We can’t wait on the government’s political will: Conversation with Ellen Gabriel

Ellen Gabriel, a Mohawk artist, educator and activist from Kanehsatà:ke, is well known in Canada as a powerful voice for rights of Indigenous peoples. Amnesty International has been honoured to work alongside Ellen on many matters of urgent concern, including the rights and safety of Indigenous women and the promotion of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Amnesty International talked to Ellen as part of a series of conversations with activists and leaders marking the 10th anniversary of the Stolen Sisters report on violence against Indigenous women. We asked Ellen for her reflections on progress made and remaining challenges in making sure that there are No More Stolen Sisters. Here is what she had to say.

Why do you think there has been so little coherent and concrete government response to the high levels of violence faced by Indigenous women and girls in Canada?

Because they don’t care. It profits them to keep us oppressed and to deny that colonialism has anything to do with the whole gamut of problems we have in our communities.

This issue of violence against Indigenous women and girls, as Amnesty’s report in 2004 stated, has colonial roots. We see the impact of Indian residential schools on the people who went there. We see the impact on the people who went to the day schools. It’s the same kind of thing, we see in the first story in the Stolen Sisters report, of Helen Betty Osborne, where it was considered par for the course for police to make racist statements like, ‘another Indian girls died, that’s just part of their sorry lives.’

At the end of the day it’s always about the propaganda that the Canadian government has been spewing for generations. It’s no different from when Duncan Campbell Scott and Sir John A. Macdonald thought up the whole idea of containment of Indians in the communities [through the reserve system], separated from the rest of society: it’s this whole idea that we are of lower class and lower intelligence than them. I think that’s still really prevalent in Canada.

Why would government willing do away with all the things that have oppressed us and instead recognize our right to self-determination? It is to Canada’s advantage to be apathetic and not address the long standing historical issues.

When we stand up for the rights of Indigenous women and girls, we’re struggling with patterns of racism, discrimination and colonialism that are, as you say, deeply rooted in Canadian society and Canadian institutions and which aren’t always clearly visible to non-Aboriginal Canadians, or are taken for granted. How do we effect the kind of change that’s needed, because clearly it’s not something that’s easily done?

You need to educate the people who work in government, you need to educate politicians, you need to educate the public. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as well Indigenous academics and activists, have all said we need Canadian society to learn about the real history of Canada, the real reasons for the oppression of Indigenous peoples – which is the land grab that has taken place – and really to teach the general population about what is going on and to change the version of history that everybody has been taught.

Because that’s part of the propaganda machine that has been used against Indigenous peoples to continue to oppress us. It’s part of the colonial amnesia that says that the only founding people wee the English and the French and the only languages are English and French. Colonial propaganda threatens every pillar of Indigenous peoples’ identity. The only way we’re going to change that is through education. And the police among the first ones that need to be educated because there is so much systemic and institutionalized racism in how police treat Indigenous people.

The other thing is this. Stephen Harper was really quick to blame Indigenous communities for the violence, without looking at the colonial institutions that have created this situation. But that’s not to say that we don’t need to work in our own communities. We need to work in the communities ourselves to bring back that pride in our identity, to say that violence is not part of our Indigenous culture and that this is the symptom and result of colonialism.

Looking back over all the years that you have been standing up for the rights of Indigenous peoples, and working to advance the rights of Indigenous women in particular, do you signs of hope that this kind of change is possible and that we’re taking steps in that direction?

Institution-wise? No, not at all. We still have the same rehash of colonial institutions without any real control by Indigenous peoples. But within the general population, yes.

We never had Amnesty International’s help before. It’s important to see those kinds of non- governmental organizations coming forward to confront the absence of political will in Canadian society. We need the solidarity of other people living in Canadian society. I think that’s where the real change is going to come from. With climate change and threats to the environment from the dirty tar sands oil , I people are getting more and more interested in knowing about the history of Canada and collective human rights of Indigenous peoples and their individual human rights. That’s where I see hope. But as far as government and institutions go? Not at all.

Throwing money at a problem does not make that problem better. Educating people and changing their minds is what can make a significant difference for the health and well-being and the promotion of human rights of Indigenous peoples in Canada.

In our 2004 Stolen Sisters report when we did make the link between colonialism and violence against Indigenous women and girls, we were able to do so in part because we were able to rely in sources like the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, which you mentioned, or the Manitoba Justice Inquiry which examined the murder of Helen Betty Osborne. What’s your position on the need for a national public inquiry on missing and murdered Indigenous women?

I think it’s really important for closure for the families who are affected. We really need do something for those families. With each passing yea, that government doesn’t recognize what’s going on in society, it brings them more hurt and pain and they need to be relieved of that suffering.
But whether it’s an inquiry or some other kind of human rights tool, it needs to be led by the families.

I was reading on article on APTN by Melina Laboucan-Massimo and she had it right on. If there’s just going to be more money placed into something without any real involvement of Indigenous peoples or any real political will, then don’t bother.

But if it’s going to be led by the families who are directly affected, then there is the possibility of real hope and real change. If we have a national commission of inquiry or a national action plan, those things will greatly help as far as policing goes, and education of the general public. We can’t wait for government’s political will to resolve this crisis. But we do need something that is recognized and validated by general society that can support the changes we know are needed.

To stop violence, education is needed at every level, whether its kids in elementary and high school, whether it the general pop culture which promotes violence, or whether it’s the politician or bureaucrat sitting at their desk, we need to have more understanding and awareness.

I hope something can be done, because people are getting frustrated.

You’ve been very active in the promotion of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. You even worked to have the Declaration translated into the Mohawk language. For you, what does the UN Declaration, and more broadly the concept of international human rights, bring to help addressing violence against Indigenous women and girls?

Because it’s such a comprehensive human rights instrument, there are so many things within the Declaration. It recognizes the importance of Indigenous women and the fact that there is violence going on. It recognizes the historical injustices and the role of these doctrines of superiority that have been used against us in the theft of our land and resources. It can be used to restore and promote the role that Indigenous women had before the Indian Act came in, before Europeans came in, to bring back a more gender-balanced decision-making process than exists today in Canada for our people.

The UN Declaration of course is something that I think is important  for us to use within our own societies. I think our own people often feel that human rights are only states’ obligations. But if we look at Band Councils, which are really an arm of Aboriginal and Northern Affairs Canada, we need to educate them on the importance of how the Declaration, and this principle of free, prior and informed consent, are also applicable in terms of the decisions they are making on our lands and resources, and on issues like health care and education.

It’s an important tool. As everyone has said, it’s ‘aspirational’, but so was the Universal Declaration on Human Rights which has become the norm for human rights throughout the world. I’m just hoping this will be something that I will see in my lifetime, that it becomes the norm when we’re talking about Indigenous peoples rights, whether it’s domestically, regionally, internationally, or at home in our own communities.

Thank you very much Ellen. I always appreciate the chance to talk with you. Is there anything you’d like to add?

I’m really grateful to Amnesty International for being an advocate that walks side by side with Indigenous women and our organizations to bring light to this problem that doesn’t seem to be improving, but seems in fact to be getting worse. I want to thank Amnesty International for the great work and support that you’ve provided for Indigenous women and our families.