Election Time part two: Will someone please think of the children?

The child welfare system in this country is problematic at best, but when children who already have strikes against them gets less services because of the color of their skin, then what is left to be done? That is the case for the First Nation Child and Family Caring Society (FNCFC), who launched a discrimination suit against the federal government for short-changing first nations children. First Nations children on reserve receive less child welfare funding than other children in Canada despite the fact that First Nations children have higher child welfare needs, repeated reports by the FNCFC have said.

In 2007 the FNCFC along with the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) filed a human rights complaint alleging that the Government of Canada is discriminating against First Nations children on the basis of race and national ethnic origin. Shirish Chotalia, Chair of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, dismissed the case on a preliminary motion brought by the Federal Government even though the Federal Government had tried, and failed, to get the case dismissed on similar grounds in Federal Court on two previous occasions. Executive Director Cindy Blackstock spoke with me over the phone about the case and what it means for the complaint now.

“Canada has been trying to get out of it facing a hearing on the facts, and the chair gave them that opportunity, she never considered the facts and ruled on a technicality,” said Chotalia. Which begs the question: where do they go from here? “The Canadian Human Rights Commission is on board and vows to keep fighting this,” Chotalia added. And that’s all they can do. In the end this will probably end up at the Supreme Court of Canada, where the Feds will fight tooth and nail not to accept responsibility for short-changing our youth. When I first read about this I felt sick to my stomach because it reminded me of the residential schools, this time not because of physical but financial abuse. Once again, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) has proven that they don’t know how to do their jobs.

It seems to me that Canada’s history of harming first nations children is still alive and well. The decision has brought condemnation from first nations groups across the country. Chief Angus Toulouse from the Ontario Chiefs had this to say about the decision, “We’re talking about our children that are most vulnerable, that they [should be] taken care of properly, yet the ruling tells me that the government and the court system is willing to discriminate against our children.” That is at the heart of the matter: legal discrimination against children… didn’t the government just apologize for harming first nations children (see: apology for residential schools)?

I’ve watching politicians for several years now and the thing that bugs me the most is the consistent refusal to accept responsibility for what they have done. This matter would be easily resolved if INAC would work to correct the problem instead of making excuses and playing the blame game. This country would move more smoothly if our leaders would just sit down and work out the problems. With that, here is a critique of the official opposition!

In this election the Liberals have promised a great many things. Things like proper health care, commitments to a national task force for missing and murdered native women, re-funding of the SIS, and bringing the chiefs and provincial leaders back to the table to reconstitute the Kelowna accord. “The Kelowna accord was a process, the first time Federal, Provincial and Aboriginal leaders sat together around a table on the basis of equality. We will make commitments on health, on education, and housing and those remain the issues that have to be fixed in aboriginal Canada,” said Ignatieff when I asked him about it on March (listen to the full interview on The Longhouse). He went on to talk about the need to bring people back to the table to address the issues facing first nations in Canada. I haven’t decided yet who I will vote for but when it comes to the Federal parties, the Grits seem to be the only party that can unseat the Conservatives. A recent Nanos poll showed that the Conservatives’ comfortable lead has dwindled since the announcement of the election. It could become a real race if Ignatieff does well during the two debates. Canadians will just have to wait and see…

Election time part one: the Missing and Murdered

Since there is an election coming up within the next 4 weeks we have decided to spend that time talking about what elections mean for us: first nations. Each week we will focus on one particular issue facing first nations and share our opinion on one of the five federal parties (yes, I count the Green party, because all our voices need to be heard!).

When Shannon Alexander, 17, and Maisy Odjick, 16 went missing near Maniwaki Que, on Sept. 6 no one said “boo!” It was a week later when the mainstream media finally picked the story and reported that the two teens were missing: no Amber alert, no massive search with hundreds of volunteers, no media and police. There was no Victoria Stafford-like attention to the case. Stafford was the 8 year old Canadian girl abducted from Woodstock, Ontario on April 8, 2009, and murdered. She was last seen on security footage walking with Terri-Lynne McClintic who was convicted in her murder and sentenced to life.

