ALL Photos of the Rally Taken by Jorge Antonio Vallejos Feb. 14- 2011 Toronto
Robyn Bourgeois (Lubicon Cree) is a Ph.D Candidate at OISE/University of Toronto.
Her dissertation, “Pathways of Resistance: The Politics of Addressing Violence Against Aboriginal Women and Girls in Canada, 1980-2010,” is a critical social history of Aboriginal women’s resistance to violence in their lives.
She is currently living and working in the Okanagan Valley, British Columbia.
BCP: Robyn, please share the focus of your work with BlackCoffeePoet.com readers.
RSB: My focus of my work, broadly, is violence against Aboriginal women and girls in Canada. My dissertation work, more specifically, deals with Aboriginal women’s resistance to violence against Aboriginal women and girls in Canada over the last thirty years. Ultimately, my focus is on ending this violence.
BCP: Why did you choose to focus your studies and activism around the 800+ Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women of Turtle Island?
RSB: Because as an Aboriginal woman, myself, my life has been continuously marked by violence. And the lives of the women around me are marked by violence. So it’s practical – a survival strategy. I also recognize that I have a tremendous amount of privilege in this White western colonial world, and I have pledged every ounce of it to ending this violence.
BCP: What is the process of your work?
RSB: This is a good question. I think my process varies depending on what I am working on – dissertation versus activism versus work with families. But there is a central impetus to my work no matter what: I HAVE TO DO THIS. As an Aboriginal woman, I am taught that I am accountable to 7 generations before me and seven after. For whatever reason, I survived tremendous violence and now find myself in a place of tremendous privilege. So I have committed every day to using that privilege to address this violence. I owe it to the women who came before me, and the women who were with me, who lost their lives to violence. And I certainly owe it to the women before me, including my nieces and my daughters (someday), to change this messed up world. So, in many ways, this work isn’t mine – it’s driven by Aboriginal women – past, present, and future – who deserve better.
BCP: How long have you been working on this epidemic?
RSB: For almost ten years now.
BCP: Who are your mentors and influences?
RSB: Wow….this is a huge question. I have so many. I am, of course, influenced by my supervisor Sherene Razack. Her commitment to social justice and anti-violence has pushed me everyday to be a better scholar. I have also been hugely influenced by Andrea Smith, Patricia Monture, Albert Memmi, and Foucault. Right now, I am tremendously inspired by David Suzuki. I know this seems strange, but I find his ferocity in defending Earth and the sanctity of our water, land, air as the lifeforce of our human species – and not as resources to be controlled and manipulated – truly inspiring. He’s really pushing people to consider our common humanity and the common good – something I feel undergirds the need to end violence. When will we recognize our common humanity and preserve the sanctity of life? We claim to believe in the alienable human right to life and a life free from violence – yet this is far from what we practice.
I also have to say that my sisters and brothers involved in this battle to end violence against Aboriginal women and girls inspiring. I am continually inspired by their insight and strength and courage. For example, the strong anti-violence stance of the women of the Aboriginal Women’s Action Network constantly inspires me, and spokesperson Laura Holland rocks my world regularly! She’s just so powerful and intelligent and passionate. Also the families who fight to dismantle the violence after losing a loved one just inspire me with theirs courage and strength.
BCP: When I first heard you speak on the epidemic you used a quote by Frantz Fannon in relation to the Helen Betty Osborne case. Please share the quote with BCP readers. Why did you choose to use this quote?
RSB: WOW…I don’t remember this. I’m sorry.
BCP: Have you read Conspiracy of Silence (about the Helen Betty Osborne case) by white journalist Lisa Priest? If so, what did you think?
RSB: Funny you mention this….I have two copies of the book, and just saw the CBC film a month ago. Helen Betty Osborne has always been important to me. When I made the decision to formally shift my doctoral work, Helen Betty Osborne actually sent me a message. Anyhow…. There is one thing out of the Priest book that chills me to the core…. The wife of one of the accused, when he was arrested 16 years later, actually asks why the police didn’t just leave these good men alone? Why mess with their lives? To me, this captures the national sentiment on violence against Aboriginal women – why disrupt all our lives over some dead Indian.
