Indigenous women today work with many issues ranging from domestic violence, youth gangs, child welfare issues, land rights, right through to helping frame the 1995 Bejing Declaration at the Fourth World Conference for Women.
The Beijing Declaration was described as the most significant instrument for achieving gender justice and women’s rights, and governments around the world were called upon to implement it fully.
Historically and today, our domestic and political issues originate in our relationship with the church and state, and their collusion in the establishment of empires. Children were routinely sexually and physically abused, suffered humiliation, and were beaten for speaking their language. So many children died as a result of this horrific time in our history that some refer to the residential school period as the Indigenous Holocaust.
As women, we work with the legacy of the residential school era, as well as structurally racist and sexist attitudes and governments that represent class interests. Our communities have inherited governance structures based on the colonizer model, and so they require deep healing, psychologically, physically, emotionally, and democratically.
This need for healing is shared worldwide. Part of the healing means to challenge the creation of empire that the dominant governments of the world pursue. Indigenous peoples are among those who are fighting the notion of Empire.
In response to the treatment of “invisibility” from their domestic governments, efforts to highlight indigenous issues at an international, inter-governmental level started in 1923 when Chief Deskaheh of the Cayuga Nation went to Geneva to speak to the League of Nations and defend the right of his nation to live on their land under their own laws and faith. Maori Leader Ratana made the same journey to Geneva in 1924 to plead the case of his peoples. Even though they were not allowed to speak at the League of Nations, their work set the stage for our contemporary work.
The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues was established by the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) in July 2000. The Forum was called upon to provide expert advice, raise awareness, and promote the integration and coordination of relevant activities within the UN system, as well as disseminate information on indigenous issues.
The Permanent Forum is comprised of 16 independent experts. The Economic and Social Council appoints the members, eight of whom are nominated by governments and eight nominated directly by indigenous organizations in their regions.
Indigenous people are estimated to number more than 370 million in some 70 countries worldwide, about 7% of the world’s population. While they are from diverse geographical and cultural backgrounds, they share commonalities such as a lack of basic health care; limited access to education; loss of control over land; abject poverty; displacement; human rights violations; and economic and social marginalization.
The Declaration on Indigenous Peoples adopted in 2007 by the Human Rights Council is the most comprehensive non-binding agreement that has the endorsement of the world’s Indigenous peoples. Canada attempted to block the Declaration at the UN General Assembly. Australia and New Zealand also voted against the declaration. All three countries have significant Indigenous nations. In its opposition to the Declaration, our federal government claimed, incredibly, that the Declaration contravenes Canadian laws, including the Canadian Constitution and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Despite Canada’s intransigence and arrogance, the Declaration represents other nation states’ commitment to meaningfully consult and engage in partnerships in legislation and policy affecting Aboriginal people in Canada. The failure of the Canadian government to ratify the Declaration is a cause of great concern, but the Declaration is still a victory for people who strive for democracy in the fight against empire.
Loss of indigenous lands and territories
Currently in Canada, there are a number of front-line attacks on Indigenous Sacred lands.
The Lubicon are fighting further oil exploration and deforestation in an area where treaties or First Nations land claims have not been settled.
Dudley George was killed by the Ontario Provincial Police for defending his land at Ipperwash Park, Ontario, in 1995.
Today the people of the Mohawk nation are engaged in defending themselves from attacks by colonizer racists.
In northern Saskatchewan, the Buffalo River Dene nation have taken their case to the World Court to challenge loss of traditional hunting rights.
Canoe Lake First Nations camped for several years to protect their lands from clear-cuts.
The community of Fort Chipewyan are now suffering extreme health impacts from the tar sands project in northern Alberta.
These six cases are the tip of the iceberg of long-standing claims against Canadian governments.
We are not asking for handouts. We are demanding that the terms of treaties be honoured—treaties that granted new immigrants rights and conditions to share our lands. As legally and constitutionally recognized First Peoples, these rights are spelled out in Canada’s Constitution.
In Saskatchewan, human rights violations have meant a boil-water condition on large numbers of First Nations communities, epidemic suicide rates among our youth, structural unemployment for the majority of our communities, early death from preventable diseases, outstanding land claims, and outstanding residential school settlements. And all these while the province and the country make record profits on our resources which have never been signed away or ceded.
If this were not enough, our communities have great racist divides leading to 500 of our young women being “disappeared”—sexually ecploited and many murdered—crimes to which Canada’s judicial system has turned a blind eye and to which many of the public remain silent or even blame the victims.
Locally, my colleagues and I work to break down the veil of invisibility of the disappeared women through work with Iskwewak. Iskwewak gives support to families of disappeared women and works to raise consciousness on related issues.
Grim urban realities
While the majority of indigenous peoples worldwide still live in rural areas, they are increasingly migrating to urban areas, both voluntarily and involuntarily. Common factors that lead to the movement of indigenous peoples from their lands and territories include poverty, environmental factors, conflict, inadequate legal protection over lands and resources, and the lack of services. They are also motivated by opportunities for improved employment, health, housing, education, political participation, social recognition and visibility, or other benefits that they may lack in their territories.
The chief of the Secretariat of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs states: “The impacts of urban areas on indigenous peoples vary greatly. Some are able to adapt and improve their situations considerably without loss of cultural identity; in other cases, indigenous peoples are subject to discrimination, exclusion, and violence.”
Embroiled in wars
Finally, many of today’s wars are directed at indigenous peoples, whether it be the hill tribes in northern India, the Karen people of Burma and Thailand, or the desert people of Iraq and Afghanistan. All represent example of gross human rights violations and human neglect. Trillions of dollars are spent annually on illegal, illegitimate and obscene wars, protecting Northern and Western interests and creating pain and suffering for women, their children, and their communities.
Indigenous peoples have been particularly affected by violent conflicts in several countries, including Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal, North-East India, Indonesia, and the Philippines. In some of these cases, members of indigenous communities have been forced or have chosen to participate in insurgent movements as a way of protecting their rights.
This has driven them into a vicious circle of violence, where they have suffered both from insurgencies and ttate repression.
At the UN Indigenous Peoples Permanent Forum, we hear reports of abuses suffered by indigenous leaders and communities that find themselves trapped in the middle of these conflicts, including massacres, extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, and torture.
Women’s efforts bring hope
As Indigenous women, we have worked in our communities to build social support networks, safe homes, worked to build child welfare agencies, kept culture intact through our fight to establish effective schools and keep our languages alive. We have protested when our communities were clear-cut by forest company giants.
Women preserve the social, cultural, and natural foundations of their communities and establish norms that retain traditions and challenge undemocratic practices. Today they fight racist elements in the state and sexist elements in their communities.
Many classes that I have taught in university have been attended predominantly by women who sustain families singlehandedly, become educated, and provide for their families. We have been on the front lines when the world’s wealthiest transnational corporations carve up our lands and pillage them through free trade agreements, multinational investments licensed by undemocratic bodies such as the World Trade Organization and their financial partners who continue to benefit from their unearned privilege.
There is a saying that a nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground. We are living proof that hearts can rise, hope can flourish, peace can exist, and a new world can be built. The period between 2005 and 2015 has been declared the Second Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. This Decade is a reaffirmation by UN states to the commitment to making progress in advancing the human rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Let us now unite our forces as women and men with conscience in the creation of hopeful, peaceful, and dignified communities for our future generations.
(Priscilla Settee, PhD, is an associate professor in the Department of Native Studies at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. This article is based on a speech she prepared for delivery on Mother’s Day, March 9.)