Anger, Education & The Power of Motherhood: Indigenous Women Transforming Systems

On Thursday, February 7th Megan Sampson (who completed her MA on Exploring Indigenous Women’s Dietary Practices with the Women Warriors Program: Social Determinants and Resilience in Seeking Wellness) and I attended the Indigenous Knowledge Public Lecture Series: Dr. Carrie Bourassa presented by ii’ taa’poh’to’p, the University of Calgary’s Indigenous Strategy.

I’m taking a break from my rigorous and jam packed study schedule to share our latest Women Warriors news. I’m reducing the newsletter to a monthly edition due to time constraints – three university courses, planning a summer research project with ethics, and motherhood have occupied all my time.

I did, however, manage to take four days off February 7th-10thto visit Calgary and attend Dr. Carrie Bourassa’s lecture at the downtown University of Calgary campus. I interviewed Dr. Bourassa for the Women Warriors podcast approximately a year and a half ago, but it was my first time meeting her in person.

As I listened to her presentation on how Indigenous women have been historically devalued and targeted through colonial policies, such as the Indian Act, residential school, and forced sterilization, I felt a common theme emerge. It came to me through my conversations and experiences with Indigenous female leaders and the participants of Women Warriors.

Anger. Education. The Power of Indigenous Motherhood.

Dr. Bourassa, the first Indigenous woman to be appointed as Scientific Director of the Institute for Indigenous Peoples’ Health spoke of the anger she felt during her undergrad degree in political sciences learning about all the ways the government and colonial institutions have attempted the cultural genocide of Indigenous peoples.

The novel, Making Space for Indigenous Feminism by Green (2007) (1) shares many essays on how colonial legislation has targeted Indigenous women (First Nations, Metis and Inuit) making us the most marginalized and vulnerable population on Turtle Island. Ebert’s article, Being an Indigenous Women is a “High-Risk Lifestyle” highlights the ongoing violence against Indigenous women via the Indian Act:

The Indian Act of Canada is a powerful and still operating instrument of colonialism and patriarchy. The Act has made Indigenous women legal nullities, place them outside the rule of law and the protection and benefit of the law and taken them from their families. In so doing, the Act has produced or heightened the risk of harm in the lives of Indigenous women. When non-Indigenous commentators allude to the “high-risk lifestyles” of Indigenous women, they usually mean to imply that the women engage in prostitution. But, in fact, the lives of all Indigenous women are high risk, thanks to the instrument of colonialism in the Indian Act. The violence that permeates the lives of Indigenous women in Canada today is largely the result of the Indian Act, which functions to make Indigenous women a population of prey (p. 69).

When I first learned about the Canadian government’s purposeful targeting of Indigenous women, it was 2009 and I was in a room full of Indigenous female students in Professor Isabel Altamirano-Jimenez’s Native Studies 380: Challenging Racism and Stereotypes. It was a disheartening course and I remember a self-identified Inuit student coming into the classroom telling the prof that she couldn’t bring herself to read the coursework any longer; her family, friends, and community were the face of those stereotypes, violent narratives, and horrifying statistics we were forced to read.

For example, the racist stereotype “squaw” was a result of the Indian Act. Eberts (2007) (2) traces the origins of this stereotype and how violence against Indigenous women is justified through it.

The Act’s criteria for registration as an Indian emphasized the cultural expectation that women’s sexuality be contained within the patriarchal institution of Victorian marriage. A woman’s destiny was to follow her husband in virtually all respects. If somehow a woman managed to elude those Victorian conjugal confines, she was viewed as a dangerous but degraded personage: the squaw. The stereotype of the “squaw” is described by Metis scholar Emma Laroque as a being without a human face who is lustful, immoral, unfeeling and dirty. Because of this stereotype, Indigenous women are assaulted, raped, and murdered with scant protection from law or law enforcement (p. 71).

This class also taught us the consequences of our marginalization based on colonialism, sexism and racism that Bourassa, Mckay-McNabb & Hampton (2004) (3) identify as the matrix of oppression:

Aboriginal women have a lower life expectancy, elevated morbidity rates, and elevated suicide rates in comparison to non-Aboriginal women (Prairie Women’s Health Centre of Excellence, 2004). Aboriginal women living on reserves have significantly higher rates of coronary heart disease, cancer, cerebrovascular disease and other chronic illnesses than non-Aboriginal Canadian women (Waldram, Herring, and Young, 2000). A significantly greater percentage of Aboriginal women living off reserve, in all age groups, report fair or poor health compared to non-Aboriginal women; 41 percent of Aboriginal women aged 55-64 reported fair or poor health, compared to 19 percent of women in the same age group among the total Canadian population (Statistics Canada) (p.23).

Furthermore, Indigenous people’s social determinants of health reflect major disparities including “higher levels of substandard and crowded housing conditions, poverty, and unemployment, together with lower levels of education and access to quality health-care services” (4).