BCP: Lisa Priest seemed sympathetic at times and very racist other times, in particular the way she described Aboriginal women as if they were zombies:
“Native women hung out on the streets…they had been waifs who had been turned out on the street either because their parents didn’t want them or because they cost too much to feed. They were neither beautiful nor attractive. They craved affection in any form…They were malnourished, with dried eyes, prematurely wrinkled faces, and round bellies due to starchy diets of bannock…They stood leaning sloppily to one side. Some of them sniffed glue to get over the beating from the night before, but all were helpless because they had nowhere to sleep except under the railroad bridge…” (p. 48-49).
Priests book was published in 1989. It’s 21 years later; have the media, cops, and government changed the way they view Aboriginal women? Is the above description something you have encountered in your research?
RSB: The short answer: No and Yes. No, this view hasn’t changed, and yes it is something I have encountered. The myth of the deviant Aboriginal women continues to plague us, reinforced by dominant cases that coalesce prostitution and Aboriginal women into a single entity. Contemporary Canadian society dismiss violence against Aboriginal women and girls today on the basis of these perceived deviances (addicted, sexually available). We are not even treated as human beings. Human beings have the right to a life free from violence, yet we have to convince the Canadian state to step up and protect us. And these stereotypes provide the justification for why the State doesn’t step up.
BCP: In terms of the Helen Betty Osborne case, the white members of the town knew who killed her and stayed quiet to protect her killers. When the killers were finally arrested one of their wives, Shannon Houghton, said, “I don’t know why they [police] didn’t just leave these guys alone.”
Worse is the common view of white towners in The Pas at the time of Osborne’s murder which Lisa Priest describes:
“There were measures she could have taken to save her own life, but out of stupidity and sheer foolishness, she decided to die…she had been given fair warning that she should consent to having sex with the four [white men] or die,” (p. 79).
White towners saw Osborne and Native women as disposable bodies to be used for sex and cheap labour. This view leads to the assumption that all the Missing and Murdered Aboriginal women are addicts and sex workers. Can you clarify this?
RSB: Sure. If you look at the history of colonization in Canada, it is a history of violence against Aboriginal women. Within the Christian dichotomy of the virgin and the whore, Aboriginal women were, historically and contemporarily, constructed as whore, not only to demarcate the superiority of white women, but also the superiority of colonialism. The deviance of Aboriginal women has long legitimated colonial domination, and portraying Aboriginal women as deviant rationalizes the control by morally superior white colonials. Portraying Aboriginal women and girls as addicts and sex workers enables colonial systems of oppression.
Importantly, the lived realities of Aboriginal women and girls as addicts and sex workers demonstrate a substantial problem with this. Too often, the historical, colonial and neoliberal processes that located many Aboriginal woman and girls in prostitution and drug use are ignored.
Painting Aboriginal women and girls as addicts and whores excuses violence. They are constructed as individuals who somehow deserve violence because of their involvement in drugs/prostitution.
In fact, I think Helen Betty Osborne’s case clearly demonstrates the power of this myth. On that cold night, those four white men went out looking to “party” and “get laid”. They specifically target Helen Betty Osborne because she was a “squaw” – that is, within the colonial order of things, a sexually available Indian woman. But Helen Betty Osborne said no, and essentially refused to play her role in this colonial fantasy. And the response? They kidnapped her, assaulted her, and stabbed her fifty-eight times with a screwdriver. Helen Betty’s refusal disrupted colonial fantasies, and produced pure rage in her killers – even the pathologist described the attack as “frenzied” and “driven by rage”. The message is clear – Aboriginal women and girls play their part in the colonial order of things or THIS is what will happen to you.
And the community’s apathy reinforces this. Many of these people knew who the killers were, yet didn’t view Helen Betty Osborne’s life as valuable enough to step up and hold these boys accountable. Instead, they excused this violence and have pretty much let everyone get away with it!
BCP: Whether addicts or sex workers or not The Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women have been vilainized and seen as disposable. Why? How can we help change this perception of Aboriginal woman being disposable? Do you see this changing any time soon?
