Activist Zeros In on Canada’s Indigenous Women
Cherry Smiley, born in Kamloops, British Columbia, is an artist, feminist activist, survivor of male abuse and aspiring politician from an indigenous background. Her mother’s side of the family is Nlaka’pamux and her father’s is Diné. “My maternal grandmother is a huge influence on my life. She’s 96, hilarious, and says what she thinks,” Smiley says.
Smiley also is a Ph.D. candidate at Concordia University in Montreal. Her research aims to help end male violence against women and girls in Canada, with a focus on indigenous women and girls. She is critical of Canada’s response to the number of indigenous women who have been murdered or gone missing in recent decades.
I first met Smiley in 2015. She told me a story about speaking on a panel about the sex trade in Vancouver, which a number of indigenous women had attended. This topic is painfully relevant to them.
Smiley told me, “The women in the audience were asking questions and they were great, but they were [furious], of course. The organizers were threatening to call the police on the aboriginal women in the room because we were too savage and out of control, and [they worried that] these ‘angry Indians’ [were] going to storm the panel.
“It’s very particular to aboriginal women, because [we are] painted as uncontrollable and violent as soon as we express strong views,” she said. “The only role we get to play in the prostitution debate is as the missing and murdered women, the victims.”
Smiley was referring to the National Inquiry on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, a topic I investigated in 2005. I was writing about convicted serial killer Robert Pickton, a farmer who claims to have sexually violated and murdered 49 women. During my investigation, I interviewed a number of indigenous survivors, family members and others involved in exposing police failures to protect the women and prosecute the perpetrators. During research for my recent book on the sex trade, I returned to the issue of the missing and murdered indigenous women. It appears that in 13 years, little has changed. I was appalled to learn from women that sexual exploitation and police failures are still endemic to their communities.
Since the 1970s, an estimated 3,000 indigenous women have been murdered or are presumed missing across Canada.
To Smiley, the response is inadequate. “They just want us to … tell the awful stories of our lives, or they want us to get up there and play our drums and sing our songs and do our dances,” Smiley says. “But they don’t want to hear what we think.”
Recently, I spoke with Smiley again. Partly as a response to being ignored, infantilized and stereotyped, she is planning to run for office in Canada’s 2019 elections:
I think the bolder misogyny becomes, the more we need to look critically at what we’re doing and restrategize. As I was researching the process of running in a federal election, it became very clear that no current federal party in Canada centers [on] women and girls. It’s time for a new party anchored in well-established feminist politics.
This political party—Women’s Party for Feminist Action—will prioritize ending male violence towards women, and ending racism, patriarchy and capitalism. We will hold public forums on male violence against women and girls, gender and gender identity, prostitution, surrogacy and other issues that impact all women from rarely heard critical perspectives. We need more women’s transition houses and rape crisis centers and more transportation options for women, especially in Northern Canada and in rural, reserve and remote areas. We also need to be providing core funding, no strings attached, for independent women’s organizations. Food security is another issue, especially in the North, that we need to address.
Another issue I’m really passionate about is elders. Women generally live longer than men, and women are usually the ones doing the caregiving, so this is a women’s issue. We need to begin to value our elders. Everybody who is 85 and over should have access to all the home care they need. To start, we’re going to pay the caregivers a good wage that reflects the importance of this work. Caregiving, whether it’s for elders, children, those who are disabled or others, is still seen as “women’s work” and [as being] of little value, which is not true. Men need to step up and take on caring responsibilities as well.
Smiley told me of her own journey, coming from a childhood of violence to a place where she was finally able to question the role of women and girls in a patriarchal, colonialist world:
I was mostly raised by my mother and maternal grandparents. I grew up in an environment of poverty, male violence and drug addiction. Part of the way I dealt with my circumstances was escaping into my head. I completed high school, which I’m quite proud of. I went to university but had a really awful time, as I didn’t have the vocabulary to talk about what had happened or was happening to me, and I didn’t have a way to understand that it wasn’t my fault. My graduation was a really big deal for my family.
I took a feminist theory course at the University of British Columbia in my final year. [Radical feminist texts] gave me a way to think about what had happened, and radical feminism made it clear that none of what had happened was my fault. I don’t think any other theory does that. It sounds corny to say that radical feminism saved my life, but it did save my life. Without it, I don’t even want to know where I might have ended up.
From the minute I discovered radical feminism, things fell into place. I could look back and start to make sense of it. I spoke to my mother about what I was reading and learning. Eventually she was like, “Oh my gosh, I can’t turn [feminism] off now, you’ve ruined TV for me.” I said, “Mum, no, patriarchy ruined TV for you.” Once you have that consciousness, you can’t help but see sexism. I guess that’s one of the powers of patriarchy: It makes itself look natural and normal. Once you notice it, it’s really unsettling.
