Human rights justice blocked for Aboriginal women

“I have fears of making waves. In my mind, I say it is not going to do any good, you will just be put down again.”

—Aboriginal Women’s Roundtable participant

Fear of retaliation is among the top factors blocking access to human rights justice for many Aboriginal women, the Canadian Human Rights Commission learned over the course of four roundtable discussions held across the country in 2013.

Close to a hundred Aboriginal women representing a wide cross-section of on-reserve and off reserve communities participated in sessions held in Winnipeg, Halifax, Ottawa and Vancouver. A final roundtable is planned for Montreal in 2014.

Participants were invited to share their experiences of barriers to human rights justice. They raised a number of factors, including the complexity of human rights complaint processes, language barriers, lack of awareness and lack of support.

photo of Cassondra Campbell Cassondra Campbell of the CHRC’s National Aboriginal Initiative, helped lead the roundtable discussions in 2013.

One factor that was consistently raised is that many Aboriginal women are often discouraged by the prospect of having to challenge the police, or powerful members of their communities on whom they depend for their livelihoods. 

Retaliation can take many forms, the Canadian Human Rights Commission was told. Some Aboriginal women said they fear that by making a complaint they could be denied access to important health and social services. Others spoke of fears that their allegations would be met with intimidation or acts of violence. Some said they face the difficult decision of choosing between keeping quiet or leaving their community.

“Truth be told, some leaders are offenders of violence against women,” one participant said. “It is so entrenched, many women live in fear. That is our sad reality, and it is tough.” 

The absence of community supports such as legal-aid services exacerbates other contributing factors. Along with fear of retaliation, the complexity of human rights complaints processes, lack of technology and lack of awareness are all important. This is particularly true in remote communities, where information about human rights protections can be difficult to access. 

“You don’t need a research project to know that scarcity of resources, lack of advocacy and low literacy are barriers to accessing human rights justice,” one participant said.

Many First Nations governments are working to advance human rights in their communities, however. As an example, some participants spoke of the support they received from their leaders on advocacy efforts to address violence against Aboriginal women. 

Many women expressed the will and ability to bring about positive change in their communities, offering their own recommendations on how to improve access to human rights justice. Most said that they support community-based dispute resolution. However, some women were sceptical. 

“The intention is good in creating [these processes],” one woman recognized, “but reality is they don’t help. Sometimes, they make it worse.”  Others said that considerable time and effort would be necessary before such processes would be independent and inclusive enough for women to put their trust in them.   

Since the Canadian Human Rights Act was amended in 2008 to allow complaints related to the Indian Act, the Canadian Human Rights Commission has grown increasingly aware of challenges facing Aboriginal women. The decision to hold the roundtables was made to gain a better understanding of those challenges and to provide a forum for women to express their concerns. The sessions followed a model that emphasized dialogue, respect and openness. To ensure a broad range of perspectives, organizers chose invitees in discussion with regional First Nations organizations, women’s groups and human rights agencies. The women were guaranteed anonymity in order to promote frank discussion in a safe environment.

Some women expressed surprise that the purpose of the roundtables was for the Canadian Human Rights Commission to listen and hear, not to lecture or teach. “It isn’t very often that an instrument of justice comes looking for the people it is meant to serve,” one woman said. “Usually we are trying to claw our way in.”

The participants painted a bleak picture of the state of human rights, not just in many First Nations communities, but also in cities, where increasing numbers of Aboriginal women now live. Collectively, they expressed distrust of police and judicial processes intended to protect all Canadians equally.

Some women spoke of the injustice and discrimination they face in “white society,” underscoring the need for continued efforts towards relationship building and reconciliation between Aboriginal peoples and other Canadians. 

“Everything about me is violated – my identity, culture, roots. Racism is embedded in the system,” one woman said.

“We don’t cry anymore,” said another. “Nothing fazes us. We grow accustomed to racial discrimination.”

Senior management of the Canadian Human Rights Commission reviewed the barriers to human rights justice cited throughout the four roundtables and noted that fear of retaliation and the absence of resources were among the most commonly referenced themes. 

In consequence, the Canadian Human Rights Commission issued the following statement:  

  • The Canadian Human Rights Commission urges the Government of Canada, advocacy groups, professional organizations, and First Nations community leaders to take concerted action to eliminate barriers to human rights justice and develop stronger in-community supports to ensure that victims of discrimination can bring complaints forward.
  • The Canadian Human Rights Commission may, in special circumstances, initiate its own complaints so as to ensure vulnerable individuals remain safe and protected from acts of discrimination.
  • The Canadian Human Rights Commission reminds everyone, including federal and First Nations governments, that the Canadian Human Rights Act prohibits threatening, intimidating or retaliating against an individual who has made a human rights complaint, given evidence, or assisted in any way in respect to a complaint. A person who is guilty of doing so is liable on summary conviction to a fine of up to $50,000.

