During International Women’s Week, events across Western and London are focusing on women and raising money for charitable causes. While this is undoubtedly a wonderful and important thing, this general celebration of women also largely ignores something important: that in Canada’s history of women’s rights, indigenous women have been left behind.
Historically, indigenous women have had a particular focus in the oppressive legislation of the Indian Act. Their ‘Indian Status’ was ruled as depending on who they married, putting their heritage and identity in the hands of their husbands and the state.
Amanda Myers, youth outreach co-ordinator at Western’s indigenous services, explains the reasons behind this. “This is a policy of genocide,” she says. “They were very determined that if you can weed out the women from a group of people you’re not going to have a people anymore.”
This isn’t just historical — issues specific to indigenous women continue today, and it’s important to remember this when discussing women’s rights and equality. For instance, the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women is an urgent issue; as of 2010, indigenous women and girls were nearly three times as likely to be killed by a stranger than non-indigenous women.
Plus, the effects of colonization are a force close to home. London is a city built on indigenous land, colonized and given a name glorifying British imperialism. The process of colonial destruction in Ontario continues today, as the issue of the Thames-based Line 9 pipeline recently brought concerns and protests from The Chippewas of the Thames First Nation.
The struggles faced by many indigenous women in Canada aren’t just an unfortunate coincidence, but have historical roots. So the fact is that by focusing on women in general in Western countries like Canada, International Women’s Week could accidentally end up celebrating the colonizers and sidelining the colonized.
Another problem is that conversations about and during Women’s Week can also get stuck in a purely Western concept of women and gender. Myers gives an alternative viewpoint, pointing out that in many indigenous cultures nature and the Earth are viewed as related to womanhood.
“Every day if you think of what’s under your feet then every day is women’s day,” she explains. “Because if you’re thankful for that then you’re going to be automatically thankful for women and it’s going to change how you think of things.”
Myers also stresses that simply a week of events and awareness has limited impact.
“It’s always a good thing to happen and it’s always beneficial. But we all have to do it every day, regardless,” she says.
Ultimately, we can’t uncritically celebrate the plight of Canadian women while forgetting the history of the land we are on and call this important, progressive and political. The fact is that all women and all people are connected, in some way, with processes and structures of imperialist oppression and violence. And instead of ignoring this, we can use a time where the spotlight is on women to turn the focus to indigenous women in particular.