Our anger about our systematic oppression and its consequences are justifiable. It can serve to motivate. But it is also a low level vibration that repels people. Angry people don’t have longevity. I had this conversation with my beautiful friend and strong Indigenous female role model, Stephanie Harpe at the Indigenous Women’s Justice Forum in November in Edmonton. She told me that everything she does comes from a place of love – that’s where true transformation resides. I believe as Indigenous women we all go through a stage of anger, and that we use it to motivate us to the next level. This next level requires forgiveness and the power of love.

Last year I attended a Reconciliation event in Lloydminster with keynote speaker, Mary Culbertson, the first Indigenous woman to act as Saskatchewan’s Treaty Commissioner. In her speech, she stated she spent many years in anger, and then became motivated to change systems and leave a legacy of reconciliation for future generations. In this Star Phoenix interview she states that during law school while working on residential school claim with Sunchild Law in Battleford the truth that struck the hardest was:

“It’s your own people. Knowing that they suffered so much, you get angry; you get sad. It’s a roller coaster of emotions when you first get exposed to the truth of what happened. I don’t think anything in our communities cannot be linked to the harms from residential schools from that era.” Culbertson’s empathy and understanding for Saskatchewan’s Indigenous people increased tenfold during the claims process. She’s solemn as she explains: “What did they go home to? Not having parenting skills, not showing people how to love, not showing their children love, or drowning the shame and the hurt of what happened to them in alcohol or drugs or abandonment.”

In the midst of witnessing and experiencing oppression there comes a realization that the only way to help ourselves and others is to dismantle the system and rebuild it to be inclusive of marginalized peoples. Breaking down systems of racism and privilege require education, most likely the highest level of education possible in any area. In Dr. Bourassa’s speech she states she was resistant to entering her Ph.D. program with a baby and then and a case of tuberculosis, but her knowledge and skills were needed. She stated in her speech “research is transformational” and we, as Indigenous women, are needed in these spaces.

The challenge of breaking down colonial systems, which is the role of any Indigenous female leader in any institution, is that White people are benefiting from its power and privilege. The CBC article, Dear Qallunaat (white people) by Sandra Inutiq, the first Inuk woman in Nunavut to pass the bar exam and the current chief negotiator for the Qikiqtani Inuit Association’s Tallurutiup Imanga Inuit Impact and Benefit Agreement, shares why addressing systemic racism, that has been encoded in every system in our society and embedded in our way of thinking, is a monumental task. She states, “You have been socialized to be unconsciously invested in racism and there are many ways that you are willfully ignorant or racist. One is not exempt from racism because they are simply “a good person.” All white people are racist to some degree because they are born and raised in a system made by white people, for white people. Let that sink in!”

Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC) are the most adept at naming intersecting oppressions and the way that power works in the favour of White people because it is a constant daily battle. It is also exhausting to be “the first female BIPOC” such as Dr. Bourassa or Mary Culbertson or Sandra Inutiq. Blogger Martha Tesema explains this social phenomenon in her blog post, Why We Need to Talk About—and Recognize—Representation Burnout. She defines “representation burnout” as being the only person of a particular identity in an environment. It can be present in a variety of ways:

Sometimes, it looks like entering a room and immediately recognizing that you have to do triple the amount of work to be seen as an equal, despite your experience. It may show up in your life when you feel like you need to leave certain parts of yourself out of the room to be taken seriously. Other times, it’s the pressure—either placed on yourself or projected on you—to speak on behalf of a community because you’re the only one in the room. Or sometimes, because of ableism, it’s the frustration of not being able to even get in the room at all.

Moreover, being the “First Indigenous female leader” of any colonial institution or government position is sometimes more about window dressing for reconciliation than actually addressing systemic oppression or inequitable access. For example, the lawsuit filed by Angelique EagleWoman who was hired as dean of the Bora Laskin Faculty of Law at Lakehead University. She was Canada’s first Indigenous law school dean and she sued Lakehead University citing “they actively undermined her while also exploiting her to raise money and attract aboriginal students.”

Or the most recent political controversy with Jody Wilson-Raybould, the first Indigenous female Minister of Justice and the Attorney General of Canada that resigned from her position after allegedly being pressured by Trudeau not to prosecute SNC-Lavalin for fraud. The White male Prime Minister silencing his Indigenous female Minister of Justice is the living embodiment of colonial power and oppression on behalf of the Canadian government against Indigenous peoples. By the way, there was an absolute lack of cultural sensitivity and insult to Indigenous women on behalf of White male political cartoonist this past week. Two cartoonists depicted Trudeau beating up a bound and gagged Jodi Wilson-Raybould in a boxing ring. Violence against women is never funny or warranted.

