By Flynn Lowe
Over seven months after Kelly Morrisseau, a pregnant mother of three, was found fatally wounded in Gatineau Park, there has still been no justice for her family. The police still don’t have any information on the killer(s) who remain free and untried. Meanwhile mainstream Canadian media gives cursory coverage of the grisly murder while subtly insinuating that Kelly was somehow involved in the sex trade even with no evidence to prove it. A greater tragedy in all this is the fact that Kelly is not the first in the Morrisseau family to meet such a horribly tragic end. Kelly Morrisseau is originally from the Sagkeeng First Nation in Fort Alexander, Manitoba and back in 1991 her aunt, Glenda Morrisseau was found in Winnipeg, Manitoba a victim of a similarly brutal killer. To this day, Glenda’s killer has never been caught.
It has long been known that aboriginal women are many times more likely to face the dangers of violence and sexual exploitation. According to StatsCanada, aboriginal women are five times more likely than other women to die as the result of violence. There are two important aspects of Canadian society that are revealed by this statistic: first, aboriginal women make up just a small fraction of the Canadian population but are the demographic that is most under threat of violence; second, the government is aware of this but has done very little to deal with the problem. Even international human aid organizations like Amnesty International openly recognize the racist and sexist stereotypes that are denying aboriginal women their honour and dignity. The lack of respect for aboriginal women is what encourages predatory men to engage in acts of violence against our women because many such men feel they can get away with these crimes.
On Aboriginal Day, aboriginal women’s leaders from across Canada met in Corner Brook, Newfoundland to show their united solidarity and to say, “We are not going to take it anymore. The violence must stop!” Beverley Jacobs, president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada made it clear that victims like Kelly Morrisseau will not be forgotten or relegated to nothing more than another statistic. “It’s cases like Kelly Morrisseau’s murder which have drawn us all together here in Corner Brook. We are united in finding concrete solutions to the crisis facing Aboriginal women.”
The summit was co-hosted by NWAC President Beverly Jacobs and the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Danny Williams, who is providing a commendable example for public servants to contribute more to this growing problem. The National Aboriginal Women’s Summit focused on empowering aboriginal women through their overall theme of “Strong Women, Strong Communities” in order to strengthen aboriginal communities. Three main themes are being promoted under the Strong Women, Strong Communities banner: 1) Health, Safety and Welness; 2) Equality and Empowerment; and 3) Strength, Balance and Honour. Participants reviewed all three themes in order to prioritize the short, medium and long term recommendations for all levels of Government. These recommendations will be consolidated into “the 10 Year Action Plan” that will give aboriginal organizations and the Federal/Provincial/Territorial Governments a clear and concise course towards protecting and improving the lives of all aboriginal women across Canada.
The AFN has already released some initial responses to themes in the Summit. “Issues such as violence, poverty, a lack of access to adequate medical care and illiteracy are all symptoms of a much broader failure to recognize and invest in the unique socio-economic needs of First Nations women.” Furthermore, the AFN is already calling on the Federal government to restore core programs and services for aboriginal women, especially in areas such as education and housing. Many aboriginal organizations have started initiatives to help counter the public perceptions of aboriginal women and help empower them as important members of their communities and the Canadian community as a whole, which we are all a part of. The Native Women’s Association of Canada’s Sisters in Spirit Initiative has been the most effective to date. Sisters in Spirit has already begun to initiate nation wide vigils on October 4th as well as numerous other events to help keep missing and murdered women like Kelly Morrisseau in the public eye. These are truly excellent first steps in protecting aboriginal women.
However, more still needs to be done about the existing institutionalized racial and gender stereotypes that limit aboriginal women’s access to many health and socio-economic programs. While the Canadian federal government claims that ending violence against women is a top priority a recent report from Amnesty International raises grave concerns about this claim. While Stephen Harper has been pushing for improved human rights in other countries his government is failing its people at home, making our Prime Minister a hypocrite and further confirming how deeply the racial and gender stereotypes run in our country. In June 2006, the Conservative Government voted against the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples at the UN Human Rights Council. Since then, the Conservatives have stated that Canada will vote against the Declaration when it goes before the UN General Assembly and has been actively lobbying other countries to do the same.
So, based on the actions of Stephen Harper’s government we can safely assume that protecting aboriginal women is in fact not a priority. Despite acknowledging that aboriginal women are five times more likely to be victims of violence, government officials actively vote against an international declaration acknowledging the rights of all aboriginal peoples globally while trying to encourage other countries to follow suit. At this point in our history, with so little true effort by the Federal Government being put into honouring and protecting our mothers, sisters and daughters we must encourage aboriginal organizations and those levels of government that actually are willing to put forth the effort. In time this support will show those in the highest levels of power that they will not remain there for long if they refuse to protect those most in danger in our great land.
Already there are signs that people truly want to see change. On Aboriginal Day it was announced that MKI Travel, Ottawa based lawyer Richard Warman and the Women of the Metis Nation would all be making contributions to the reward for information on the murder of Kelly Morrisseau; bringing the total reward up to $19,000. As Rosemarie McPherson, the National spokesperson for the Women of the Metis Nation said, “Women in general are being targeted. This is not merely an Aboriginal issue. And that’s why all women must stand in solidarity.”