Billy-Ray Belcourt
The Gateway

Edmonton (CUP) — Helen Betty Osborne was brutally and mercilessly murdered on November 13, 1971. She was 19 years old.

A woman from the Norway House Cree Nation in northern Manitoba, her tragic death—allegedly at the hands of four Caucasian men—and the 16 years that painfully progressed before her case received only a meagre sense of closure with just one perpetrator convicted, continues to serve as an aching reminder of the harsh realities that indigenous women must navigate on a recurrent basis. 

Tanya Kappo is one of these women. As an indigenous woman and an active participant in the recent Idle No More movement, Kappo is all too familiar with the perpetual uncertainty surrounding the lives of her kin, and the ongoing violence that is unjustly and malevolently imposed upon indigenous women by the colonial state and its citizens.

With a 16-year-old daughter of her own, Kappo knows what it’s like to watch the clock as she waits for her daughter to return home from a friend’s house. There’s a feeling of apprehension—even terror—as she watches her daughter’s curfew come and go by even five minutes. It’s a feeling that doesn’t subside until she hears her child’s familiar footsteps enter their home.

According to Kappo, this socially reinforced sense of insecurity is rooted in two blatant issues: discrimination and sexism.

“Just the fact that we’re women and we’re indigenous makes us susceptible for violence,” the University of Alberta alumna, lawyer, and community activist says, “[but] not just the physical forms—the mental, emotional, and spiritual forms that indigenous women face more highly than any other group in the country.

“This is a continued reality, it hasn’t stopped, and it’s not an historical thing.”

It’s revelations like these that have enticed impassioned and frustrated calls for justice, respect, and social change, especially since indigenous women 15 years and older are 3.5 times more likely to encounter violence than non-indigenous women. This has prompted the Native Women’s Association of Canada to compile a database of 582 missing and murdered indigenous women nationwide, with more than half of the cases in the database remaining unsolved. This number has increased due to the work of Maryanne Pearce, a University of Ottawa PhD student who has collected information on 824 First Nation, Métis, and Inuit women who have met a similar, heartbreaking fate as Helen Betty Osborne.

But many are still grappling with a complex and arduous question: how has this racist and misogynistic environment been cultivated and reinforced time and time again?

Isabel Altamirano-Jimenez, associate professor in the University of Alberta’s (U of A) Department of Political Science and the Faculty of Native Studies, believes that indigenous feminism as a political theory and practice aims to nurture social transformations. But these are contingent upon the rejection of colonial structures that have perpetrated the oppression of indigenous women by exposing the links between violence against indigenous women and colonialism.

“We cannot talk about women’s empowerment alone,” she proclaimed. “It is connected to the broader community issues. When we talk about anti-colonialism or transforming those colonial processes, we are talking about the entire community, but at the same time, recognizing that indigenous women have been affected in specific ways by colonialism in ways that men have not been affected.”

She posits that we don’t have to look too far into Canada’s past to discover instances in which colonial and gendered structures have been unilaterally enforced on indigenous communities, providing the context for indigenous women’s victimization.

The Indian Act, dating back to 1876, is the sole Canadian legislation that deals with First Nation membership, land entitlement, and governance, among other concerns. Altamirano-Jimenez suggests that this statute has largely contributed to today’s volatile social climate because of its invasive sections explicitly targeting indigenous women.

“The Indian Act is one of the most oppressive, gendered legislations in Canadian history that affected women at several levels: regulating women’s bodies, regulating women’s presence and position within the home, and the way women related to their communities,” she says.

But as an indigenous feminist, Altamirano-Jimenez also knows that indigenous women have been forced to exist in culturally constructed spaces and imagined roles created by colonial mentalities, which encourage society to recklessly label these women as sex workers, vagrants, dirty, and inconvenient.

“There are other ways in which colonialism has affected indigenous women that are not necessarily in legislation,” she says. “For instance, the ways in which indigenous women’s bodies have been sexualized and racialized in ways nobody else has experienced.

“That has a colonial history of how spaces were created in such a way that indigenous women’s presence in the city has become an anomaly and even criminalized.”

Altamirano-Jimenez knows all too well that her indigenous students continue to combat treacherous situations arising from the interactions between white supremacy and patriarchy. As a young adult determined to deconstruct these social perils, Emily Riddle, a fifth-year Political Science student at the U of A, embraces indigenous feminism as an ideology that was present in pre-contact communities and has been employed in a modern context as a liberation framework that attempts to provide solutions to the intersections of violence and oppression. According to Riddle, this is especially pivotal when addressing the growing number of missing and murdered indigenous women.

