The Native Women’s Association of Canada recently added 62 names to the list of missing or murdered aboriginal women and girls. The Sister’s in Spirit initiative is tasked with researching and reporting on cases of women and girls who have gone missing, In 2005, a five-year research, education and policy initiative supported by Status of Women Canada – to address the root causes, circumstances and trends of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls. The NWAC works to point out the the systemic problems within the government and justice system when it come to dealing with violence against native women. An aboriginal woman aged 25 to 44 is 5 times more likely to die violently than an non aboriginal woman.

One of the issues that really needs to be dealt with is the negative stereotypes that native women face in the justice system. First Nations peoples make up 4% of Canada’s adult population but make 20% of the prison population this according the office of the correctional investigator. Native women make 33% of federally sentenced prisoners and though there are various problems attributed to the high percentage the federal government refused calls for a special commissioner to investigate the problem. This issue first came to light in 1990 when the native women made up 17% of federal prisoners, that number is now double. The issue is only getting worse according to the latest report on aboriginal offenders which has seen an increase of a 131% for federally incarcerated native women prisoners. You can find that report here, http://www.oci-bec.gc.ca/rpt/oth-aut/oth-aut20091113-eng.aspx

On March 4th the Federal government dedicated 10 million over two years to deal with the issue of violence against native women but the future of the sisters in spirit seems to be finished also the Conservatives’ cuts to the Aboriginal Healing Foundation (AHF) shows that the government is taking a step back instead of a step forward! The Aboriginal Healing Foundation is a non-profit, Aboriginal-managed agency which supports community-based healing efforts addressing the intergenerational legacy of abuses from the residential school system. There have been many questionable cuts done by the Conservative Government, some of the notable ones being the Kelowna accord which was a series of agreements between the Government of Canada, First Ministers of the Provinces, Territorial Leaders, and the leaders of five national aboriginal organizations in Canada.

The Accord sought to improve the education, employment, and living conditions for Aboriginal peoples through governmental funding and other programs. The minority govt of Paul Martin’s Liberal’s was in charge when the agreement was put together but lost the election to Harper who said that there were committed to Kelowna but have since gone in another direction. In June 2006 Paul Martin tabled a private members bill, Bill C-292 An Act to Implement the Kelowna Accord which passed easily on March 21st by a 176 to 126 margin. The torries ignored the vote stating that they didn’t have to implement the bill because private members bills cannot force the government of the day to spend money.

Other cuts that have Canadians scratching their heads, First Nations and Inuit Tobacco Control Program, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada FUNDING REDUCTION, Natural Resources and Environment Climate Change Programs, including the One Tonne Challenge, 40 public information offices across the country, and several scientific and research programs on climate change, 40% BUDGET CUT, Status of Women Canada, SIGNIFICANT BUDGET CUT, Court Challenges Program ELIMINATED and there have been many more social and government programs that have had their funding cut or eliminated by the Conservative Government.

With all these cuts you would think that Harper just doesn’t care about women, so what is it. He makes these grandiose promises but makes cuts that make those promises hallow ones. You can’t devote 10 million over two years to protecting native women then cut funding to the native woman’s shelter of Montreal which helps protect battered women. On the 4th of October this year I will be getting a team together to set up for the Sisters In Spirit Vigil. Like the 3 years previous, communities across this country will come together to bring attention to the plight of native women. Unfortunately progress will only be made when the government creates a national task force made up of police, government and community groups all working together to bring an end to violence not just against native women but all women!

What is in an apology?

The two year anniversary of Harper’s apology to victims of the residential schools is just a few weeks away, what I would like to know is, has anything changed? The first residential schools were started in the 1840s with the last one closing in 1996. If you’ve ever heard of the schools it’s quite possible that you have never heard about what really happened. Unfortunately the stories of abuse lay dormant for decades, The Story of a National Crime: Being a Record of the Health Conditions of the Indians of Canada from 1904 to 1921 by Dr Peter Bryce which talked about the mortality rates within the schools between 1894 to 1908 only became public in 1922.

Bryce’s report contended that the high mortality rates were were deliberate in many cases with healthy children being placed with those who had tuberculosis. Over a five year period the schools had a 35 to 60% death rate because of tuberculosis which was rampant. In Harper’s apology he mentions how some died but according to hiddenfromhistory.org an estimated 50,000 children died in the schools. The school’s were run by the Catholic, Anglican and United church’s, Pope Benedict XVI is the only church leader to express regret for what happened in the schools.

