It was standing room only at the Annual Vigod Memorial Lecture from the Human Rights Program at Saint Thomas University’s Kinsella Auditorium to listen to alumni Pam Palmater discuss missing and murdered indigenous women and girls.
Hailing from Ugpi’Ganjig (Eel River Bar First Nation), the Mi’kmaq lawyer, social justice activist and Ryerson University Professor was described as an “ardent and tireless worker for Human Rights” by the President of St. Thomas University, Dawn Russell, as well as “an informed and highly-regarded commentator” on important issues.
Palmater graciously recognized STU as a central place for Native Studies and acknowledged the teachings of Noel Kinsella and Graydon Nicholas who encouraged her on the path she took.
Palmater told the public that the negligent treatment of indigenous women is an “issue that’s increasing (..) unless we take action, we won’t get the results we need to eradicate it completely.” She added that “this isn’t about victimhood, this is about women standing up for their communities.” According to Palmater, indigenous women are treated as “less than human” and it should surprise no one that they are targeted as victims and their killers are met with impunity.
For her, the central issue is “who we are as indigenous women” because all indigenous leaders come from “sovereign nations with complex governing systems, networks and trade economies” and especially the Wabanaki Confederacy, on the eastern seaboard. In particular, indigenous women connect the spirit world with the material world through childbirth and were fundamental in many roles as leaders or advisors in the past. This foundational history is what makes indigenous women “the heart of the nation,” according to Palmater.
Indigenous women and children have been targeted by the government “in hideous and heinous ways.” The goals of the governments were the acquisition of indigenous lands and the reduction of financial commitments. The policy was two-pronged, through assimilation (not just a “loss of language and culture” but aimed to “sever the relationship with the reserve”) and the elimination of indigenous people, in fact “killing people” with “lethal precision,” deemed the “final solution of the Indian Problem” by Duncan Campbell Scott, the creator of the residential schools in Canada.
The deplorable treatment of indigenous women is not just a recent trend, according to Palmater: “we’re talking about an entire history of this practice (…) literally thousands of ways.” For example, from the very start, the Indian agents used food rations to extort indigenous women and children. Taking children away from the indigenous women is “emptying out their spirits” and sterilization programs were “done without knowledge and consent.” Furthermore, having relationships with non-indigenous people made indigenous women’s status disappear as well as their children’s and grand-children’s. Palmater commented that, “for a feminist Prime Minister,” Trudeau is not following through with his agenda of equality in fixing this discrimination.
The basic human rights of indigenous women are still being ignored, and there are “multiple overlapping crisis in First Nation Communities.” Indigenous women make up less than 5% of Canadian population, but their lifespan is shorter. Suicide is the number one leading cause of death for indigenous women. In Manitoba, 76% of indigenous families live in poverty. In federal prisons, 36% of inmates are indigenous women. In foster care, 48% of all kids are indigenous; “they are still stealing our children” noted Palmater, adding: “we have to stem the tide.”
The National Inquiry
“Missing and murdered indigenous women’s life choices are completely irrelevant,” said Palmater, since it was and is the government’s responsibility to take care of these women, no matter who they are or the choices they made. For Palmater, “domestic abuse is a small part of the equation” despite attempts by the government to lay the blame on Indigenous men. She pointed out that “indigenous women are less likely to be killed by their spouse” than other women in Canada. The less than 1% conviction rate in the cases of missing and murdered indigenous women is alarming, because it suggests “relative impunity”. Indigenous women are targeted for violence simply because the perpetrators can get away with it.
Canada’s National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women is only happening because of advocacy by families’ “strength, persistence and resilience.” The initial research that had to be done was around the cases, the police racism, and the justice’s system’s perpetration of racism but the terms of reference for the Inquiry do not include a review of past actions, “a fundamental defect in terms of getting to the truth,” according to Palmater.
The Inquiry is still having serious problems: no firm schedule, no acknowledgement of racism’s effect, no plans to hold meetings in rural areas or to reach out to marginalized populations (with no Internet, for example, such as women incarcerated or rural women). The UN has denounced these errors in process and “less than 900 [families] have registered across the country” to give testimony which, according to Palmater, is just a drop.
Additionally, Palmater denounced the fact that the Chief Commissioner has been missing in action for the recent family hearings in Membertou, N.S., and elsewhere. The Commissioner is in charge of the Report which contains a tiny literature review “which could have been written by an undergraduate student,” Palmater said. She declared: “we want a successful inquiry, not one that’s going to do more harm” because “their focus so far has been on domestic violence and [a woman’s personal] history.”
Palmater has advocated for a human rights framework for the Inquiry, based on which of the women’s human rights was violated and why it was violated, in order to find remedies. She added: “we need accountability mechanisms,” a “corresponding penalty” for breaking the human rights of Indigenous women. Palmater stated that the Commission needs to hear from international experts and special rapporteurs on specific issues because “they are the ones who can help shed light” on the situation. There are already multiple documents that provide rights and, according to Palmater, “we have to abide by the ones that we have.” Because the government does not comply with decisions, it is difficult to move forward.
For example, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is celebrating its 10th anniversary but Palmater wondered: “what does it mean if all the social indicators for Indigenous women have gotten worse”? It has not been made law in Canada despite Prime Minister Trudeau’s campaign promise to do so.
For Palmater, the real government is the “people in [the] room” because the government cares when the public speaks up. She added that “reconciliation doesn’t feel good,” it’s uncomfortable and means “taking hard steps forward.”
For Palmater, “indigenous women and children” are the hope for the future, they are leading the fights with allies. She asked the attendees to “be brave enough to admit that what’s happening isn’t working” because “we need to reset the path” and choose human rights, all of which have come through battles. The Feminist Alliance for International Action Website has letter models as well as an S-3 campaign to deal with the discrimination in Canadian law, especially with Indigenous women who “married out” of their status.
The Lecture is named for Bernie Vigod, a “tireless worker for justice” who fought against racism and antisemitism. At the event, two Vigod scholarships in his honour were given to UNB students in History, Cora Jackson and Evan Germaine.
Sophie M. Lavoie is a member of the NB Media Co-op Editorial Board.