We’re not allowed to question tradition, but it is questionable. I was speaking to an elder recently, and she said that when women were menstruating, they were told they couldn’t cook or walk behind the elders. She disagreed with that, seeing it as another way to control women. We’re told that women are extremely powerful when they menstruate and that is why there are all these rules, but why do we have to do things this way? Why can’t we challenge an idea that restricts us? It’s really difficult, because you get accused of affirming negative stereotypes [about indigenous men], or [of] betraying the community by putting women first, or [of] being disrespectful by questioning tradition.
The ideas that men attach to us (that we’re “squaws,” for example), the rates and types of male violence that are perpetrated against us, the challenges we face when attempting to fight back and the ways we are able to engage with institutions—these all happen in particular ways for us because we are indigenous women.
I think the larger discussion has been too quick to throw around colonization as the answer to indigenous women’s oppression—we need to dig deeper and always name what we discover: patriarchy, capitalism, racism. We need to stop being afraid to offend by questioning all traditions that restrict women, whether indigenous or not, if we’re going to move closer to women’s liberation.
In Montreal, I heard several indigenous feminists say they had been told, mainly by indigenous men, that feminism is a “white plot” and that violence toward women in their communities only exists because “white men had imposed it.” Smiley and others spoke to me about challenging this myth, and discovering that feminism is vibrant among women of color and indigenous women:
Ten years ago, it was really difficult to find an indigenous woman who was also a feminist. At the time, I accepted that violence against indigenous women was a result of colonization. Then I began to see the ways indigenous men were using colonization as an excuse for their shitty behavior. I used to say that patriarchy was imposed on indigenous communities, but now I say that patriarchy was adopted by indigenous men because it works for them.
I began to question what colonization actually is. What if colonization is a result of patriarchy? There’s a really great book called “Capturing Women: The Manipulation of Cultural Imagery in Canada’s Prairie West,” by feminist historian Sarah Carter. It looks at how men used white women to justify their treatment of indigenous women. The writer talks about numerous documented occasions where indigenous women and white women were working together much earlier in history.
After graduation, I moved to Vancouver and got a job with Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter. I went for the interview and the door was opened by an indigenous woman and I was, like, “Whoa!” I was also introduced to the Aboriginal Woman’s Action Network, and was around women who weren’t afraid to talk about controversial issues or put women first. It’s through discussion and debate that we move forward.
There’s an understanding that [in regard to] the pressures on women who are living with poverty, drug addiction and violence, that maybe the indigenous crisis and shelter workers are dealing with a lot of the same things, too. It was important that we checked in with each other.
During my time investigating the murdered and missing women in Canada, I met a number of women who had decided to break away from mainstream, male-dominated indigenous groups because of the absence of discussion and acknowledgement of violence against women and girls, including prostitution. I met women such as Courtney, a young native Canadian woman, originally from the Squamish Nation. Courtney, like so many native girls in Canada, was prostituted in Vancouver, from childhood until she escaped a few years ago. She took me around the area, showing me the near-dead women being pimped on the streets. “Native women are treated particularly brutally by pimps and johns,” she told me. “Many women don’t survive the violence; most have been abused as children before being preyed on by pimps.”
Smiley is committed to exposing male violence toward women and girls, both within and outside of indigenous communities:
In Canada, there were 67 reported cases of women being killed by their (usually male) partners or former partners in 2014. That’s approximately one woman murdered every six days by a man they are or were in a relationship with. Women are routinely harassed by men in public spaces, we are bombarded with pressure as young girls to look and act a certain way to make ourselves appealing to men, and we are too often an afterthought when it comes to municipal, provincial and federal politics.
This is especially true for women of color, indigenous women, immigrant, refugee and non-status women, as well as women with disabilities, criminalized and jailed women, poor women, women in rural areas, reserves and in the North, mothers and single mothers, girls and young women, elderly women, caregivers, lesbian women, homeless women and girls, and so many more. While there are many differences between us, we should be, as Audre Lorde reminds us, celebrating our differences and recognizing our common oppression as females.
Many indigenous feminists I have met in Canada, New Zealand and Australia told me, like Smiley, that feminism “saved” them. One young woman I met in Vancouver said she had no idea that indigenous women could be feminists and had been told by men that feminism was “colonialist.” Smiley, however, is proud of her foresisters:
Wait, before you go…
Indigenous women, such as Mary Two-Axe Early, Sandra Lovelace, Jeanette Corbiere Lavell, Yvonne Bedard, Sharon McIvor, Lyn Gehl and others, have fought for decades to end the sex discrimination within the Indian Act, fighting for their rights against the Canadian government and often against indigenous men’s organizations. Some positive changes have happened, but only as a result of indigenous women’s hard work in spite of the backlash they receive, from in and outside of indigenous communities. However, sex discrimination remains in the Indian Act today while the federal government “consults” on this issue with no stated end date.
There is much more work to do, and it’s important to celebrate the victories we achieve on the way, as well as learn from feminists who have come before. There is absolutely no reason why we can’t imagine something different, something better. Why can’t we imagine government as a form of responsible leadership? Why can’t we imagine a world free from patriarchy, racism and capitalism? Why can’t we imagine a world where women and girls live free from male violence? We need each other to create this vision, and we need each other to make this vision a reality.
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