His Holiness recalled that since the earliest days of her presence in Canada, the Church, particularly through her missionary personnel, has closely accompanied the indigenous peoples. Given the sufferings that some indigenous children experienced in the Canadian Residential School system, the Holy Father expressed his sorrow at the anguish caused by the deplorable conduct of some members of the Church and he offered his sympathy and prayerful solidarity. His Holiness emphasized that acts of abuse cannot be tolerated in society. He prayed that all those affected would experience healing, and he encouraged First Nations Peoples to continue to move forward with renewed hope.

The alleged abuses varied from Rape and torture, medical sterilization and experimentation, Physical abuse and even murder. I once had a conversation with one survivor where we talked about what really went on in the schools.(For the sake of this blog we’ll call him George) George went into a school in southern Ontario at the age of 5, he was beaten for speaking his language, he had his hair cut and had to deal with various abuses from the nuns and priests. The schools not only tried to beat the Indian out of the child but it also irreparably damaged and displaced families and when I mean displaced, George doesn’t know where family members who went into the schools are anymore.

I had such high hopes for the apology when I heard that it was coming but afterwords I felt nothing but disappointment. Sure the apology was a necessary first step but it didn’t go far enough,it sure wasn’t long enough at just under 10min. When Kevin Rudd the Prime minister of Australia apologized to the Aborigines for the stolen generations he spoke for 30min in detail about the survivors of the stolen generations went through and promised to make amends for what happened. Harper simply apologized and left at that, he even mentioned that it took a year of Jack Layton leader of the NDP telling him to apologize and that it was important. If it takes someone that long to decide if it’s okay to apologize then how could anyone take it seriously.

I was interviewed by the CBC about my reaction to the apology, unfortunately my response was severely edited. I wasn’t surprised by the edit because I don’t think people are ready to hear about what really happened during that time. What I think needs to be done is the whole truth needs to come out, everything, all the dirty laundry. The Friends and Relatives of the Disappeared (FRD) sent a letter to the United Church which asked that the church identify the burial sites of residential school children who died under their care, and return them for a proper burial, the letter was ignored. There have been many demonstrations since the letter was sent out in February.

Only with full disclosure can the country and it’s victims can truly start to heal, a person can’t heal if they are prevented from sharing the full story. Unfortunately because there was so many years of neglect, so many years of ignoring the issue the victims have grown to include their families. One quote that best describes the situation most survivors are in is “We have forgotten how to love”. Imagine hurting so much inside that it affects your ability to interact with even your own family let alone people. That is what victims had to face, unable to talk, to share their pain, they kept it bottled up inside where it festered. Some victims turned to drugs and alcohol, some turned to suicide.

I myself am a victim of sexual abuse and was not able to share what had happened because my abuser told that my mother wouldn’t believe me and that it would cause only problems. It would be two decades before I would really speak about it. When it comes to solutions I don’t believe that a simple apology will do it nor will an inquiry. The survivors need justice, yes some of the accused are long dead but there are some that are still around and should be brought to justice. We can’t just brush this aside aside because it happened so long ago, in order for this issue to completely heal we need to do it properly!

Irkar Beljaars


When it comes to the First Nations, Inuit or Metis there are many, many stereotypes. One of my favorites, of course, is that we get too much money from the government. If that is the case, why are so many communities in disrepair? I grew up in the plateau district of Montreal during the 70’s. Life wasn’t easy growing up but thanks to my mother’s hard work we had four walls, a roof over our heads and food in our bellies. Our mother would work 12 to 18 hours a day to make sure that we were okay. I always thought that I had it pretty rough….that is until recently. Naturally there are several levels of poverty in this country but I have never seen it worse than in Attawapiskat, where I recently spent six days working on a documentary.

An impoverished community in northern Ontario, Attawapiskat has suffered neglect because of the poor decisions made by a handful of people. I had never been to a northern community before and had only heard stories about how bad living conditions were up there. When I got there I discovered that it was much worse. There was housing so bad that it would never be tolerated in communities down south. With a large percentage of the community homeless, poor health conditions and a questionable water treatment problem it begs the question: Why?. Why does it have to get this bad before the leaders in this country sit up and take notice which unfortunately has not happened yet.