“Often, when we talk about mainstream feminism, we talk about the three waves, but indigenous people had feminism before that was an import,” Riddle said.

“Indigenous feminism recognizes that gender was a tool of colonization, so we have to look at gender and the binary and how we have oppressed indigenous women, and how environmental violence and criminalization have intersected and affected indigenous women the most out of any group in Canada.”

Altamirano-Jimenez adds that colonialism has been an ongoing process which has solidified a patriarchal structure that has allowed for violence against indigenous women to become such a prominent experience within indigenous and settler communities.

“To me, it is important that indigenous feminism as a body of scholarship is putting out there what has been going on with colonialism and the ways in which a lot of communities have internalized these colonial values as a process of colonialism to a point that we might think that hierarchical relationships between men and women are normal or natural, to the point that we might think that violence against women is normal,” she says.

“We need to look at the past to understand how things change, but also to see how we can change today,” says Altamirano-Jimenez.

Though Tanya Kappo doesn’t wholeheartedly embrace the moniker “indigenous feminist,” a sense of urgency and passion possesses her voice as she explains that the violence indigenous women face is multi-faceted, consisting of acts beyond abduction and murder. The first example that comes to Kappo’s mind is the fact that so many indigenous children are being removed from families, thus denying indigenous women access to motherhood.

According to a study conducted by University of Toronto researchers in 2004, aboriginal children represented 40 per cent of children living in “out-of-home” care despite fewer than five per cent of children in Canada being aboriginal. Recent statistics have also surfaced within Alberta revealing that aboriginal children account for 78 per cent of those children who have died in foster care since 1999.

Kappo is determined to spread awareness regarding the enormity and urgency of these issues. As an instrumental organizer of the Walking with Our Sisters exhibit that debuted in Edmonton in 2013, Kappo wanted to commemorate the lives of the over 800 murdered and missing indigenous women in Canada. She explains that the project’s founder, Métis artist Christi Belcourt, had the idea to display vamps as symbolic reminders of the devastation caused by these deaths, provoking an overwhelmingly supportive response from indigenous peoples.

“Christi had this idea to do these vamps because they’re unfinished moccasins, and the fact that they’re unfinished would be representative of the unfinished lives of the missing and murdered indigenous women and girls,” Kappo says.

“There have been so many families left behind and devastated with the kind of loss that happens in those situations, and people really started to respond to that because it gave an opportunity for people to be part of a movement.”

With more than 1700 vamps received from individuals worldwide, Kappo describes the exhibit as ground-breaking in terms of recognition and reclamation, but also heartbreaking for its emotional and visceral depiction of devastation rooted in a violent society.

“It’s stunning, but when you stop and think about why this is an exhibit happening today, it just leaves you feeling devastated to know that all of these represent a missing or murdered indigenous woman or girl,” she says. “And the fact that the exhibit continues to receive vamps even though the deadline is closed, people still contact us to say ‘we just lost our daughter, can we send in a pair of vamps on her behalf?’ It happens [and] it keeps happening.”

Altamirano-Jimenez commends the devoted actions of Kappo and her fellow organizers for exposing Canada and the world to the unforgiving realities that indigenous women face in this country. It’s a reality that has sparked several other initiatives as well, such as the REDress project, which allowed activists to install hundreds of red dresses in public spaces across Canada in order to garner further awareness and encourage proper investigation. Due to these poignant initiatives, hope is building as the desire for a better tomorrow is gaining momentum nationwide.

“I believe that women’s activists, particularly with regards to the missing and murdered aboriginal women, have been tremendous,” she said. “To me, that’s one of the biggest examples of what needs to be done in a context of settler colonialism where everything remains invisible. And all of these women, against all odds, have been telling a different story about Canada and about these women.

“[They are] telling us that colonialism as a process is still here, still happening today, and they are challenging us.”

Above all, Altamirano-Jimenez hopes that more indigenous people will embrace this distinct form of feminism in order to collectively combat the social and political issues that have plagued our communities, disproportionately harming indigenous women.

“Indigenous feminism is not for later. It’s for today so that, together, we can think about a future,” she said.

“If we lived differently in the past, we can live differently in the future.”

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