First Nations continue to have problems with Canadian State, says activist
// Lindsay Howe

Not only did it take violence to create Canada, but it takes violence to stay Canada,” said Jessica Yee during a lecture she gave at SFU on Jan 27. “I do not believe that the people who caused this in the first place will be able to fix it.”

Yee, a member of the Mohawk nation of  Askwesasne, and also the founder of the Native Youth Sexual Health Network, was there to give a lecture entitled “Marginalization Doesn’t Happen by Accident: Colonialism and Violence from the State”. This lecture, part of the Ruth Wynn Woodward chair lecture and workshop series for Spring 2012, gave listeners an up-close look at the struggles that many First Nations peoples in Canada are still experiencing to this day.

Yee developed an interest in the relationship between her people and the Canadian State at a young age, when her Aunt Patricia Monture, a well-known Mohawk scholar, began to make her question why she wasn’t taught more about her heritage at school. She was forced to realize that her teachers might not want her to know some of the realities.

As she grew older, Yee was able to understand the realities that came along with being an Indigenous woman living in Canada: “The laws surrounding matrimonial real property [say] that … in the event your husband dies, women are not allowed to solely own property on the reserve, as well as the fact that if an Indian woman married a non-Indian she would lose her Indian Status,” she says. “[This] shows us that the State has the ability to control personhood and is taking away the ability to pass on anything.”

Yee continued by discussing the State’s involvement in the residential school system, noting that the State’s claims to “help and save them” were basically a way to assimilate Aboriginal children into the appropriate gender roles of the settler’s society on the claim that Aboriginal women were not fit for child-rearing. Although the days of residential schools are in the (recent) past, the pain of being taken from their families at a young age and, in some cases, dealing with sexual exploitation is still a heavy burden for many.

Yee also noted that simply because the term “residential school” is no longer in use doesn’t mean that the government has given up housing Indigenous peoples in a specific area: “Prisons are the new residential schools,” she says.

What Yee is referring to with that provocative statement is the disproportionately high number of Indigenous people among the prison population. As of the 2006 Census, some provinces in Canada had up to 30 times the amount of Aboriginal inmates than their counterparts. In terms of Aboriginal women specifically, a 2008/2009 Stats Can report showed that over one in five women incarcerated in Canada are of Aboriginal descent, though Aboriginal people make up only three per cent of the entire Canadian population. Yee`s own research has uncovered that “ 75 per cent of sex crime victims in Native communities are girls, and the suicide rate for young Aboriginal girls is eight times higher than the national average for non-Aboriginal adolescent girls”

The negative stereotypes that surround Aboriginal women are only intensified by media outlets covering the story of the missing women from the Downtown Eastside and court cases such as the trial of Robert Pickton. Yee stressed, “The mistreatment of Aboriginal women is not new, and women have been missing since Canada was made. People believe that this is a new problem because these media outlets have only taken interest in the past 20 years. People need to realize that the reason we have privileges is due to the oppression of others."

As the end of the lecture was in sight, Yee explained, “If you feel raw, empty, and uncomfortable, that is a good thing.” Yee’s self-proclaimed take home message was a simple one: “Check yourself before you wreck yourself. Nobody wants to be the bad guy. Think about how you treat people and what you will do with the information given to you tonight.”

She emphasized that she will be in attendance at the Annual Women’s Memorial March on Feb. 14 in Vancouver, and encouraged her listeners to attend as well, so as to do their part in creating a more just and equitable world for all. For more information on this and other similar events please visit www.womensmemorialmarch.wordpress.com

/Lindsay Howe, writer
//Graphics by Jason Jeon

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