The 6 days I spent up there were some of the most eye opening of my life. I toured the community with the documentary crew who was up there to film the story of Attawapiskat. Rosie our guide showed us around and talked about the serious problems a community like Attawapiskat faces. Besides the poverty, poor housing and health problems there is the negative stereotypes that the people here have to deal with. “They’re a community of whiners and complainers,” Chuck Strahl, Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs (INAC) is quoted as saying. He has also said that he himself visited the community and found no problems. Funny thing, no one I spoke to recalls ever seeing him in the community. Health Canada has also commented on Attawapiskat concluding that there are no immediate health concerns and that intervention was not necessary. From what I saw in the community, their opinion could not be farther from the truth.


One of the places that I was able to view was the school where many health problems have occurred. INAC spokesman Greg Coleman says, “Right now our concerns are for the health and safety of the students… the last health and safety inspection showed it is safe.” http://attawapiskat.com/?cat=9 However, he was not sure when that inspection occurred. I can tell you from personal experience that it is not safe. I crawled under one of the schools to see for myself: mold was practically everywhere. One of the students even got sick while I was under there, and the student had only stuck her head inside where I crawled in for just a few minutes. I think INAC’s definition of safety is somewhat skewed. If they are really just “a community of whiners and complainers,” and receive too much money from the government, why are the health conditions and housing situation (to name just a couple of things) so awful? Yet the people continue to try to live with dignity and to find happiness where they can.

The thing that got me the most in Attawapiskat was the people. They were as warm and and welcoming as any other community I have visited. One experience I would like to share happened on the second day I was there. We were filming a scene at the water treatment plant. I entered the plant to fill up a water bottle and leave. Well, while I was headed back down the road I was surrounded by a group of 5 and 6 year old’s who peppered me with questions. My favorite questions were “Are you a movie star?” and “My cartoon network doesn’t work can you fix it?” It’s that innocence that best describes the community of Attawapiskat. No matter how tough the situation is, a smile is a smile and a laugh is a laugh.

Irkar Beljaars

Real or Fake Promises?

As you know the throne speech came down a few weeks ago and our conservative government decided to throw the first nations a bone. The Government will finally take action to address the disturbing number of unsolved cases of murdered and missing Aboriginal women. When the budget came down the following day the Sisters in Spirit initiative were awarded 10 million over two to help draw attention to the 100’s of missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls. The Government will also work hand-in-hand with Aboriginal communities and provinces and territories improve the situations in most first nation communities. And after all this talk the Native woman’s shelter of Montreal will lose it’s funding at the end of this month, jeopardizing the health and welfare of native women who desperately need the services of the shelter.

After reading the speech and seeing so many goodies for first nations in it, it makes you wonder why now? According to the speech the government will recognize the contributions of Canada’s Aboriginal people. “Too often, their stories have been ones of sorrow. Our Government will continue to build on its historic apology for the treatment of children in residential schools. After settling 17 specific claims since this Parliament began, it will continue to work to resolve additional claims.” The problem I have with this is the apology would have been historic if the Harper Government hadn’t down played the crimes committed during that era. Acknowledge the fact that some did not die in those schools, tens of thousands died due to Tuberculosis and other violent crimes.

I have to say that I am not surprised by the government’s throne speech, after an Olympics where the government promoted a happy and respectful relationship with it’s first nations. Naturally VANOC (Vancouver Olympic Committee) neglected to mention that many first nations communities live in third world conditions, are on boiling water advisories, high suicide rates and drug and alcohol abuse. I guess the government was a victim of their own PR because now they have to live up to their claims of a happy relationship with first nations. It’s also not surprising, political pundits have been hinting at an election for some time and this may be just the government trying to hold on to power by making grandiose statements like those in the speech!

The most surprising of all the announcements was the governments decision to acknowledge the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. “Our Government will take steps to endorse this aspirational document in a manner fully consistent with Canada’s Constitution and laws.” When this document first came up at the UN all but four countries refused to sign it, Canada, the United States, New Zealand and Australia, The U.S and Australia who recently changed governments have taken steps to sign the Declaration. The former Liberal government had planned to sign but were voted out of office before it was ready and the Harper govt had out right refused to sign it believing that to would affect the land claims already in affect.

So what changed their minds?

Can it be that the Olympics were a good idea?
Can it be that all it took was the magnifying glass of the Olympics to raise the awareness of first nations problems within Canada?

Or is this all just another empty election promise?

The Olympic opening ceremonies

So, the opening ceremonies took place Friday night, and the only word that I could come up with to describe the whole shindig was hypocrisy. Yes, it was nice that they acknowledged the First Nations, but to make it sound like we are all one happy Canadian family is wrong. I am all for Olympic sport, but in the way it was back when it was about the sports and not the big business. VANOC (Vancouver Olympic committee) really screwed the pooch when they first started planning for these Olympic Games.