The things that bothered me most about the differences between the Alexander/Odjick and Stafford cases was how they were treated by the police, media and public. Little blond girl goes missing and they call out the army, two native teens go missing and… nothing! The Stafford case was tragic, but what’s even more tragic is that not all abduction cases are treated like that of Victoria Stafford’s. From what I’ve seen, cases are not always judged on their merits, but on skin color and social class. How else can you explain the thousands of natives that have gone missing or have been murdered since the 1980’s? Which brings me to my next point: what does it take for the government, police forces and justice system to act? I mean, really act?

I was part of a press scrum involving Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, and I asked him about the Sisters in Spirit and a National task force to investigate missing and murdered native women. He said, “You can’t have a country where 500+ people go missing and there’s no judicial attempt to find out the truth. Finding out the truth is an homage to these women so to make sure that this doesn’t happen to their daughters!” When asked if the Sisters in Spirit would be part of that plan? “Absolutely! The Sisters in Spirit has done wonderful work. The Harper government cuts them and makes false promises. We think they do good work and we want to sustain that support for them!”

Since the Harper government came to power, not just native women have suffered because of his policies, but all women. By not directly addressing the issue of missing and murdered women Harper has made it clear that all women in Canada don’t count! You just have to take a look at the cancellation of the national child-care program, the product of years of negotiations between Ottawa and the provinces’ women’s groups. Then there’s the closure of 12 of 16 regional offices of the Status of Women Canada across the country. It has also eliminated funding for the Status of Women Independent Research Fund.

In 2010 the Harper government (he likes it if we refer to the government that way) allocated ten million dollars to the issue of missing and murdered native women, but he did not renew funding for the Sisters in Spirit initiative, whose database compiled the cases of nearly 600 native women. I understand that we need to be conservative in these recession era times, but this is conservatism on crack! Especially when instead of taking care of the people, he’s spending billions on fighter jets and giving corporations tax breaks, all the while talking about being fiscally responsible!

Which leads me into my critique of the Conservative party in this election. The Conservatives have been power for 5 years, and what have they done? We know that they have proven not to be a friend to women, but what else? The Native Healing foundation: funding slashed. Native policing: funding slashed. Montreal Native Woman’s shelter: funding slashed – and there is much more! Then there are the scandals that have to led to contempt of Parliament charges. Do we want another conservative government that blatantly disregards the rules, or should we go with a party that has the vision to see what needs to be done in this country?

Irkar Beljaars is the producer
of Native Soidarity News on
Ckut radio and the Longhouse
on podbean.com. You can reach him
@ native@ckut.ca or Mohawk_Voice
on twitter

December the 6th

A Day I’ll Never Forget

Yesterday was December the 6th. It’s been 21 years since the massacre at the Ecole Polythechnique. No matter how much time has gone by, I remember the day like it was yesterday. I remember coming home and watching the news, without knowing what had happened, and seeing all the ambulances, police cars, and emergency personnel responding to some shooting that had happened earlier in the day. By the end of the hour I would find out that 14 women lost their lives.

One of the images that still sticks out in my mind is a picture from that day. The bullet holes in the walls. The blood on the floor. And one of the victims slumped backwards in her chair in the cafeteria. I don’t remember the magazine that this appeared in, but I found it an extremely tasteless way to portray a victim. I felt it was just a way of selling magazines. At the same time, it did drive home the horror of such an incident. Sometimes, people need to see the ugliness of humanity to understand that change needs to happen.

That day is always going to be marked in infamy, and the aftermath is always going to stay with me as well. I was 17 at the time, and I remember what it was like to go to school the next day. Everyone was talking about it. The school was pretty much shut down because of the subject. Math, gym, social sciences … all of that was replaced with what had happened at the University of Montreal.

