Indigenous Women’s Health: Closing the Health Gap by Addressing Violence
On May 9th, 2017 I was invited by researcher, Dr. Rita Henderson to attend the University of Calgary Group for Research with Indigenous People (GRIP) forum. We presented on Rise Up Mighty Warrior: Indigenous Women and Stakeholder Engagement for Meaningful Health Promotion. (Power point available here).
Last October, Women Warriors hosted a violence awareness and prevention conference in Lloydminster, Rise Up Mighty Warrior in which participants of our group used photo voice to discuss Indigenous women’s health and safety. Please view two of our presenters, Ashley & Chris on our Youtube channel.
It was an honour to present with Dr. Henderson and it was my first time attending an academic conference aimed at Indigenous health research. I gained amazing insights about Indigenous research and reconciliation from the urban Indigenous health panel, the keynote Marcia Anderson DeCoteau, MD MPH FRCPC Head, Section of First Nations, Metis and Inuit Health, University of Manitoba, and our TRC working groups of researchers. (Hi Sue! I’m still interested in connecting re: info on menopause).
Disclaimer: I am not a formal researcher. I was introduced to the research world through my collaborator, Dr. Wicklum, associate professor at the University of Calgary. I started this program because my family has a intergenerational history of type II diabetes and I wanted to help Indigenous women, whom are 4 times as likely to develop type II diabetes as non-Indigenous women, to prevent or live well with this disease.
A health panel member shared their Indigenous framework policy that I believe any institution, organization, or business that wants to engage in reconciliation work can use:
- Value Indigenous ways of knowing.
- Authentic engagement and building trust is crucial.
- Use humor.
- Stop using a need based lens to view Indigenous people. They have plenty to give.
I relate to this framework because I feel my role in Women Warriors is to provide a culturally safe space, build trust, listen, and when appropriate, have some laughs. I also know that these women have given more to me, than I to them, by sharing their lives and culture with me.
My observation about Indigenous women’s health, especially after hosting Rise Up Mighty Warrior, is that their health is linked to their safety. Also, their trauma, often a result from not being safe in their home or community, is not being addressed in the western medical system. The challenge of creating programming for Indigenous women is that their disproportionately high rates of violence, such as domestic violence or violence within their communities make them a challenging group to research. Furthermore, that the research methodologies must be mixed qualitative and quantitative to get a full picture of the complexity of Indigenous women’s health.
For example, I cannot rely on attendance as measure of success in the program. This year I wrote down the reasons women were missing class. For one class I recorded: back injury- in the hospital, daughter’s dance recital (single mom), recent cancer diagnosis, undergoing surgery, terminally ill mother, murdered relative, no ride from Onion Lake. The data shows 7 missing participants from one day. I see violence and chronic illness from trauma.
The violence is a constant in Indigenous women’s lives, and while not perpetrated directly at our participants, still affects them. If you watched the video of Ashley’s photo voice in October you would hear her explain that her cousin was murdered on Little Pine First Nation two days before Rise Up Mighty Warrior. Here’s the CBC article, Woman dead, sister wounded in Little Pine First Nation shooting that led to B.C. manhunt
Two weeks ago on July 29th, Ashley posted a picture of her roasting marshmallows inside her house with a lighter because she was too scarred to take her kids outside due to a shootout with RCMP. The next day the media reported “2 men arrested after shootout with cops on Onion Lake First Nation.”
Two days after the incident Onion Lake Cree Nation Councillor Dolores Pahtayken posted this commentary on her facebook:
“This afternoon as I drove to the office, I drove like it was a Sunday afternoon and just observed everything around me. There were young women with pails in hand, gathering berries…
There were children jumping on a trampoline in one of the most well cared for yards in this community…There were men working on a truck, hoisted up in their yard.. helping each other..
The trees are green and lush… there is still so much beauty in this community…
What hurts the most is not feeling safe here anymore, what hurts the most is that we have lock everything up nowadays.. feeling so unsure of the ground we walk on.. making sure my gun is within reach and my head is spinning because of what we have allowed to happen..