Since they first got the bid for the Games, the city of Vancouver has done everything in its power to hide what it considers the ugly underbelly of the city. It has tried to cover up high rates of unemployment and the homeless. It’s also done its best to portray a warm and fuzzy police force when in fact, the downtown east side has suffered considerably since the games began, and the poor have been pushed out of the city and treated inhumanely by the city of Vancouver. Not to mention what has happened to the sex workers working the downtown east side. Let’s face it – the Olympics is about celebrating humanity, yet the Canadian government and everyone who’s participated in hosting these games have done their level-headed best to hide the truth of what they’ve done to the poorer people of this country.

First Nations are not one gigantic happy family within the Canadian mosaic. They are one of the poorest societies on the planet. The amount of money that the Canadian government has spent on hosting these games could have cured many of the ailments First Nations are facing today. First Nations would have had better housing, better water, better infrastructure, better safety. Unfortunately, big business once again won out.

The only way VANOC can actually improve their image among the poor people of the country is if a lot of the housing that they’ve built to house Olympic athletes, their trainers and coaches, could become low-cost housing for the poor and homeless. All of this new housing shouldn’t go to the yuppies – it should go to people who desperately need it.

This past weekend, I was at a fundraiser for one of the poorest communities in Canada, Attawapiskat. Attawapiskat, when you say poor, it makes housing in the Gaza strip look like mansions. They have had bad water for years, contaminated ground, and yet Health Canada and Indian and Northern Affairs have refused to lift a finger. The people in Attawapiskat live in shacks with very litle heat. 50% of the community is homeless. EVen the chief gave up her house so that a family of four could live there instead. There’s very little employment, and yet we spend billions of dollars hosting a bunch of athletes from around the world while hiding what really goes on in this country.

Chuck Strahl, the Minister for INdian and Northern Affairs Canada for weeks stonewalled the fundraiser, saying that we needed a designated set of questions – we can’t ask this, we can’t comment on that. Then, the day before the fundraiser was to happen, his office sent us a letter saying that he was truly sorry he could not make the fundraiser, because he and his family were taking a vacation. What I’d like to know is, how does Chuck Strahl sleep at night when thousands of Canadians really can’t? I mean, what does it take for one of the richest nations in the world to look in the mirror and truly acknowledge what goes on in this country: missing women, poor water, high suicide rates, thousands of homeless people, and third world conditions.

When Health Canada was approached about the contaminated land in Attawapiskat, they refused to declare a state of emergency, because they said there was no proof, even though there was proof. And when I say there was proof, what they did was they fired the person who had the proof. Naturally, what I just said was from a source that’s anonymous. All I can say is that the person is a health care worker who was hired by Health Canada and when asked certain questions, was told to drop it.

I would hope to see that at the end of these games the athletes take something away from here that isn’t just medals, but knowledge. Knowledge that this country isn’t as great as it claims it is. Knowledge that there are people who need help in this country. Knowledge that sure, this may be an athletic competition, but the Olympics is just like a mining, logging, or oil company that goes into a beautiful area and destroys it.

The opening ceremonies, as pretty as they were, neglected to mention that not all First Nations in this country accept that the Olympics are here. They are downright against it. They see the economic impact, but they don’t see any of the economic returns. See, I would be very supportive of any organization that came in and had an event that had an economic impact and also had economic returns, because it would mean that they were taking something, but they would also be giving something back.

Unfortunately, that’s not how big business works in most ways. Capitalism as big and as powerful as it is will eventually die because all it does it take. Big business is more like a cancer than a cure. Sure, big business gives some people jobs, puts food on some peoples’ tables, but it doesn’t really help society because it gives nothing back. The rich stay rich, the poor stay poor.

I may sound like a curmudgeon, but I am a realist. I see things for what they are. I see past the fancy suits, the expensive dinners, the shiny shoes. I see what they truly stand for, and that is greed. I will admit, one of the highlights of these games is that they are the greenest Games ever, and that is important – because it is the little things. Now if only we can get big business to start thinking about their impact, their footprint. How hard would it be for one business to help build low-cost housing. Would it truly effect their bottom line? No, it wouldn’t. But it would help their karma.

During the fundraiser, one of the speakers, Cindy Blackstock, mentioned that it wasn’t important to be remembered. It was important to have a good life, to live well, and be kind to others. Because in the end it doesn’t really matter if people remember you. Frankly, I don’t care if anyone remembers me ; just remembers the work that i did.