Breaking the silence – Quebec Native Women’s report on violence in the province

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“What came up a lot in the report is how normalized violence is. People feel like it’s normal to have experienced violence, or to have been raped, or to have been abused.”

Alana Boileau, Justice and Public Security Coordinator for Quebec Native Women, was speaking following the December 14 release of the group’s report on the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Quebec, Nānīawig Māmawe Nīnawind – Stand With Us.

A critical point addressed by the Quebec Native Women report, Boileau said, is that the issue does not begin with the actions of murderers or kidnappers, but rather in a culture of violence created by colonialism – a culture in which it has long been common for women to disappear.

“Disappearance has been a kind of permanent condition in Indigenous women’s lives,” Boileau said. “Having their status removed and being kicked out of their communities because of the Indian Act until 1985, and the legacies of that until today. Dying in residential schools. Being adopted out of their communities, even losing their children and therefore falling into a pattern that might be harmful, or being adopted one’s self and having to leave your community. Disappearance has existed in Indigenous women’s lives since the beginning of colonization.”

And yet one of the most dangerous factors has been the unwillingness of non-Indigenous society to take women seriously, something Boileau said she noticed in the backlash against the Indigenous women who accused Val-d’Or police officers of abusing them.

“My boss, the executive director here, said ‘They didn’t believe us when we told our stories from residential school, either.’ I thought that was such a heartbreaking statement.”

The Cree Women of Eeyou Istchee (CWEI) is working on its own report, Boileau noted, adding that reports from specific Nations and communities are enormously helpful. Though that Cree report is not yet finished, Boileau says her office has been in touch with Cree Justice and CWEI and will provide support as it continues.

The QNW report began with consultations 18 months ago, when Boileau and researcher Annie Bergeron started meeting with elected QNW representatives of each Nation and with the directors of Aboriginal women’s shelters across Quebec.

“We asked them what our study should look at, who we should speak to, and what kinds of questions we should be asking,” she explained. “What really came up was the need to inquire about the violence that Indigenous women experience in general, in non-Aboriginal society, in urban areas, and in their communities. Then we chose to speak to family members first and foremost, and also frontline workers and members of the Aboriginal police corps.”

The history is complex, she said, and it begins with the violence of colonialism in the past and in its many forms in the present.

“We need to walk that really delicate line of addressing family violence, addressing violence that is present in communities that sometimes causes women to want to leave their communities, while also recognizing where it comes from, and the fact that one of the reasons it’s still here is that there aren’t resources in order for services to be available to people who want to heal but don’t have access to the support they need,” she said.

The approach ruffled feathers in Quebec’s government bureaucracy, she noted.

“When we started submitting ideas to the Justice Ministry, one of the people I’m working with there said, ‘You’re talking about violence in general. We need you to talk just about missing and murdered Indigenous women.’ And this is our point: this is missing and murdered Indigenous women. If I only talk about the women who are kidnapped, we’re not addressing the issue.”

The report concludes with four objectives for healing and improving violence both within communities and between non-Indigenous and Indigenous people. The first of these is a focus on gathering together the families of victims of violence so that they may help and support one another.

The second objective focuses on raising awareness, in particular in the form of sensitivity training for Quebec service providers both outside and inside Indigenous communities. These include police, frontline workers, nurses and anyone who interacts with Indigenous people and provides them services, said Boileau.

“People don’t always know how to work with Indigenous people,” she said. “They don’t know how to adapt their services – to make Indigenous people feel welcome, and use methods that work for them. It’s one thing to know about residential schools, but how does that change the way you do things when you provide services? That transition is not always there.”

She noted that Quebec Native Women trains police officers from different Aboriginal police corps, raising awareness about the history of the Indian Act and teaching officers how to intervene in violent situations taking place in Aboriginal settings.

“But moving beyond that into what this means in your everyday practice, that’s different.”

The third objective is to harmonize services by increasing collaboration between service providers. In many cases, Boileau said, frontline workers and police often have no idea what the other does, even when they’re providing services to the same people.

Finally, the report aims for increased solidarity among Indigenous communities working toward non-violence. Quebec Native Women will be publishing a strategic action plan in the New Year. Boileau said that some steps they’re considering involve communities signing non-violence declarations or organizing annual marches. All projects will aim to motivate communities to rally around the cause of non-violence in an atmosphere where, she said, people too often consider violence to be a normal part of life.

“What’s most important is that people try to break the silence,” said Boileau. “We need to talk about violence.”

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