“The whole country changed with only a handful of raggedy-ass pilgrims that came over here in the 1500s. And it can take a handful of raggedy-ass Indians to do the same, and I intend to be one of those raggedy-ass Indians.”
— Anna Mae Aquash
Indigenous women in Canada have historically been devalued in ways that involve systemic racism and their Indigeneity and also because they are women. It is important to acknowledge the impacts of colonization and recognize that these effects still exist and plague Indigenous women and girls.
“By understanding the intergenerational effects of colonization, we can begin to address current issues and create a better future for Aboriginal women and girls. Knowledge of past and present issues is essential to building a better life for future generations.”
(Native Women’s Association of Canada)
After completing these modules, you will be able to:
- Recognize the global impacts on Indigenous women.
- Recognize why Indigenous women are at greater risk for violence and murder.
Module 1 — A Traumatic Journey from Ancestral Times to Present Day
Ancestral Times and the Role of Indigenous Women
Before first contact by European settlers in the territory of Mi’ma’ki (the area making up Nova Scotia, PEI, Newfoundland, and much of New Brunswick and parts of Quebec and Maine, USA), Indigenous women and men played an equal role in the peaceful existence, survival, and governance of their community. For the Mi’kmaq, life was nomadic and changed with the seasons. Their roles were different, but complimentary and equally respected.
Never were women considered to be ‘less than’ or ‘inferior’. In fact, they had very important roles to play in the political and cultural life of traditional Indigenous societies.
- An Indigenous life prior to contact was a peaceful and self- governing, traditional way of life.
- The area considered Atlantic Canada was inhabited by Indigenous people for approximately 13,000 years prior to contact, and in the area of Mi’kma’ki, there were hundreds of thousands of people living a traditional life.
- Each community had its own language, culture, traditions, laws, and governments in various tribes throughout Canada. In Mi’ma’ki, the language was Mi’kmaq and though different areas had their own dialect, the language was common and understood by all.
- Communities worked together throughout the thousands of kilometers that make up this land…each and every need was met BY the land including food, clothing, shelter, tools, medicines, and spirituality.
“The traditions of the Amerindians (North American Indians) tell us that America is their land of origin, emphasizing and confirming the people’s attachment to the land.” (A Concise History of Canada’s First Nations pg 1)
- Local nations included the eastern and western Abanaki, the Wolastoqey, Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, Mi’kmaq, and Beothuk
- Indigenous women held honour and had respectful power in the areas of family, marriage, politics, decision-making, and ceremonies.
- Women had positions of power and leadership in the communities and were part of what we now know as Clan Mothers and Grandmother’s Councils.
- Women and men were both responsible for the resources and land.
- The Mi’kmaq were matrilineal and all of the handing down of identity followed the mother’s line.
- Women were sacred in that they have been given a special role by Creator and this was to give life. Motherhood was understood to be a position of leadership and the responsibility for caring and nurturing others. As well, the role of the mother and the grandmothers was to orally pass down the teachings of language, culture, traditions, and societal responsibilities. The Clan Mothers were an example of a powerful political role in which the appointment of tribal chiefs was decided, among other significant roles.
- As givers of life and carriers of the culture, women were vital to the survival of the people.
- Women in the community worked together to help raise one another’s children and the teaching of “It takes a community to raise a child” was very much the way that things were done.
- Because of the enormous respect that each woman gave to one another, the understanding that children were all a part of one tribal family. Feeding children, disciplining in a good way, teaching and guiding, all done by the women, not just one child being taught by her or his own mother. Therefore, children learned from everyone, not just from their own family of origin.
“Children were raised in an atmosphere of communal devotion. Not only were they loved and cherished by their parents but also by members of the community in general. This ingrained devotion assured that children were never left homeless; instead such a child would be adopted by a loving family.” (We Were Not the Savages pg 20)
A Mi’kmaq Creation Story: Jane Meader MEd Traditional Elder and Grandmother, Membertou First Nation
Module 2 — Arrival of European Settlers and the Imposition of Patriarchy
The Papal Bull of Pope Alexander VI in 1493, gave permission to those travelling to the New World (the year after Columbus ‘discovered’ it) to take over any land not inhabited by Christians or Catholics. They would then have free reign over the land and the people in the newly discovered lands upon their arrival.
Video on Doctrine of Discovery
“The One Who Takes the Best Meat for Himself” Aaron Huey, Prisoners of War
Colonization has had an enormous impact on the traditional roles of Indigenous women.
- The Europeans arrived in the lands of the Indigenous peoples and determined ownership and control over the lands. The Christian Church gave them the authority of this control and the practice was called “The Doctrine of Discovery”.
