers, Aboriginal women are subject to surveillance and find themselves under the scrutiny of school authorities, demanding answers regarding the choices they are making for their children, often insisting that Aboriginal mothers place their children in non-academic programs rather than attend post-secondary schooling (Fiske 2006:253). For some marginalized women living in Downtown Eastside Vancouver, being on assistance from social and health services meant trying to achieve maximum invisibility to stay out of the gaze of authorities for fear of their children being removed by the state (Culhane 2009:168). Moreover, being labeled C-31, Aboriginal women requiring aid become marginalized by being unable to obtain reserve housing; they take up residence in nearby towns to gain access to the natal First Nations, but are prevented from fully participating in its citizenry—attempts to do so are classed as trouble-making and are a challenge to their identity as 'real Indians' (Fiske 2006:253). Furthermore, if an Aboriginal woman declares herself "Indian," she may lose any chance of finding a good job in town and will be forced to find good work in the bush (Fiske 2006: 254).

These coercive structured social relations destabilize the ethnic identity of Aboriginal women, resulting in gender discrimination inherent in both the state and First Nations government relationships. Moreover, to claim membership in the Aboriginal community and then to forgo inclusion at another time, signifies a fractured identity to both First Nations and government authorities—a risky trajectory for Aboriginal women who are already marginalized in two societies marked with racial tensions (Fiske 2006:254). State policies, such as the Indian Act and Bill C-31, distort and manipulate gender and racial identities. Thus, in both regimes—Canada and First Nations—the outcome of creating and denying access to legitimate identities, social services and aid impacts marginalized Aboriginal women as structured violence; neither a member of either regime, these women fall through the cracks as Canada and First Nations compete to cut services and reduce costs while exercising more control over its members' identities (Fiske 2006:256).

Invisible, Missing and Murdered Persons

There is a correlation between missing Aboriginal women and social exclusion, coupled with economic disparity (Kiepal et al. 2012:137). Structural processes, such as discrimination and segregation omit certain groups and individuals from social relationships and economic activities, which makes them high-risk for being reported missing (Kiepal et al. 2012:138). Social exclusion often leads to negative outcomes, such as poverty, unemployment, family dissolution, fear of crime, mental illness, alcohol and drug abuse, and poor health (Kiepal et al. 2012:142). The combination of these negative outcomes puts Aboriginal women in dangerous circumstances, such as homelessness and prostitution, which are high-risk predictors for going missing or being murdered (Kiepal et al. 2012:146).

When a person goes missing, the police place a high priority on the case, where there is sufficient evidence to indicate an abduction or violent crime has taken place and the disappearance is coerced. However, not everyone who goes missing is reported, nor are all disappearances unintentional (Kiepal et al. 2012:140). Furthermore, certain groups, such as Aboriginals, are reticent about dealing with the police and are unwilling to file a missing person report. In an attempt to escape domestic abuse or sexual violence, Aboriginal women intentionally go missing and consider being found an undesirable outcome (Kiepal et al. 2012:141). Aboriginal women are more likely to face higher poverty rates and dependence upon partners or spouses, and when family dissolution or relationship breakdown occurs, outcomes are usually poverty, homelessness and other social, economic and health problems associated with the disappearance ofAboriginal women. Thus, the gendered nature of going missing is prevalent among high-risk women groups such as runaways, homeless youths and those escaping domestic violence. Thus, social exclusion as structurally disadvantaged Aboriginal women leaves them unable to cope with the vicissitudes of life, which, in turn, find them running away or going missing as the only viable option—further exacerbating exclusion and de-integration from supportive and safe social networks (Kiepal et al. 2012:162).

The stereotype of the Aboriginal woman as a "squaw"—uncivilized, dirty, lazy and readily exploitable sexually—has intensely shaped the experiences of Native women since colonial contact, making them vulnerable to flagrant physical, psychological and sexual violence (Gilchrist 2010:384). Marked by such stereotyping, Aboriginal women's identities are reconstructed as inferior objects, bad and unworthy victims who don't even qualify as women, who are inherently rapeable (Gilchrist 2010:384). This influences news media and societal responses and explains the differences in Canadian press reporting of missing and murdered Aboriginal women as un-newsworthy (Gilchrist 2010:384). Furthermore, in a recent Globe and Mail full page article: "Missing and murdered women" (Saturday, April 4, 2015), "Prime Minister Harper has dismissed calls for a national probe, saying the tragedies are not part of a 'socio-logical phenomenon' and need not be further studied" (Carlson 2015:A9). This attitude seems to indicate broader systemic inequalities of racism, sexism, classism and colonialization, and contributes to the devaluation and invisibility of Aboriginal women (Gilchrist 2010:385). Moreover it signals to offenders that Aboriginal women can be easily brutalized and murdered, and readily dismissed by society at large, and furthers their exclusion and marginalization in Canadian Society (Gilchrist 2010:385).

