International Women’s Day: Michèle Audette reviews our progress

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micheleFrom pleading the case for Canada’s missing and murdered Aboriginal women abroad to riding the tsunami of activism triggered by Idle No More, it has been a busy year for Michèle Audette, the president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC).

As head of Canada’s Aboriginal women’s advocacy group and a mother of four, Audette, an Innu from Sept-Îles, still exudes an effusive energy over the phone during an interview with the Nation to mark International Women’s Day, March 8.

For Audette, the occasion is an appropriate time to highlight the call for a public inquiry into the hundreds of cases of missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada. Audette has already taken this effort to the United Nations three times and to Geneva twice.

The international exposure of Canada’s shameful record on violence against women is a key part of the pressure campaign on a federal government that strenuously resists trying to understand why so many women are left to die or disappear in the country.

A chance meeting on a New York street this past year with Françoise Gaspard, chair of the Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), is a moment that Audette describes as “a gift.” The encounter opened the doors for three Special Rapporteurs to visit Canada. Two were from the CEDAW while James Anaya is the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Anaya made international headlines last October for shaming Canada over its treatment of Indigenous peoples, particularly when it came to the missing and murdered.

“We never missed an opportunity and we created many of our own to make sure that we had the solidarity and the support that we needed,” said Audette of the effort to gain international allies.

While Canada’s Conservative government is steadfast in rejecting an inquiry, Audette was able to rally the support of the country’s premiers after a short nine-minute pitch during a meeting last July.

Audette said she argued that we as a country are willing to spend millions on a salmon inquiry in BC and one on corruption in Montreal but not on hundreds of missing or murdered Aboriginal women.

“Either you do what Harper is doing and put your head in the sand or you can do what I am doing along with thousands of other Aboriginal women who believe in real action,” Audette said of the meeting. “As it was my birthday, I asked them for this as a birthday gift, to support a call for an inquiry. In the end, they told me, ‘Happy Birthday, we will support you!’”

NWAC went to the Supreme Court last December to file an affidavit over the Bedford ruling as it saw Canada’s prostitution laws criminally struck down. NWAC’s position is that prostitution is not a solution.

“So many of our sisters end up on the street after being sucked into the sex trade. We want other opportunities for our sisters and better options when it comes to housing and education. Most of us end up on the streets because of issues like human trafficking and we know that this is not their first choice in life,” said Audette.

Audette feels this is necessary as the numbers of missing and murdered women continue to climb, with some researchers saying the actual number is fast approaching 900. NWAC’s Sisters in Spirit initiative originally started the tally. That work ended for the NWAC in 2010 when Ottawa cut funding.

“What we have seen is that the target here is brown women with brown eyes,” said Audette.

Audette has great appreciation for groups like Families of Sisters in Spirit that continue to advocate for their lost ones and to help the families. She credits women like Bridget Tolley, Sue Marten, Gladys Redek and the other fighters from British Columbia, Saskatchewan and the North West Territories.

In the absence of an inquiry, Audette is hoping to rally various levels of government to find other means of protecting the country’s most vulnerable by fighting family violence.

Audette said Ottawa appears to take a victims-versus-perpetrators approach, in which there is an increasing culture of criminalization. As a result, Canada’s Correctional Investigator, Howard Sapers, is raising the alarm over the fast-growing numbers of Aboriginal men and women behind bars.

“There is a systemic problem here,” said Audette, who questions why there are only 41 shelters for Aboriginal women nationwide. How can this be viewed as being proactive when it comes to violence against women, she asked?

So, even if the government spends $20 million on fighting family violence, it is still like just a scattering of peanuts across the country for the limited impact it has.

Audette identifies poverty and addiction as major factors behind the human trafficking tragedy identified by the Helen Roos study (see page 10). But Audette said society has a responsibility towards these families and that there is an urgent need to break these patterns.

It is for this reason that NWAC will soon be launching a collaborative research effort on trafficking with the Canadian Women’s Foundation to provide the hard data that can lead to solutions.

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