- Upon arrival by ship to our territory, many of the settlers were sick and starving. There were far more Indigenous people than settlers and our cultural and traditional way of life and dependence on the land provided us knowledge of how to help the settlers.
- At the time of arrival, though it was strange and uncomfortable, the Mi’kmaq were able to share in the ways they did things with one another, with the settlers. It is the Mi’kmaq way. To share. To help.
- Agreements were made among the Mi’kmaq and Settlers and we know these to be Peace and Friendship Treaties.
- Over time, more and more settlers arrived and in a group mentality, began to see that the agreements that were held prior would not work, they wanted more land and more area to make their new lives.
- By the time the 16th century arrived, genocide had begun.
- Policies were created to assimilate the Indigenous people based on the patriarchal rule of Europe and a male-dominated system. This process began breaking down the matriarchal system of the Mi’kmaq and their way of life. Women lost their role in their families and the men were taken in by the ways of the Europeans and their promises and control.
- Genocide, the act of assimilating and eliminating the Indigenous people, was the reason behind the oppression and gender violence toward the women.
- In 1749 Governor Cornwallis authorized scalping bounties on Mi’kmaq women, children, and men here in Mi’kmaq territory.
- The Bounty paid 10 to 100 Guineas per scalp — approximately $20-50 Canadian today. The goal was to decimate the Indian population. This scalping bounty is still on the books today in the legislature of Nova Scotia.
- While pop culture and old movies symbolized scalping as something that was done BY the Indians, it actually began with the British.
- Aside from the scalping bounty, the English stole the food crops belonging to the Indigenous people and gave them to the military and burned their homes and possessions. Children were forced to be slaves. Some were never seen again.
- The beginnings of the Murders of Indigenous women began with the settlers who used mass murder and raping of women to abolish the Mi’kmaq and take away any of the power or equality they once held. The equality and complementary roles between Indigenous women and men were no longer part of the way of life.
- Post-colonization, Indigenous women have lost their identity and traditional roles in society through governmental policies to assimilate Indigenous people. All these policies dispossessed Indigenous women of their traditional roles and diminished their power, status, and freedom to live in a safe and healthy environment as they once did. The Government policies that we know to be fact include the following:
- Indian Act
- Implementation of Indian Status
- Indian Residential Schools
- '60s Scoop
- Environmental Racism
Module 3 — The Indian Act
What was the traditional home of the Mi’kmaq was quickly becoming owned by the settlers. The British North America Act of 1867 gave the colonial government unilateral powers to control “Indians and lands reserved for Indians”.
The Indian Act, passed by the Canadian government in 1876, made massive changes in the lives of Indigenous women by implementing patriarchal rule with the man at the head of the family and women dependent on the husband. This Act took away Indigenous women’s rights and undermined the power that they once had.
The Indian Act gave men greater political, social, and economic influence than women as “Indian status was defined solely on the basis of the male head of the household.”
This had a drastic, negative impact on Indigenous women and began the marginalization of Indigenous women in Canada.
Module 4 — Indian Status
Under the Indian Act, “to be an Indian, one had to be an Indian male, be the child of an Indian male, or be married to an Indian male.”
A woman’s “Indian” status was entirely dependent on her husband. Women could be denied official Indian status under the Indian Act until 1985.
- Under the Indian Act, a woman would lose her status, treaty benefits, health benefits, the right to live on her reserve, the right to inherit her family property, and the right be buried on the reserve with her ancestors if:
- 1) She married a non-status Indian (not registered as an Indian under the Indian Act) or non-Indigenous man.
- 2) She and her husband separated or he left her.
- 3) After the death of her husband.
- If a woman married a man from another First Nation community, she would have to be registered under her husband’s band while no longer being a member of her band of origin.
- The Indian Act denied women the right to possess land and marital property. When her husband passed away, the widow could not inherit her husband’s personal property because everything, including the family home, became the property of his children.
Module 5 — Indian Residential Schools
For over 100 years, Indigenous children were taken from their families and sent to residential schools.
Parents were threatened, lied to, and promised a brighter future for their children and thus, manipulated into sending their children to residential schools. For some parents, they were threatened into giving their children over to the Indian Agent. Threats included holding back of food and rations or jail.
Indian Residential Schools resulted in:
- A breakdown of family connection and loss of culture.
- Children, who were taken from their families and communities during childhood, became lost in the myriad of grieving losses of culture, language, traditional values and ceremonies, family connection, how to be parents themselves, respect for themselves as human beings and Indigenous people, and freedom to be who they were without being immersed in trauma and pain.
- The resulting cycles of traumas have impacted two to four generations of Indigenous people and communities, causing Intergenerational Trauma.