Dr. Bourassa ended her speech with the acknowledgement that she broke the cycle of intergenerational trauma in her family – her daughters’ grew up in a healthy household. But then she stated something that all BIPOC mothers recognize – her children will still be subject to systemic racism and colonial spaces, unless we rally to change these systems.

Throughout my conversations with Indigenous female leaders and the participants of Women Warriors there is always one binding thread that gives me hope and motivates me to continue my work with Women Warriors and finish my studies. The burning desire for something better for our children, and the willingness to do whatever it takes to create that reality.

In closing, I believe it is the power of Indigenous motherhood that will transform these colonial systems and spaces. Turnpel as cited in Green (2007) (5) states:

It is commonly known that the future of our nations depends upon the strength of our women…we must be the hearts of our people…We do no want to become part of a movement, which seeks equality men…Women are at the centre. We are the keepers of the culture, the educators, the ones who must instruct the children to respect the Earth, and the ones who ensure that our leaders are remembering and “walking” with their responsibilities demonstrably in mind” (p. 47).

This column is dedicated to all the amazing Women Warriors that I have the priviledge of meeting and sharing stories with. Thank you for teaching me how to walk strong.

References

  1. Green, J. A. (2007). Making space for Indigenous feminism. Black Point, N.S. : Fernwood Pub., c2007. Retrieved from http://0-search.ebscohost.com.aupac.lib.athabascau.ca/login.aspx?direct=true&db=cat01422a&AN=aucat.b1188643&site=eds-live.
  2. Green, J. A. (2007). Making space for Indigenous feminism. Black Point, N.S. : Fernwood Pub., c2007. Retrieved from http://0-search.ebscohost.com.aupac.lib.athabascau.ca/login.aspx?direct=true&db=cat01422a&AN=aucat.b1188643&site=eds-live.
  3. Bourassa, C., Mckay-McNabb, K., & Hampton, M. (2004). Racism, sexism, and colonialism: the impact on the health of Aboriginal women in Canada. Canadian Woman Studies, (1), 23.
  4. Greenwood, M., de Leeuw, S., & Lindsay, N. (2018). Comment: Challenges in health equity for Indigenous peoples in Canada. The Lancet391, 1645–1648. https://0-doi-org.aupac.lib.athabascau.ca/10.1016/S0140-6736(18)30177-6.
  5. Green, J. A. (2007). Making space for Indigenous feminism. Black Point, N.S. : Fernwood Pub., c2007. Retrieved from http://0-search.ebscohost.com.aupac.lib.athabascau.ca/login.aspx?direct=true&db=cat01422a&AN=aucat.b1188643&site=eds-live.

Check out our new T-shirts modeled by the owner of Beautylife, Trysta! To order please email Shelley@womenwarriors.club. Colours: Black, heather navy, camo, purple, charcoal, and orange. Sizes: XS to 3XL. Price: $30 up to XL. An additional $1 per 2XL and $2 per 3XL. Shipping within Alberta is $4.

 

Thursday, Feb. 7th I attended the Calgary Women Warriros Forest Lawn location (l to r): Facilitator, Loretta, myself and facilitator, Darcie. I am excited to announce that our facilitators Loretta and Tia (facilitator of our Village Square location) have been invited to attend and present the Women Warriors program at the CIHR’s Idea Fair and Learning Circle held on June 18-20, 2019 in Montreal, located on the traditional unceded territory of the Kanien’keha:ka (Mohawk) people.

 

Our class on Feb 7th was self-defense with world champion Taekwondo fighter/instrutor and fight cheographer, Sunny Singh. We learned some quick and effective moves to break free from an attack from all angles, front/back/on the ground. “The body is science” Sunny kept repeating showing us all the weakest points to attack.

 

Women Warriors Onion Lake Cree Nation program last week was War (a variation of turbo-kick/boxing) with Kim. It was a good core workout between all the kicking and punching. Our round circle discussion was about barriers to physical activity after a two-week break due to a water main break and extremely cold weather. The ladies asked me for a self-defense course after viewing the Calgary photos so I lined up Logan Dyck to instruct Krav Maga on April 2nd, our last day of class.

 

We are hosting a knowledge translation event on Wednesday, April 3rd at the Lloydminster Servus Sport Centre in the OTS room at 6 pm. Dr. Sonja Wicklum and our Masters student, Megan Sampson will be presenting our research findings to all our past and current participants. It is a catered event and kids are welcome as we have rented a field house. Please RSVP me to attend: Shelley@womenwarriors.club

 

I won a scholarship from the Alberta Writers Guild for my Yellowknifer articles and poetry, which are based on some of my Women Warriors newsletters! I share this award with you because the Women Warriors newsletter has been integral to my own growth as a writer, and I’m grateful for our audience – every single one of you! Press release here.

 

If you have any questions about the program or would like to contact me for follow up information please email: Shelley@womenwarriors.club.