The girls in my class would stay away from the boys. There was constant whispering. No one wanted to step out of line for fear of being likened to Marc Lapine. One of the most disturbing pieces of news came out a few days later. A woman was calling various hospitals and threatening to kill all the male babies so that they wouldn’t grow up to hurt women.

It wasn’t a good time to be male in this city. Everyone was afraid of you. It was like Mark Lapine imprinted his malice towards women on the city. I remember getting into a fight in school and someone yelling out “Oh, he might have a gun!” Marc Lapine changed everything. Not just in Montreal, but in every city across Canada. He took violence against women to a whole new level. In the days and months afterwards, questions flooded in. How was Lapine able to get a rifle? Why he didn’t receive psychiatric treatment…? Why, why, why? And nobody seemed to have any answers. Especially not the politicians.

Everyone has that day they’re going to remember, whether it’s good or if it’s bad, because of its life-altering quality. Even at the age of 17 I knew that Lapine’s actions were going to have repercussions for decades to come. Naturally, the politicians said that swift action needed to be taken, so that women could be protected and could feel safe in the community. One of those things was the long gun registry that the Conservatives have been adamant about destroying.

When I think about all of this now, I feel like things have just gotten worse.

Violence against women is on the rise. There’s more apathy than ever. It’s true. 1989, 21 years ago, there were hundreds more Native Women on this planet who had not yet gone missing. Though violent crime has gone down, crimes of other sorts are on the rise. You just need to look at the rape statistics at any University in this country, and you’ll see its not getting better, it’s getting worse. Sometimes I think people have forgotten the message that came out of Lapine’s massacre. People have forgotten that a man killed 14 women because he believed they were feminists. He believed the world was out to get him. He’s definitely still not the only man that thinks this way.

December 6th should be a National day to remember violence against women. And not just one kind of women, but all women, of all walks of life, be they sex workers or students, lawyers or the homeless women. Women all together.

Mark Lapine succeeded in doing two things. He reminded us how savage humans can be, and he made us realize that no one is safe. While we can try to be vigilant in our everyday lives, the problem runs deep, and is systematic. We shouldn’t feel sorry for Lapine. What we need to do is understand mental illness better. We need a better health care system so men – people – like him don’t fall through the cracks. Because when people like him fall through the cracks, we’re all to blame.

************* ************* *************

There is something else my girlfriend pointed out, in her brilliance:

There is a well publicized and nationally recognized vigil for the Polythecnique Massacre every year, but few and sparsely attended vigils for the 582 missing and murdered native women in Canada. This shows the difference between violence that happens suddenly and in the open, versus in alleys, on back roads, and homes – the kind of violence we call “domestic,” and to the people who have fallen through society’s cracks. We remember some violence (towards people of education who society approves of), but blatantly ignore systemic violence – much of it just as gruesome as the massacre – when it happens to the people we have cast away as a society.

Bureaucracy Kills

The recent developments in the Robert Willie Pickton case have demonstrated the need for for an all out inquiry into why the police didn’t do their jobs and why over a dozen women lost their lives at the hands of the serial killer. Police could have caught Pickton years earlier and therefore prevented the deaths, an internal Vancouver police investigation concludes. The report has remained under wraps for more than a year because of court proceedings, publication bans, and now because the British Columbia government wants time to study the findings. The question is why do they need time, is it to cover their own failings? The report itself is over 400 pages long and while it places considerable blame on the Vancouver police the dept it also lays blame with the RCMP who could have arrested Pickton but chose not which resulted in the deaths of many more women.

The families have been calling for an inquiry for years but the BC govt has been reluctant to have one but now through public pressure from the Assembly of First Nations Chief Shawn Atleo and the Native Women’s Association of Canada, the Vancouver police, RCMP, B.C. Civil Liberties Association, the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs and Amnesty International Canada. So the heat is on the BC govt to give the people what they want, will they do that is still up in the air. If this decision goes in favor of an inquiry it might lead to a national data base for missing and murdered native women across Canada which in my opinion is sorely needed to turn the tide against the abusers.