- Indigenous women who were forced to live without their children no longer could have their traditional roles of mother, grandmother, nurturer, teacher, family decision-makers. They were stolen from the generations of young women who were not able to learn from their own mothers and grandmothers.
- Emotional traumas caused by the disconnection of emotional ties between mother and child were compounded by loss of Indian Status for women and not being able to live among their community.
- Residential Schools were often plagued with physical, emotional, mental, sexual, and verbal abuses and have long been linked to trauma-related impacts including alcoholism, drug addiction, dependency, lack of self-esteem, suicides, sex work, and gambling.
- We Were Children (film available for rent or purchase)
- Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese (book and film)
He Can Fancy Dance — an extremely moving song by Cheryl Paul
Module 6 — 60’s Scoop
Child Welfare policies in the 1960s to 1980s allowed Indigenous children to be removed from their communities and placed in non-Indigenous homes for what was considered ‘foster care’ but often times ‘adoption’ was more like.
- An estimated 20,000 aboriginal children were taken from their families and fostered or adopted out to primarily non-Indigenous middle-class families, some within Canada and some in the U.S. or Western Europe.
- This resulted in the breakdown of families, loss of cultural identity and, in many cases, trauma and abuse.
- New parents of these children were warned to keep secret from the children their family of origin as well as culture of origin.
Mi’kmaq Artist Pauline Young talks about her art installation at Mount Allison for MMIWG and shares her own story of where the 60’s Scoop took her during a Community Gathering held at Mount Allison in 2019.
Module 7 — Indigenous Women and Risks to Safety and Survival
The fundamental right to be safe and secure is a challenge today still for Indigenous women.
- While changes are being made and the issue of matrimonial property rights are being worked on, it is still an issue for Indigenous women today. No other group of women in Canada need go through this, yet Indigenous women still suffer from this.
- Higher levels of poverty, higher unemployment rates, higher school drop-out rates, poorer physical health due to trauma-related illnesses and lack of proper nutrition, homelessness in greater numbers,
- High levels of poverty and isolation make Indigenous women more vulnerable to violence and sexual assault in their home or community and less able to escape violent situations.
- In cases in which there are abuses incurred by a partner on reserve, it is important to note that Intergenerational Trauma and the effects of Indian Residential Schools and the 60’s Scoop increase the levels of addiction, mental health problems, poverty, homelessness, and other impacts. Often, women with abusive partners remain because they have no place to go and due to Indian Act regulations of loss of status or matrimonial home.
- Sadly, there is a lack of support system structure for Indigenous women that are on reserve and off reserve.
- Shame is also a factor for many Indigenous women to come to their families and let them know that they are being abused.
- Where there is a lack of culturally appropriate emergency shelters and services, transition houses to escape such violence may not be as accessible in the rural areas where many First Nation communities are located; some are very remote locations for First Nations women residing with violence and impossible to flee their abuser whether it is husband, family member, etc. Sometimes women are forced to leave the community altogether, putting them at higher risk. Now that the National Inquiry Calls for Justice have been published, there is hope that these issues may be resolved to assist women with fleeing and safety.
- In urban centers, Indigenous women are at far greater risk of violence and assault than all other Canadian women arising from systemic racism and sexist attitudes. Among those risks includes an arrogance that the perpetrator possesses and the opinion that Indigenous women are garbage or that no one will look for them anyway. Certainly, the past number of years has shown that in many cases, policing has not been kind to the women and no one has looked for them. Perpetrators have the expectation that society is indifferent and they will escape justice anyway.
If we return to the beginning and review how it was for Indigenous women prior to contact with the Europeans, it comes as a sad realization that Indigenous women have come from a place of peace, equality, and respect to a place of indifference and loss and trauma and violence. While many people are returning to traditional ways of life and ceremony, healing their traumas and that of the generations before them, it remains a climate of systemic racism and violence against Indigenous women and girls.
It is hoped that the National Inquiry Calls for Justice will be heard and really valued in order to provide a safer place for Indigenous women with services that are culturally appropriate and in languages that are their own and that someday, they can return to their original ways of living.
Module 8 — Environmental Racism
Considering the connection to the land and what we refer to as “Mother Earth” it is natural that Indigenous people would absolutely consider the earth as a mother. The mother of us is responsible for that which impacts our very survival.
She gives life as a mother does; without her, we are extinct.
Connecting women and Mother Earth is a natural reference as women too, give life just as Mother Earth does.
It is the responsibility of Indigenous peoples to ensure that Mother Earth is healthy and able to continue to sustain us all, but there is another factor that is important.