Visibility, Value and Dignity

Politicizing the issue of the missing and murdered Aboriginal women helps to establish a space for visibility, value and dignity for these marginalized and socially excluded peoples. Furthermore, politicizing the issue helps to attract supporters across class, gender, race and political boundaries. Symposiums, events, marches and forming associations such as Highway of Teas Symposium (March 2006), Walk4Justice, the Native Women's Association of Canada, and the Women's Memorial March held every Valentine's Day in Vancouver, B.C. help to make visible the trauma endured by the families of these missing and murdered Aboriginal women (Dickinson 2010: 203). Ironically, recognition and respect is bestowed in the death of these missing and murdered Aboriginal women across Canada, yet, tragically, denied the same honours to them in life (Culhane 2003:603).

Unfortunately, the Federal Government, under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, seems reluctant to pursue any sort of national inquiry into the hundreds of murdered and missing Aboriginal women. In response to this seemingly lack of interest by the Federal authorities, Aboriginal women are resisting their oppression and facilitating social change by telling their own stories. Stories about Aboriginal women are power—they create Aboriginal women as people and assert themselves as subjects (Monture 2015:2). Several extensive full-page and double full page articles by the national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, underlining Aboriginal women stories such as, "the Death of Tina Fontaine" (August 23, 2014), "the Brutal Beating of Rinelle Harper" (Saturday, April 4, 2015); "The Chilliwack, B.C. Healing Centre Scandal" (Saturday, January 31, 2015) and "the murder of Cindy Gladue" which sparked protests and calls for appeal over the acquittal of an Ontario truck driver who allegedly murdered a First Nations sex worker in 2011 (Friday, March 27, 2015). The story of Melissa Herman, an Aboriginal woman who lives in Fort McMurray, Alberta, speaks about her fears and refusal to be another missing or murdered Aboriginal statistic (Saturday, March 14, 2015), and many other articles highlighting The Globe and Mail's ongoing investigation into the hundreds of missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada since 2014, have helped to raise awareness throughout Canada and shame government authorities, both provincial and federal into action.

Lastly, Aboriginal bands are taking strides to solve their own internal difficulties and dysfunction, and have shown the healing efficacy of six community driven initiatives: 1) steps to secure Aboriginal title to traditional lands, 2) taking back rights of self-government, 3) community control over social institutions such as schools, police, fire and health-delivery, 4) "cultural facilities" designed to preserve and enhance the cultural lives of community members, 5) participation of Aboriginal women in local government, and 6) the implementation of community child-care and family services, which are indicative of alleviating Aboriginal social suffering, especially in reducing Aboriginal suicide (Chandler & Lalonde 2009:229). These findings show that Aboriginal peoples are capable of solving their own social suffering and also underscore the inadequacy Federal and Provincial top-down policy making, illuminating an alternative lateral approach—a community-to-community exchange of ideas and experiences that work (Chandler & Lalonde 2009:243-244).


In summary, I have shown how, historically, the Canadian Indian Act has disrupted gender regimes in favour of men, which has structurally disadvantaged and devalued Aboriginal women. Furthermore, colonial intrusions into Aboriginal life, such as the forced sedentarization of Natives onto reserves, have given rise to increased domestic and sexual violence. Forced to flee the reserves for safety reasons, Aboriginal women migrate to the large urban centres where sexist and racial discrimination further marginalizes them socially and economically, forcing them into survival strategies such as prostitution. To avoid the law, school authorities, and health and welfare workers, Aboriginal women seek to create invisible lives, making them vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse. Their identities as Aboriginal women are reduced to unworthy victims who don't qualify as women, and who are perceived as rapeable and murderable.

If Aboriginal women are going to achieve visibility, dignity and value as worthy human beings, they must reconstruct their identities on at least three fronts: 1) the socio-political arena, by using public forums to tell their stories, to raise awareness and assert themselves as volitional subjects; 2) the cultural arena, by reclaiming their cultural identity and implementing community-driven initiatives for healing, health, Native autonomy and cultural continuity; and 3) the institutional arena, with cultural bridging programs such as the Thunder Bay Indian Friendship Centre (Janovicek 2003: 552) and the Noojinowin teg on Manitoulin Island (Manitowabi & Shawande 2011:448).


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