Canada needs a national inquiry into violence against Aboriginal women

This past year may well be remembered as one in which the issue of violence against Aboriginal women and girls in Canada exploded onto the international scene. 

In February of this year, Human Rights Watch, a highly regarded global advocacy group, published a damning report entitled, Those Who Take Us Away: Abusive Policing and Failures in Protection of Indigenous Women and Girls in Northern British Columbia, Canada. The report alleges that RCMP officers in British Columbia fail to protect indigenous women and girls from violence and in some cases are actually the perpetrators of that violence. 

Photo of David Langtry, Acting Chief Commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission and James Anaya, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, met in Ottawa in October 2013.David Langtry, Acting Chief Commissioner of the CHRC and James Anaya, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, met in Ottawa in October 2013.

The report attracted considerable international attention, shining a spotlight on an issue that drew visits to Canada in 2013 from special rapporteurs from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights as well as Mr. James Anaya, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. 

David Langtry, Acting Chief Commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC), met with Mr. Anaya in Ottawa. “In a modern, highly developed country like Canada,” Mr. Langtry said, “it is almost unimaginable that so many indigenous peoples must grapple daily with chronic conditions of disadvantage, including discrimination, neglect, and deep multi-generational trauma.”

“I believe [this] to be one of the most pressing human rights issues facing Canada today," Mr. Langtry said in a statement after the meeting.

The Native Women’s Association of Canada has documented close to 600 unsolved cases of missing or murdered Aboriginal women. The Canadian Association of Statutory Human Rights Agencies (CASHRA) and Canada’s territorial and provincial premiers joined calls for the Government of Canada to establish a national action plan and an independent national inquiry into the issue of murdered and missing Aboriginal women in Canada.

The call has been met with widespread support among Indigenous peoples’ organizations. 

The Government of Canada’s response so far has been to create a “Special Parliamentary Committee on Violence Against Indigenous Women,” which began its work in June 2013. The issue of violence against Aboriginal women was also recognized in the October 16 Speech from the Throne, however no specific initiatives to confront the issue were announced.  

“Aboriginal women are disproportionately the victims of violent crime. Our Government will renew its efforts to address the issue of missing and murdered Aboriginal women.”

Speech from the Throne, October 16, 2013

In a speech to the Economic Club of Canada in November, before an audience that included Mrs. Laureen Harper, the Honourable Kellie Leitch, Minister of Labour and Minister of Status of Women, and the Honourable Michelle Rempel, Minister of State (Western Economic Diversification), Mr. Langtry reiterated the CHRC’s call for a national inquiry.

David Langtry addresses the Economic Club of Canada, November 2013. PHOTO: Jake WrightDavid Langtry addresses the Economic Club of Canada, November 2013. PHOTO: Jake Wright

“The murder or disappearance of some 600 Aboriginal women and girls over the past 30 years is a national tragedy. […] We must get to the root causes of these disturbing facts,” he said.

The fact remains that there has been little concrete action so far. The problem requires real, sustainable solutions that will demand an unprecedented degree of effort and commitment, with federal, provincial, territorial and First Nations governments working together.

Aboriginal people face greater disadvantage than non-Aboriginal people in Canada: CHRC report confirms

35th Anniversary Human Rights Milestone

Did you know?... Before 2008, people living on First Nations reserves did not have full protection under Canadian human rights law. This was because…. Read more

The Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) Report on Equality Rights of Aboriginal People documents how persistent conditions of disadvantage are impacting the well-being of Aboriginal people in Canada. 

Though grim, most of the results were not surprising: when compared to non-Aboriginal people, far more Aboriginal people live in poor quality housing, are unemployed, are serving time in Canada’s prisons or have been victims of violent crimes.

The report compiles data from a number of Statistics Canada studies from 2005 to 2010 into one comprehensive study. Aboriginal people living off reserve are better represented in the statistical surveys because, in some cases, data collection on reserves is a challenge.

One of the more salient findings of the report was that Aboriginal people are more likely to have suffered violence at the hands of others and less likely to trust police. This finding is consistent with what the CHRC heard from Aboriginal women during its outreach activities in 2013.

“It’s a familiar, depressing picture, not something Canadians take pride in. Indeed, many of us have become cynical or indifferent. Yet I remain optimistic, because change is happening.”

– David Langtry in the Regina Leader-Post and the Edmonton Journal, June 2013
35th My Canada includes everyone. | 35ième Mon Canada inclut tout le monde.