Not all women in Canada are free to express themselves and fight for their beliefs

Op-eds Opinions

Canadian government uses International Women’s Day as an opportunity to gaslight Indigenous women

Graphic by Sie Douglas-Fish.

March 8 was International Women’s Day, and this year the Government of Canada is defining the day as “a global day to recognize and celebrate women’s and girls’ social, economic, cultural, and political achievements.” The government says that it is a day to reflect on the progress we have already made towards gender equality and “the work remaining to be done.”

According to the government, women in Canada are lucky because “unlike in many other countries, women are free to study and be leaders in the field they choose, care and provide for their family, express who they are, and fight for their beliefs.”

What about the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and Two Spirit (MMIWG2S) of Canada? Are they free to express who they are and fight for their beliefs? Are the 1 060 Indigenous women that were murdered or disappeared in the decade leading up to 2016 free to care for their families in so-called Canada?

It’s an ironic claim. Canada, the colonial settler state that is directly culpable for the murders and disappearances of Indigenous women, says that all of the women on this stolen land are free to express who they are and fight. The RCMP arrested the matriarchs of the Unist’ot’en in February 2020. In military gear and with helicopter support, during a ceremony for MMIWG2S, the RCMP tore down the red dresses the matriarchs had hung in remembrance. Is this what Canada means when they claim women can “express who they are”? What about in November 2021, when the RCMP violently arrested peaceful land defenders on Wet’suwet’en land? Were the assault rifle and axe-wielding cops simply encouraging the Indigenous women to fight for their beliefs?

Canadian women are allowed to fight for their beliefs and express themselves, but there are conditions. You cannot be an Indigenous woman. And you cannot be defending your stolen, unceded land. 

As Canada continues to pretend it isn’t a settler state that has a vested interest in making Indigenous women disappear, let’s remind ourselves that so-called Canada is not a free place to live for everyone. According to the Assembly of First Nations’ (AFN) website, 16 per cent of all female homicide victims and 11 per cent of missing women in Canada are Indigenous, despite Indigenous peoples making up 4.3 per cent of the population.

Also according to AFN, “Indigenous women are three times more likely than non-Indigenous women to be victims of violence.” The AFN also reports that homicides involving Indigenous women had a rate four times greater than that of homicides involving non-Indigenous women from 2001 to 2014. While these statistics paint a picture, the image is incomplete.

As the AFN says, “Current public data on MMIWG oversimplifies and underrepresents the scale of the issue, yet still demonstrates a complex and pervasive pattern of violence against Indigenous women and girls who are often targeted because of their gender and Indigenous identity.”

We don’t even know how many Indigenous women have disappeared, and we likely never will. The organization that the Canadian government tasks with finding these women, the RCMP, was created to help make Indigenous women disappear. The RCMP came out with a “report” in 2014 that says 1 017 Indigenous women were homicide victims between the years 1980 and 2012, but this number is widely understood to be far too small. In the same report, the RCMP claim that “close to 90%” of all female homicides are solved, and that “there is little difference in solve rates between [Indigenous] and [non-Indigenous] homicide cases.”

The Native Women’s Association of Canada disputes this claim and reports that “only 53% of murder cases involving Aboringal women and girls have led to charges of homicide. This is dramatically different from the national clearance rate for homicides in Canada, which was last reported as 84%.” The RCMP doesn’t want to find these women. 

While there are still reasons to celebrate International Women’s Day, it is a stark reminder of how unjust life in Canada truly is. Of course there has been progress for women, especially for the privileged. But there are hundreds of families who have lost women at the hands of the state that is telling them all women in Canada are free. 

As land defenders continue to be violently arrested on unceded territory, it’s hard to feel as inspired as the Canadian government says we should. When Canada asserts the bold-faced lie that all women are free to express themselves and fight, it’s important to recognize what — or who — the settler state is trying to erase from the narrative. 

While many women in Canada are free to express themselves and fight, it’s important to take International Women’s Day as a reminder that there is still so much work left to be done, because there are thousands of murdered and missing women that the state ensured would never make it home.