Our Collective Myth

In a few weeks, the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) will be meeting to review Canada’s adherence to their international obligations. It’s been over forty years since Canada became a signatory to the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination; this has provided governments at all levels ample opportunity to review legislation and policies in light of their responsibilities. So to the media, and to the average Canadian, the review is likely little more than a formality – surely our peaceful and enlightened northern state is at the forefront of the defense of human rights worldwide.

It is this comforting myth of Canadian moral superiority that blinds us to the absolute tragic day to day realities of a not-insignificant number of our own citizens. Yet we cloud our compassion by blaming victims, and creating an us and them paradigm. But how would the public react if one day our national newspaper ran a story stating that Jewish women are three times more likely to be a victim of violent crime, and seven times more likely to be murdered, than non-Jewish women? The backlash would be immediate. Editorials would be written calling Canada a country troubled by violent prejudice, deeply seeded anti-Semitism, and rampant xenophobia. The governments would coordinate to make an action plan to determine the cause of this staggering injustice, police forces would set up a joint task force, public inquiries would be held, and the public would demand answers as to why such a historically persecuted group can find no escape from continued discrimination. All of these reactions would be appropriate, just, and necessary.

Yet as soon as we change Jewish to Aboriginal everything changes. Now the public reaction is muted. The media runs a story and then lets it lie. Communications from governments are of false sympathies and empty commitments, followed up by policies that seem to blame the victims and ignore root causes. This is our reality, and this is the Canada that we live in. Aboriginal women are three times more likely to be a victim of violent crime, and seven times more likely to be murdered. Read that sentence again. Read it one more time. Let it actually sink in what that means in terms of a complete and utter failure on the part of our country to care for its people and understand their situation. This is our fault, and this is our shame.

Those on the other side of the debate will argue personal responsibility. They will argue that our regrettable history of colonialism has long been mended; after all that was generations ago. How short our memories have become. Imagine that your grandparents had been stolen from their homes as children, physically and sexually abused by the only parental figure in their lives at a residential school, and taught that they were lesser persons and their entire culture was blasphemy. Would that not have had an effect on you, growing up? Would you be able to turn it all around and escape from the cycles of abuse and poverty? Does that sound so easy? We are beyond arrogant and ignorant to believe that such abuse and denial of rights can be erased with nothing more than a formal apology in Parliament.

When action has come on this issue, it has been haphazard and predictably unjust. In the aftermath of the Robert Pickton trials, the Government of British Columbia set up a Missing Women Commission of Inquiry to look into police investigations into dozens of women who went missing in the Vancouver Downtown Eastside between 1997 and 2002. Despite paying lip service to an inclusive proceeding that respected the voices of all parties involved, Women’s groups, Aboriginal rights organizations, and Downtown Eastside community groups were unable to participate after being denied public funding by the Attorney General of BC. By the very circumstances that necessitated the inquiry – the lack of political voice of these women – they became unable to take part and lend their necessary and relevant voices to the discussion. Meanwhile, police and members of the justice system are fully represented, all paid for by public funds.

This is a tragic farce, a mockery of justice. This is the very essence of discrimination. How can we expect a group that lacks financial resources and political clout to make their voices heard above the state? Why have an inquiry without giving voice to those groups who are the very subject of that inquiry? And perhaps more tragically, why does nobody seem to care? This is but one example of the continued failure of the Government of Canada, the media, and the greater polity, to take heed of tragedies within our own home.

It’s possible to list all the legal arguments as to how our collective lack of action doesn’t live up to our international commitments. This has been done in submissions to CERD, and hopefully the committee members will press our delegation hard on these issues. But let’s set aside legal arguments for now. Let’s forget that human rights weren’t born of law, but of compassion, understanding, and morality. Until the public takes notice, stops blaming the victims, and realizes that discrimination through inaction is just as harmful as discrimination through action, then Aboriginal women in Canada – in our country – will continue to be disappeared, assaulted, and murdered. All this will happen while we sleep easy, comforted by the continually propagated myth of Canada’s undeniable respect for human rights and freedoms.

(Feature photo courtesy of pierre pouliquin/Flickr)

Shared Responsibility

Nellie McClung
Nellie McClung

Fighting for rights should not be solely the responsibility of the victim. Any cause for social change requires that the majority, or in this case those in the traditional position of power, either come to understand the issue in question, or are driven out by force and violence. As a man, I prudently choose the former.

As part of my current internship, I am lucky enough to watch the drafting of UN human rights resolutions, from their raw states to the (relatively) polished form that gets presented to the Human Rights Council and eventually the General Assembly. This past week I have been following a draft resolution entitled ‘Accelerating efforts to eliminate all forms of violence against women: ensuring due diligence in prevention’. The text itself touches on a variety of issues, including health, education, empowerment of women in politics, etc. However there is one paragraph that stood out for me. “… urges States to enhance efforts to involve men and boys in efforts to prevent violence against women and in highlighting the unacceptability of violence against women” This, to me at least, seems to be much too small a sentence for such a big idea. In this case, dealing with violence against women, the perpetrators are almost exclusively men.

To tackle the problem without addressing men is a misguided effort. There are countless other areas of women’s rights where men can play a vital role. In prostitution and sexual exploitation, men can teach their sons the practical dangers faced by a woman selling her body, or the more abstract lessons of social power imbalances. When it comes to underrepresentation of women in government, male teachers can actively encourage female students to take part in student politics. Or maybe on the subject of maternal health and a woman’s right to choose, men can actively campaign their churches or government representatives to listen to the views of their mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters. The opportunities for education and activism are endless.

This is not to say that gender equality needs a helping hand from men, far from it. Women in the modern world, with the right education and no legal obstructions, have all the power they need to bring about the kind of changes that are necessary to see gender parity. Indeed in the draft resolution that I refer to above, there are constant references to empowerment and the woman as an active participant in prevention of violence. Throughout history, there have been women who, faced with opposition from men at every turn, managed to fight for what they believed in and win. As a Canadian, I have particular respect for ‘The Famous Five’ – Emily Murphy, Irene Parlby, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney, and Henrietta Edwards who were central in redefining Canadian legislation to have women declared as ‘persons’ before the law. Countless other examples exist from each of our own histories.

So with the complexities of gender in mind, and the long history of the fight for equality that has already been written, men such as myself need to reflect. What can we do to further the rights of women? We don’t need to march in the streets, we do not necessarily need to vote for a woman for Parliament, nor do we need to hire a woman over a man when faced with such a decision. But what we do need to do is ensure that in each of those decisions, we are aware of the role that we play in redefining the social structures built up generations before us.

At the risk of cliche, a quote:

I decided it is better to scream. Silence is the real crime against humanity
– Nadezhda Mandelstam

This silence, and the responsibility to not share in it, belongs to us all.

(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, feature photo courtesy of Adolf Galland/Flickr)