“where the dominant culture perceives subordinated others as a “resource” with no goals and purposes of their own” and “where the subordinated other [First Nations communities] is defined solely in terms of the dominant culture” (Gaard 2001, 162)
- Over the course of thousands of years, Indigenous Ancestors have walked these territories and left to return to the Spirit World leaving behind their bones and ashes to have their homecoming to Mother Earth. Where today there are specific ‘graveyards’ and ‘cemeteries’, Indigenous people also had specific locations to bury their loved ones.
- As they journeyed some passed away to the Spirit World and so, over the entire territory of Turtle Island (North America) there lies the ashes of the Ancestors and this is but one reason why we must treat her with respect and honor.
- Water has been referred to as “life” and without it, we will die. It is the responsibility then of us, to protect the water though Indigenous people take its sacredness very seriously. They know the connection to water and the life- sustaining role it plays and its connection to ceremony for Indigenous people and the capabilities to heal that the water has. Many ceremonies include the honor of water. The water itself is part of the four elements connects us all and provides us with life; the irony is that it is not JUST Indigenous people that depend on water for survival. The entire human race, the animal world, the plant world, the water world all require water to be clean and healthy in a good way for survival.
- Further, being self-sustaining in communities around the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans means that livelihoods depend on the water.
- If damage to water in the form of environmental resource extraction (and if) Indigenous communities have no access to clean water, there is then a further loss to culture and tradition and the ability to sustain in a natural way.
- Due to environmental conditions created by abuse of the land and water, many First Nation communities in Canada cannot drink their own water. There are boil water advisories and in the case of Grassy Narrows First Nation, the water is loaded with mercury, making it undrinkable and unsafe for humans.
- Locations for resource extraction in Canada appear to surround First Nation communities where it is evident that Indigenous peoples are further devalued by destroying their homelands. Not only that, any location where resource extraction is taking place has developed accommodations that we refer to as “man camps".
- The danger of the man camps becomes even greater for Indigenous women as they are typically not from the area and arrive to work there in mainly unpopulated locations. Where there are man camps, there is a greater risk of sexual assault. The issue of these camps and the workers is that in general, they come into the nearest town to ‘party’ on days off that they cannot return to their homes and the instances of drug and alcohol use are greater due to the higher salaries and lack of connection to their own families. They are strangers and in a strange area and therefore, the feeling of non-accountability is greater. Not all of these men are guilty, to be sure, but a higher number of violent attacks against Indigenous women is evident.
“There is substantial evidence of a serious problem that requires focused attention on the relationship between resource extraction projects and violence against Indigenous women.” (National Inquiry on MMIWG Final Report)
“Moreover, even though most companies have sexual harassment policies, it is not clear that these policies are being consistently implemented in a meaningful way.”
Translated, this would indicate that though the companies have their own sexual harassment policies within the company, there is nothing to indicate that it is enforced outside the camp/company.
- MMIWG's findings on 'man camps' are a good place for government to get started (Maclean's, June 3, 2019)
Module 9 — Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls
One of the most well-known murders of an Indigenous Woman in Atlantic Canada is Annie Mae Pictou Aquash.
For many years, the story of Annie Mae moved through communities in Atlantic Canada and the women shared the story of Annie Mae; these women have since become the teachers and the activists and the Elders and were unafraid to speak out about Annie Mae’s murder at the hands of those whom she thought were her friends.
Learn more from her eldest daughter Denise Pictou Maloney.
Elder Dr. Andrea Colfer’s sister, Gladys, went missing in 2004 from the Restigouche Hospital in Campbellton. Her body was found eight years later and no investigation has ever been done. In this video, Dr. Colfer shares the the story of her sister, Gladys Simon, Elsipogtog First Nation.
Sherry Sabbattis, mother of Jade Sabattis, who is calling for a further investigation into her daughter's death. Police say no foul play was suspected at that time; however, the family do not agree.
Pauline Young, unveiling the art piece for the Community Gathering and National Inquiry at Mount Allison in 2019.
- Mount Allison unveils 'powerful' artwork to commemorate MMIWG (CBC News, Oct. 2, 2019)
- Family searching for answers after Indigenous woman's death (CBC News article on Jade Sabattis, March 31, 2017)
- Taken (APTN and CBC true crime documentary series focusing on solving the mysteries behind Canada’s missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls; Season 2, Episode 3 features Gladys Simon)
- “Taken” tells the story of Gladys Simon from Elsipogtog (NB Media Co-op, Oct. 13, 2017)
- Who Killed Anna Mae? (New York Times Magazine, April 25, 2014)
Mi’kmaq Youth: Our Reality, Our Hope
Mi’kmaq youth discuss the difficulty of moving between two worlds.
Full video of the Community Gathering
October 2019, Mount Allison University