Right now the province of Manitoba is the only one of the provinces to create a task force to go through all the cases of missing women in that province. The task force is staffed with three RCMP officers, two RCMP analysts and four officers from the Winnipeg Police Service has come under fire for perceived inaction by the police task force set up a year ago to investigate cases like Claudette Osborne’s and to raise awareness about her and other unsolved cases. Claudette Osborne disappeared on July 24, 2008, and was last seen on McPhillips Street after leaving the Lincoln Hotel in Winnipeg. Friends and family recently completed a march from Norway House First Nation to Winnipeg to protest the lack of action.

Unfortunately there are many cases that reflect those of Osborne, too many cases have remained unsolved. In 1996 a Canadian government statistic revealed that Indigenous women between the ages of 25 and 44, with status under the Indian Act, were five times more likely than all other women of the same age to die as the result of violence. Unfortunately the lack of information on violence against native women had hampered a lack of comprehensive reporting and statistical analysis.

Sisters in Spirit campaign was launched in March 2004, in response to alarmingly high levels of violence against Aboriginal women in Canada. In preparation for its March 2004-March 2005 campaign, the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) issued a national call for information about women who have been lost to violence (or suspected violence). Based on this anecdotal evidence, NWAC estimates that approximately 500 Aboriginal women have gone missing in the last 20 years. This estimate is supported by 1996 government statistics showing that Aboriginal women with status were FIVE TIMES more likely to die as a result of violence than any other group of Canadian women.

The BC govt had said that they will render a decision sometime in the fall but I am not holding my breath. We have been asking for years for a public inquiry into missing women but our pleas seems to have fallen on deaf ears. In October 2008, the UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women called on Canada to “take the necessary steps to remedy the deficiencies in the system” with respect to murdered or missing Indigenous women. The committee also called for restrictions on funding the advocacy activities of women’s groups to be lifted and for the establishment of an oversight mechanism for women prisoners.

Earlier this year the Harper Govt made available 10 million dollars to combat violence against native women but then cut funding to the Native healing foundation and the Montreal Native woman shelter both of which native women need to protect themselves against their abusers. The Harper govt has been famous for this taking one step forward and three steps back. His govt hasn’t done very much for First Nations in this country these include plans to construct a gas pipeline through lands in Alberta over which the Lubicon Cree continue to assert rights. The government continued to assert that the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was not applicable in Canada because Canada had voted against its adoption.

I believe that only when there is a national task force and data base on the missing and murdered native women will we be able to stem the tide of violence. Only when our govt begins to respect first nations people will we ever be able to break down the stereotypes that keep first nations where they are!

The power of words

This past weekend proved that activism really works!

It started with the MUS’s (McGill’s Management Undergraduate Society) recent decision to put on their racially insensitive Tribal Frosh 2010, as part of new McGill students’ orientation activities. That they thought this was a good idea is a symptom of the lack of programs about indigenous peoples in today’s schools. MUS’s use of tribal dances from the Inca, Maori, Zulu and Masai nations in videos they put online were not only an affront to those nations but an affront to all indigenous peoples across the planet. Indigenous peoples have had to deal with the constant appropriation of their land and culture. Cultural appropriation can take on many forms. In this case, it was a bunch of non indigenous people using indigenous dances and warrior lifestyles to promote binge drinking and irresponsible behavior.

Indigenous peoples already have a genetic predisposition to problems with the bottle. Linking indigenous peoples and the over-consumption of alcohol in a casual, disrespectful, and thoughtless way is the last thing the community needs. What MUS Frosh was planning would only have reinforced the stereotype that indigenous people are a bunch of alcoholics. The question “What were the organizers thinking?” definitely sprang to mind.

