Consent culture isn’t possible in a colonial system
Recently, there’s been a swell of conversation about the issues of sexual violence and gender-based violence in Canada. High-profile court cases have garnered a level of mainstream media coverage that seems unprecedented.
But what’s missing from the conversation?
Representation matters. Advocates say there are more than 1200 missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada, but these stories seldom garner national press. And Indigenous women in the provinces report a rate of violent victimization that is about 2.5 times higher than the rate for non-Indigenous women (Statistics Canada).
We spoke with two Indigenous advocates and experts about what we should be talking about when it comes to sexual violence and Indigenous communities.
Cyndy Baskin (The Woman Who Passes on the Teachings), Mi’kmaq Nation, worked in anti-violence and healing with women, children and men for many years prior to becoming a professor of Social Work at Ryerson University where her focus is on decolonization and the value of Indigenous knowledges for all people. A survivor of violence and the mother of a daughter who died prematurely through violence, she continues to be involved in anti-violence work through volunteering with Sisters in Spirit, No More Silence, Walking With Our Sisters, Native Women’s Resource Centre of Toronto and speaking at educational events. Cyndy is widely published in these areas and the second edition of her latest book, Strong Helpers’ Teachings: The Value of Indigenous Knowledges in the Helping Professions, will be available in May 2016.
Leslie Spillett has made vast contributions for more than three decades to Winnipeg’s inner-city and Indigenous community as an activist and advocate. She brings Indigenous and non-Indigenous Manitobans together on a wide range of issues that touch many aspects of the human spirit. Leslie founded one of Manitoba’s most visionary Indigenous organizations, Ka Ni Kanichihk, translated from Cree meaning “those who lead”, to support women and their families. She also founded Anishinaabe Oway-Ishi Inc. to recognize the outstanding achievements of Manitoba’s Indigenous youth.
Interviewer: What are the challenges you’ve seen in mainstream media reporting on sexual violence and rape enacted against Indigenous women?
Leslie: “To understand you need to really look at the historical context of the country and how you know when Indigenous women, prior to conquest, had significant sexual freedom, and had warranty over their own personal space and also collective space… [But] right from the very beginning of the conquest, Indigenous women’s bodies were seen as problematic and our sexual solitude was always defined as problematic… Fast-forward to today’s settings, [and] you see how the media defines [Indigenous women] through that narrative, through that lens… We have to understand it from a historical and cultural lens to see how this continues in contemporary landscapes… The education of mainstream media has to include both historical and non-historical lenses if they are going to shift away from how Indigenous women’s bodies are portrayed.”
Cyndy: “In terms of the things I like to see, I would put emphasis on sex trade and prostitution… I would also like to see realistic analysis on cultural issue, like poverty, etc. [And] I also would really like to see dialogue around why is it okay to commit violence around Indigenous women? Why is it that men rape and why is it ok to do this? Why don’t we look at the people who are doing the violence rather than only [Indigenous women]?”
“I have had very disappointing encounters with Indigenous media around violence against women very close to me and my family… [They were] doing some of the same things [that] mainstream media does, to be very honest with you. Not accurate, not contacting the people that I mentioned earlier… and again, very much still looking at a woman as a victim, and not looking at the big picture. So I have to say that my experiences with Indigenous media regarding violence against women has not been very positive [either].”
Leslie: “The other thing I would agree with is this block of structural analysis — everything just happened in the last year and there’s no appreciation or attempt to understand the context of women’s lives, [such as] the [barriers] that poverty raises, the whole Indian Act and how it has discriminated [against] Indigenous women and girls, the power dynamics that occur within Indigenous communities that are now based in patriarchy, also a part of the Indian Act… The other thing is around how quickly Indigenous women are dropped from the radar. You have a murder, [and] within a very short period of time that murder is dropped [from media coverage].”
Interviewer: How would you like to see/have you seen Indigenous women creating consent culture?
Leslie: “When you are dealing with the issues that Indigenous women are dealing with, it’s really hard to start that whole conversation about what even consent culture actually means, within colonial Canada… You can’t have a consent culture within a colonial system. If you look at the structures that are oppressing women: women can’t parent, so many obstacles and barriers that are created, they don’t have safe places, they live in communities that are very hostile and violent… What I see is a lot more women taking leadership, and not in a way of dismissing male organizations and leadership, but kind of stepping forward and taking on issues around the environment, issues around missing and murdered Indigenous women, issues around poverty, oppression, race… all those issues that continue to impact Indigenous women’s lives, and so they are stepping up. These are grassroots people, I find that to be very hopeful and as a sign of resistance, and a sign of people picking themselves up and standing up.