People might not like what’s going to happen here in the near future.. people are going to defend their children and grandchildren and defend their rights. But what about the rights of the children and elders and everyone of the 4500 people who deserve to live in a safe community.. because we are all tired of living in fear and if you expect us to make a difference then you have to support us…”
I asked to use Ashley and Dolores’ posts because I felt like they were an honest reflection of the daily-lived realities of Indigenous women. I also want to point out that they love their community and as Ashley messaged me, “a few bad apples doesn’t mean we’re all bad.”
In conclusion, in order to decrease the gaps in Indigenous women’s health we need to address the violence in their daily lives. The Canadian government is failing in this respect as reflected in MMIWG loses another key staffer as families slam ‘colonial’ inquiry process, demand hard reset. A letter from families of MMIW explains that “Instead of drawing on Indigenous knowledge and practices, the inquiry has been rooted in a colonial model that prioritizes a Eurocentric medical and legal framework, it reads. Such an approach is rooted in a broader culture of colonial violence that is inherently exploitative towards Indigenous peoples and causes ongoing trauma and violence for us as families.”
What I have heard from community and researchers, like Dr. Carrie Bourassa, Scientific Director of the Institute of Aboriginal People’s Health, a branch of the Canadian Institute for Health Research (CIHR) that I interviewed yesterday for the second season of the Women Warriors podcast, is that we need to listen to Indigenous communities – they know what they need, and researchers need to approach them with an asset based lens (as opposed to a need based lens) and focus on wellness based solutions.
The best that I can do is continue offering women a safe space to improve their health in mind, body, and spirit and connect them with community resources. Currently, we don’t have funding for next year, and I’ve been inspired by all these researchers to hit the academic pause button to complete my last year of my BA starting September. I will facilitate my last session of Women Warriors starting Monday, October 2nd.
I want to leave you with a video of a Women Warriors round circle discussion that was inspired upon returning from the GRIP conference. My question was “What is good health?”
International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples
Today, August 9th is International Day of the World’s Indigenous People. The theme this year is the 10th Anniversary of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). According to un.org this document “establishes a universal framework of minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of the indigenous peoples of the world and it elaborates on existing human rights standards and fundamental freedoms as they apply to the specific situation of indigenous peoples.”
There is controversy about the Canadian governments failure to embrace and implement UNDRIP. OpenCanada.org has an interesting article highlighting the controversy, “Why the UN’s declaration on Indigenous rights has been slow to implement in Canada.”
There is hesitation to support UNDRIP, specifically with the phrase “free, prior and informed consent” in Article 10 which states:
“Indigenous peoples shall not be forcibly removed from their lands or territories. No relocation shall take place without the free, prior and informed consent of the indigenous peoples concerned and after agreement on just and fair compensation and, where possible, with the option of return.”
This Globe editorial The ‘Duty to Consult’ Indigenous Canadians and its limits pinpoints why the phrasing could lead to conflict between Indigenous peoples and the Crown:
“Right now, the Crown has a legal duty to consult, but there’s no requirement for Indigenous consent. The language of UNDRIP, however, appears to make consent a legal obligation, which implies a veto. No wonder the Trudeau government increasingly sounds like it wants to embrace UNDRIP more in principle than in law.”
In relation, there were two independent and important rulings in the Supreme Court of Canada delivered on July 26th about energy projects on Indigenous territories: seismic testing in Nunavut opposed by Inuit and the Enbridge Line 9 pipeline opposed by the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation in Ontario. The rulings were divided – the Inuit won and the Cheppewas lost and you can read more about it in this CBC article “Supreme Court quashes seismic testing in Nunavut, but gives green light to Enbridge pipeline.”
What these rulings mean is “Indigenous interests don’t automatically trump all others” as stated in this star.com commentary, “Supreme Court makes it clear Indigenous peoples can’t veto pipelines: Walkom.”
In essence, UNDRIP is a framework for decolonization and gives Indigenous peoples power over their land, territories, and resources, among other things. My four part series on Healing on the Land summarises the different motives the Crown and Indigenous peoples have for land. Indigenous people are calling for the full implementation of UNDRIP into Canadian government systems and legal framework as the ultimate form of reconciliation.
It’s important if you work in the field of reconciliation to understand UNDRIP and it’s implications for Indigenous peoples because “when Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission called on all levels of government to implement the declaration in 2014, it sent out a clear message that it should act as a framework for reconciliation with Indigenous people in Canada.” (opencanada.org). For a better understanding of UNDRIP please check out this introductory handbook.