This past Sunday, after the organizers received complaints about the proposed event, they offered to sit down with the people who had brought the complaints, myself included. We had the chance to ask “What were you thinking?” After speaking with the organizers, it was obvious that they hadn’t thought at all. It’s only after I pointed out a homeless indigenous man across the street that they finally realized what they had done – perpetuate these harmful, false stereotypes, to the detriment of people like him.

During the conversation with the organizers, they decided to A) take down the now infamous video, and B) to promote other cultures. Point B was an obvious attempt to take back lost moral ground – the Management organizers mentioned that they would promote cultures such as Islam, Judaism, and others… within the very same Tribal Frosh.

If anyone can figure out how that would have helped, or made any sense at all, let me know.

After leaving the meeting and having only Points A and B conceded, we were not sure what was going to happen. Would they continue with the event? Would they think about it and change their minds? Did they really hear what we were saying? For the next few hours, I wasn’t sure if my time had been well spent or wasted.

Sunday evening, to my surprise, it looked like they had changed their minds and changed the theme. Their website suddenly announced “Superhero Frosh” instead of “Tribal Frosh.” After our conversation with them, it seems they took our words to heart and understood the problem with the ideas they had had before. It reminded me why I continue fighting for indigenous rights – sometimes activism and words really work!

This made me think about how a theme like Tribal Frosh was able to happen at all. It is a problem of the North American education system.

Now, forget that history is written by the conquerors, yadda yadda yadda. Our education system will never survive, especially indigenous peoples’ history, if all we do is focus on what the conquerors have said. We will never fix racial problems if we ignore the typically silenced side of the story. We need alternative history books. We need our children to understand that there are two sides to every story. And we need our children to understand that just because something bad happened doesn’t mean that we can’t talk about it. What bothers me the most is that there are some subjects in history that it’s OK to talk about (i.e. the holocaust, slavery,), but it’s not OK to talk about what has happened (and is still happening) to indigenous people across the planet.

The MUS Frosh organizers did point out that there’s a huge lack of information about indigenous peoples. I gave them a run-down of just some of the past and current indigenous issues in this country and it was obvious that they had never heard of any of them. Things like residential schools, poor housing, bad water, some of the highest suicide rates of any group in the country, and of course 100s and 100s of missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls. And that’s just in THIS country. If it were up to me to redo the education system, our history books would be a lot bigger. Not just on indigenous issues, but on all the issues the conquerors have decided not to tell us.

We need to talk about the Armenian genocide. We need to talk about Japanese internment camps. We need to talk about Canada’s policy when building the railways of using Chinese workers to carry dynamite into tunnels. I think it’s a trait that a lot of human beings have – to run away and hide rather than face the truth, to face justice. It’s so much easier to ignore something if no one knows about it.

One of the questions I asked the organizers was whether they had asked the Elders from the tribes they were misrepresenting if they had permission to use each of the Masai, Inca, Zulu and Maori dances. Did they have permission to use their songs and their chants? Probably not, because the Elders would never have agreed. In the end, I hope the organizers learn from this experience, and that it’s not OK to take a culture’s traditions and use them for whatever means they want. It is important for them to take this moment and learn about the Maori, learn about the Zulu, and the Inca, and the Masai. Really learn about their cultures. Learn about how history has treated them, and then share it with other students in their Faculty. I commend them for reaching out to us and asking “What’s wrong? Why are you so upset?”, because that shows that they were concerned about what kind of reaction this was going to get. I commend them further for accepting the loss of the T-shirts and other costs and coming up with something new for Frosh. I understand that Frosh is an important event at the beginning of every university year, that people need to go out, get drunk, get stupid, and make poor sexual choices. But let us remember that Frosh can also be used as a time to understand and meet new people. It is an opportunity to understand different cultures and societies, and the different ways that people think. Don’t waste your brain cells on a pint of beer when you can be having a discussion with someone from Dubai, or Timbuktu, and learn their customs. Learn about them, instead of focusing on some pathetic stereotypes that don’t need strengthening.