An aboriginal woman shares her story on March 27 as part of a community gathering at Carleton University on violence against aboriginal women.
[Photo © Francella Fiallos]
By Francella Fiallos
There would be times when Chantel Henderson would sense that something bad was going to happen to her.
One time, a man she met on a blind date took her out on a drive, all the way to the outskirts of Winnipeg, even though she asked for him to turn around and go back downtown.
Another time, a man drove her out to the Brady Road landfill south of the city.
This time, she thought she could actually die.
“Looking back on it,” she said. “He could have killed me, I was that close again.”
When she was 16, Henderson was beaten and raped after a night of underage drinking. A man who she vaguely knew as a child held her captive for a week and threatened violence if she tried to escape. She eventually did.
Four years later, Henderson would find herself in a similar situation when she was abducted by two men she met at a Winnipeg bar. The next day, she was tied up in a basement apartment. Once again, she found a way out.
“I’m here for a reason,” the Concordia University graduate student said. “I was made to survive all these terrible things that were done to me.”
Henderson, a member of both the Sagkeeng and Pinyamootang First Nations in Manitoba, says she must now fight for justice for the nearly 1,200 indigenous women across Canada who were murdered or who disappeared between 1980 and 2012.
On Feb. 27, the largest advocacy group for indigenous peoples held a national roundtable on missing and murdered and aboriginal women in Ottawa to hear from government delegates and families seeking justice for their loved ones.
The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) invited Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Bernard Valcourt, Minister of Status of Women Kellie Leitch, and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne to participate in the roundtable.
Henderson didn’t attend the roundtable in Ottawa. She believes that experiences like hers are often overlooked by politicians.
“We don’t need the people who abused us to find a solution for us.”
“I didn’t see the point in going all the way to Ottawa to go to a meeting I wasn’t invited to,” she said. “Just because I wasn’t murdered doesn’t mean I didn’t go missing.”
When the roundtable concluded, the federal government held a separate press conference so that the AFN and participating families would have their own platform.
“Out of respect to the 20 organizations as well as to the families, we felt that they should be able to get their message out,” Leitch explained.
But NDP Aboriginal Affairs critic Niki Ashton says a separate press conference was a sign of disrespect.
“They used (the roundtable) as a PR strategy,” she said. “The federal government says they’re doing enough but they say ‘no’ to an inquiry.”
Another person who says ‘no’ to an inquiry is Bridget Tolley who lives on the Kitigan Zibi reserve close to Maniwaki, Que.
“We don’t need the people who abused us to find a solution for us,” she said.
Tolley is the lead organizer for the First Nations collective Families of Sisters in Spirit, a group that is dedicated to helping families heal and hold vigils and marches on Parliament Hill each year.
Her mother was killed by an off-duty police officer in Quebec in 2001. Tolley has long demanded that the Quebec government conduct an investigation into her mother’s death.
She was not invited to the official roundtable or the peoples’ gathering at Carleton University.
While families were invited to attend the roundtable and peoples’ gathering, it was widely reported that police officers and the RCMP blocked aboriginal protesters trying to get in.
“There were police there trying to block the families. What kind of message are they sending? There is so much disrespect,” she said.
Tolley and Henderson agree that meaningful action into the issue needs to be led by indigenous women and grassroots organizations.
“It should be grassroots organizations that are coming up with solutions,” Henderson said.
Henderson is an organizer with the Montreal-based collective Justice for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.
Like Families of Sisters in Spirit, the group holds teach-ins, workshops and provides resources so that “living victims” can heal.
“There’s no risk in telling your story. It could make someone who has been in the same situation more bearable and who knows where that could lead”
The ongoing crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women has received a considerable amount of attention this past year partly due to the high-profile case of Tina Fontaine, a Winnipeg teen whose body was found in the Red River in August 2014.
Frustrations within the aboriginal community
Aboriginal women make up 16 per cent of all female homicides in Canada even though indigenous women are only 4.3 per cent of the population, according to a January report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).
The same report states that high levels of violence experienced by aboriginal women and girls stems from a “history of discrimination beginning with colonization and continuing through inadequate and unjust laws and policies such as the Indian Act and forced enrollment in residential schools.”
When reflecting on her own story, Henderson says it’s easy to see the links to a violent history based on assimilation and injustice.
“Through my education and understanding of the colonial history, it made me understand why people targeted me, why people wanted to see me as less valuable,” she said.
Henderson believes that if more people understood the perspectives of aboriginal peoples, there would be a greater outcry for action on missing and murdered indigenous women.
“I think one of the solutions would be…with the education system,” she said. “I took an indigenous studies course, it should be required (to take) in junior high.”
The Harper government has refused to launch a national inquiry into the crisis despite calls from the AFN, provincial governments, the Native Women’s Association, the UN, the IACHR and several First Nations.
Both the Liberal and NDP have promised to launch an inquiry if elected.
Instead, the government has promised a five-year $25-million plan to reverse the high rates of violence toward indigenous women and girls through increased funding in community safety plans and develop a policy centre for victim issues.
So far, Tolley isn’t impressed by the government’s action plan.
“If the government is giving that much money, why isn’t anything going on?” she asked.
Sharing their stories
Still, the federal government has agreed to another national roundtable in 2016 as well as a national prevention and awareness campaign.
For Henderson and Tolley, they believe that more emphasis needs to be placed on survivors and “living victims.”
“There are so many others who aren’t as lucky as I am,” said Tolley. “It’s (part of the) healing for me to share my stories.”
Even though violence affects First Nations women, there is likewise a strong presence of resilience and determination.
But even Henderson concedes that it takes time for women who have gone through trauma to speak out and make a difference, especially with so many prevailing stereotypes in society about indigenous women.
“It’s very hard to get people to understand,” she said. “My own family didn’t understand…it didn’t get real for them until my friend went missing in 2012.”
It became real for the rest of Henderson’s community in November 2014 when Rinelle Harper was raped, beaten and left for dead near the banks of the Assiniboine River in Winnipeg.
When Harper spoke publicly for the first time in December 2014, Henderson took notice.
For the first time, she had seen another survivor demand to be heard.
“What happened to Rinelle was horrible…she is bringing the issue of survivorship to the table.” Henderson said.
Henderson says that her education and involvement with the Montreal-based group Justice for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women has helped her find her voice and to speak out, something she urges all indigenous women to do.
“There’s no risk in telling your story. It could make someone who has been in the same situation more bearable and who knows where that could lead,” she said.
“Any woman with a story to tell should tell it.”