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Aboriginal women: the journey forward Women's History Month 2006

by Sierra Bacquie | September 29, 2006

As part of this year's Women’s History Month, the government wants to make Canadians aware of Aboriginal women’s contributions to Canada, to their communities and to their families.

Countless Aboriginal heroes work within their communities and organizations to better the lives of Native women and men. Some, like the late Angela Sidney, work to preserve Native culture. Others, like health-care worker and youth mentor Jean Goodwill, work in the community, providing support and healing to others.

CoolWomen has profiled a number of such women, including:

  • Maggie Hodgson
  • Mary May Simon
  • Doreen Spence
  • Kama Stelig

This month, the site will also feature an article about singer/songwriter Susan Aglukark.

background

The first Women’s History Month was designated by Status of Women Canada in 1992. The initiative seeks to acknowledge and celebrate women’s accomplishments and chart progress on the road to equality. The month of October was chosen in honour of the landmark Person’s Case, which reached its historic conclusion in October, 1929.

Each year, as part of the Women’s History Month celebration, community groups and organizations hold lectures, conferences, film screenings, commemorative walks and other activities that highlight that year's theme, or the general theme of women's history.

this year’s theme

Previous Women’s History Months have focused on francophone women, volunteers, those in sports, and women and war. This year’s theme, Aboriginal Women: The Journey Forward, coincides with three important anniversaries:

  • The 25th anniversary of Canada’s ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW);
  • The 15th anniversary of the establishment of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples;
  • The 10th anniversary of the release of the final report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, People to People, Nation to Nation.

The theme also comes in the wake of strong indictment of Canada’s treatment of Aboriginal women, and failure to act on long-standing issues.

  • In 2004, Amnesty International released a report entitled Stolen Sisters: Discrimination and Violence Against Indigenous Women in Canada, which looked at Native women and their place in Canadian society. It was highly critical of the federal government’s inaction to better the conditions in which Aboriginal women live.
  • In May 2006, Aboriginal women spoke out against the government’s failure to act on the recommendations of the ten-year-old Arbour Report. This Commission of Inquiry into the 1994 raid and strip-search of female inmates at the former Kingston Prison for Women (P4W) proposed significant changes to the way that women in conflict with the law are treated.

Many Aboriginal women advocate on behalf of their communities and push for change. But their tireless efforts are at risk of being overshadowed by the continued challenges many women face.

Helen Betty Osborne – lest we forget

It is unfortunate that perhaps the best-known Aboriginal woman in Canadian history is Helen Betty Osborne, who was brutally murdered in 1971.

Helen Betty Osborne’s tragic fate stands as symbol of the depth and degree of discrimination and racial hatred that Native women have endured – and continue to endure – in this country. In a tragic postscript to this story, 30 years after Osborne's murder, her 16-year-old cousin, Felicia Solomon, went missing in Winnipeg, in March 2003. Body parts discovered three months later were identified as hers.

Sadly, these are neither isolated nor unusual incidents. Native women’s organizations estimate that about 500 Aboriginal women have been murdered or gone missing in Canada over the past 20 years.

Aboriginal Women – facts and realities

In addition to celebrating accomplishments, Women’s History Month also intends to promote understanding of the realities of Aboriginal women’s lives and the unique challenges they face. Consider the following:

  • Aboriginal women with Native status who lived off-reserve in 1996 earned an average of $13,870 per year ($5,500 less than the average for non-Aboriginal women) [Census].
  • Young Indigenous women are five times more likely than other women of the same age to die as the result of violence.
  • As many as half of the victims in the grisly murders allegedly committed by British Columbia pig farmer Robert Picton were Aboriginal women. [NWAC]
  • According to an American study, 70% of crimes, and 90% of sexual assaults, committed against Aboriginal people are committed by non-Aboriginal people.
  • Aboriginal women make up 3% of the female population in Canada, but 31% of the female inmate population in federal prisons.
  • Four of the six women strip-searched in the 1994 raid on P4W were Aboriginal.
  • According to a Vancouver study (PACE), 30% of sex-trade workers were Aboriginal women, though they represent only 2% of the city’s population.
  • Aboriginal women experience high rates of HIV/AIDS.
  • Many Native communities were matriarchal, until the Indian Act (1874) imposed a sexist and patriarchal social order on Aboriginal people.
  • Unresolved issues with respect to the Indian Act deny some Native women the financial resource to keep them above the poverty line.
  • According to Amnesty International, Canadian Native women are “over-policed and under-protected.”

Aboriginal women continue to raise their voices against the unique and persistent challenges they face. It should surprise no one that healing forms an important part of the work these women do.

It's up to those outside Aboriginal communities – especially those with the power to make changes – to listen. And then act.

Many Aboriginal women come together to address the violence that so many Native women endure, and to push for legislative and other changes. The have founded dynamic organizations, including some of the organizations listed below.

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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