Recognize that Indigenous women had alternate consent culture before colonization. These things are not new to us. I see it so often: You come to a place where we start having conversations that, actually, Indigenous people had before Europeans arrived. These are not new; these are old concepts to us. This is not the brilliance of white supremacy that we’re talking about here. This is what we had.”
Interviewer: Often survivors are portrayed as white, straight, cisgender, able-bodied women. How can the media avoid minimizing stories about sexual violence against survivors that do not fit this description/narrative?
Cyndy: “The survivors that you are talking about are not necessarily going to be the majority of women who face this kind of violence. Indigenous women, racialized women, transgender women, etc… they are the people who tend to face this violence way more… With colonialism and racism, it’s certain bodies that it is ok to do violence to. I think that the media could take a very serious look at this issue …. How are victims described? And why are there so many Indigenous women being murdered?… So yes, a white woman goes missing, the entire country knows about it. 1200 indigenous women go missing and be murdered and what do you do? Most Canadians don’t even know about this issue.”
Leslie: “I see a lot of women in the communities that are voiceless, that are faceless, that don’t have the kind of attention that aren’t meeting the standards of Western ideals… [Mainstream media coverage] does not reflect the women that I work with in those communities. They don’t get that kind of recognition. You have to be white-like almost in order to be recognized. You have to achieve something that is valued in a Western way in order to have that kind of recognition. We have to do better here. The question should be: how can the media avoid minimizing those stories?”
Interviewer: Statistics show most survivors do not report. Why is it important to have diverse representations of survivorship in media reporting? E.g. challenging the notion that there is only one “correct” way to survive, heal and access support.
Leslie: “I agree that the vast majority of Indigenous women don’t report sexual violence. Part of the reason is self-preservation in many ways… [so] that they don’t get blamed for it. Somehow it’ll be turned around by Canadian agencies that somehow they contributed to that situation… And they are afraid of policing agencies; some individuals that are working there are also perpetrators of [violence against] Indigenous women… I think we have to look at different ways of reporting; it does not have to be through policing agencies.
“There has to be a better community response where women can go to organizations … [where] people have to be trained to take reports and have to know how to support the women once they do make a report so that they are going to be treated with respect, with dignity, like they are telling the truth. I don’t like creating victims, I like creating more survivors, more people that are not living perpetually in victim roles. We have to have third party reporting processes that are available to women.”
Cyndy: “It’s the whole thing about diversity: some women would want to be immersed in Indigenous practices and things, others [would] not. Some people will want to involve friends and family, other people will not. We can’t make any possible assumptions about what an Indigenous woman wants until we actually have a conversation with her.
“Our communities are over-policed, so that if it’s an Indigenous man who has raped you or committed some sort of violence towards you and you have a relationship of some kind with that person… I think that it does not get reported because women know how Indigenous men are going to be treated by police and [the] criminal justice [system]. I think that’s something that we rarely talk about but it’s really important. So it’s over-policing at one end, and no policing at the other end. This stuff has been documented: a woman has called the police, they don’t come. They end up finally showing up and she’s dead.”
Interviewer: There has been a swell in media coverage of rape culture in recent months. What conversations are you glad to see happening, and what do we still need to address — specifically on the topic of reporting on sexual violence against Indigenous women?
Cyndy: “I am glad to see that some of these perpetrators have been brought to the forefront, and they are hopefully been held accountable in some kind of way… The other part is that I find that I am being asked more and more to speak to different groups, but especially to journalism students. My university has a journalism department and I’ve been on them for about 5 years to make some move towards how Indigenous women are recorded in the media. How Indigenous people are reported in the media community… I have a great deal of belief in the next generation coming up after mine that they are becoming more educated around these kinds of things and that [it’s important] to make these things more public but also more educational.”
Leslie: “I can say that rape culture is very deep in colonial Canada… [In] study after study about residential schools, [we see that] endemic into [the schools] was rape culture in every way: rape of culture, rape of language, rape of everything… including sexual violence, physical, emotional, spiritual — in every way. When we talk about what reconciliation looks like, we have to understand we can’t have reconciliation without justice — and what does justice look like and [what is it] going to look like? Those conversations are just beginning. In reporting, we need to shift our focus not on women — what they were wearing, what they were drinking, who they were with, where they were walking, what they were saying — but on the rape culture that exists within Canada as a colonial state, including the rape of our lands. We should educate Canadian about Indigenous truths, but also about the truths of Canada.”
This post is part of a series of interviews femifesto is publishing on media reporting and sexual violence in diverse communities across Canada.