The plight of First Nations women on reserves in Canada is both well documented and, in a perverse sense, logical. In a context where basic human rights for all aboriginals are rarely guaranteed, the weakest among them are bound to suffer the most.
Asked to comment on a story from New Zealand and Australia with regard to the treatment of aboriginal women in those countries, I once observed that things were not as bad here. But we have faced many shocking instances of serious abuse of our women. We thought that many of these, like gang rapes, beatings and women tossed out like yesterday’s garbage if their husbands no longer wanted them, mostly happened in the past. But this challenge still exists. There is still much to do in Indian country to change not only these archaic ways but the way the courts respond to them.
The Aboriginal Governance Act, championed by then Indian and Northern Affairs Minister Robert Nault, tried to address some of the problems faced by First Nations women. But, in order to please the Chiefs and the Indian Industry, the new Prime Minister killed the bill and sacked Nault. Looking for electoral support, Paul Martin sent up a white flag to the Chiefs. It was a flag of convenience.
To the average First Nations citizen, this represents a direct betrayal by a government with a fiduciary duty to look after their best interests. The grassroots will always remember Robert Nault as the only Minister who came directly to them and listened, then tried to give them rights and freedoms that other Canadians take for granted. Because of their particular vulnerability, aboriginal women will be harmed the most.
The rights of women are far from entrenched on First Nations, and Canadian courts have been far from fair to them, as recent cases show. In the Territories, former First Nation Chief Daniel Morris threatened to kill his wife. He then used a firearm to take her forcibly to another part of the reserve, where he beat her severely. The assault was so bad that she required a three-day stay in hospital. For all this, Morris was sentenced to a term of two years probation. One woman, Andrea Lemphers, was so upset by this that she organized a 1600-name petition to demand an appeal.
In another recent high-profile case in Manitoba, a woman from the Pequis First Nation was raped over a 26-year period before reporting the incidents to police. She had been treated so badly for so long, she was finally contemplating suicide. Sadly, more than 400 band members from Pequis, most of them women, wrote letters of support for the man accused of these crimes. What message did this send to the non-aboriginal population? The most egregious consequence of habits of abuse is the acquiescence of its victims.
A few years ago, a Manitoba Chief was charged with beating his wife and “choking to overcome”, with additional charges that included impaired driving. Manitoba’s zero tolerance law regarding spousal assault should have committed this Chief to a term of incarceration. But did it? This Chief, with the backing of his band’s bank account, hired the best lawyer in this field to defend him. In court, a judge stayed all charges.
As recently as this past Christmas, another Manitoba Chief found himself in hot water with his community over the beating of his wife. What is shocking in this case is that two senior, female members of the band’s staff committed the assault during an alcohol-fueled party. One of the culprits is the Chief’s personal assistant; the other is an executive to the Chief and Council. The wife had gone to the party to take her husband home. After the beating, these two ladies locked the victim in a room.
What did the Chief do under pressure from the wife’s relatives and others in the community to have charges brought forward and to fire these two women? In order to protect his political ambitions, he did nothing. He took his wife to Winnipeg to hide her away from band members until all her bruises healed. The two women responsible for the beating are still employed by the band and no charges have been laid.
Abuses of this sort have been well documented on too many First Nations, and women are by far the most victimized. The federal government has missed many opportunities to at least partially resolve some of these problems. It has, in the last few years, been handing control of programs it used to administer to First Nations themselves. The transfer offered a perfect opportunity to hold back the signing of contracts until the Chiefs agreed to install the marital property rights most Canadians currently enjoy. Instead, programs like Social Services were signed over without such conditions, and this gave the Chiefs more muscle to abuse the rights of their own people.
Witness a case I previously discussed, the family ordered off a reserve by means of a band council resolution. The husband was dumped off on the street in Thompson, with orders not to return to the community. The wife refused to leave with her children, until the Chief ordered the band’s social workers to confiscate her children. She bowed under the threat and she, with her children, suffered the same fate as her husband. This incident happened on the very day the federal government and the band signed an agreement to transfer control of social services.
What can be done? Parliament must re-introduce Bill C-7, the Aboriginal Governance Act. This bill must have more clarity with regards to human rights, including the rights of women and marital property rights. It should also contain measures to tighten accountability and transparency rules, and a minimum requirement that Chiefs and band councillors hold a high school diploma.
The Chiefs do not want to lose the absolute power they have over their tribes, but the majority of First Nations people – they number in the hundreds of thousands – need and want change. Until that happens, aboriginals, especially women, will remain at threat.