RSB: I have to say, this issue is actually broader than Aboriginal women and girls – this is a STATE that doesn’t outlaw violence against women, but regulates against its excess. There is acceptability of violence against women, and Aboriginal women don’t even count as women. As mentioned above, Aboriginal women and girls are perceived as deviant, and as a result, violence against them is dismissed. Aboriginal women are disposable because they are superfluous to the nation – indeed, they are a threat to the nation. So Aboriginal women are disposable because they threaten the colonial order of things.
I don’t see change coming until we decolonize. Colonialism is invested in violence against Aboriginal women – and until we no longer occupy the category of “threat”, we won’t be guaranteed any sort of safety.
BCP: Aboriginal writer Eden Robinson describes the epidemic and its non-handling by government and law enforcement as “apathy”. Can you comment?
RSB: Oh hell yes! Let me make the statement even stronger… this is not apathy…colonialism is invested in violence against Aboriginal women and girls. This is intentional. As the original inhabitants of the land, Aboriginal women stand in opposition to the colonial order things. We undermined mythological and material explanations of the founding of this country. Throughout colonial history in Canada, Aboriginal women and girls have been targeted for extermination, not only because we undermine colonial stories, but because we have the ability to give birth to future nations of Aboriginal people who will challenge colonialism. It’s not apathy here – it’s straight up annihilation.
BCP: Your work is emotional, honest, and stimulating. As a professor and writer what do you try to convey to your students and readers?
RSB: That is a very nice compliment. Thank you. I just try to pour my heart into my work and be honest. I feel that if I lay bare my own life for critical reflection, I will encourage others to do the same. I suppose the overriding goal of my work is to show people that we lives in a system of violence – indeed, our Western societies function on violence. I try to show that this system may be targeting Aboriginal women and girls now, but it is also targeting marginalized people across the country. Violence is too common of an experience for far too many of us in this country.
BCP: This is the week where Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women are remembered and honoured. What does this week mean to you? What do you want to see come out of this week that has not come out in the past?
RSB: It’s the 20th anniversary of the Missing Women’s memorial in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. To me, that speaks to the resistance and resilience of Aboriginal women and girls in Canada. Despite several hundred years of colonial oppression and extermination, Aboriginal women and girls continue to live and breathe, and even thrive. At the same time, I am reminded of the words of Patricia Monture, who writes that resistance is not a healthy state because it’s rooted in the seeds of our oppression. So it reminds me of the need to continually fight against oppression and violence, because our lives our at stake.
You know what my fantasy for this week would be? For some level of government to step up and take action. Not a public inquiry or a new report – but real, meaningful action to eliminate violence against Aboriginal women and girls. Not that I believe that the State is the answer (indeed, my work examines State appropriation of resistance work), but while we continue to be colonized, we have to demand that they step up. I also think we need to continue our struggles towards indigenous sovereignty and self-determination, as these issues are tied to the marginalization of Aboriginal women and girls.
BCP: What are you working on now?
RSB: I am wrapping up writing my dissertation. I’ve been hiding out in BC to make this happen.
BCP: When do you expect to have a book published?
RSB: In the next year or two. I think it’s important to get the info in my dissertation out to the public.
BCP: Can you give readers a short recommended reading list about violence against Aboriginal women? What can readers do to help?
RSB: A reading list:
1) Andrea Smith – Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide
2) Amnesty International – Stolen Sisters: A Human Rights Response to Violence Against Indigneous women in Canada
3) Native Women’s Association of Canada – What Their Stories Tell Us
4) Sherene Razack – “Gendered Racial Violence and Spatialized Justice: The Murder of Pamela George”
5) Robertson and Blackstone’s “The Life of Helen Betty Osbourne: A Graphic Novel”
What readers can do to help:
1) Get educated and spread the word about this violence. A vast amount of work is spent on just telling people that this violence is happening, so any help with this is appreciated.
2) Attend rallies and events – help raise awareness
3) Work with anti-violence efforts in your community. We MUST end violence in this country, because far too many of us are hurt or dying.
4) Support Indigenous peoples’ struggles for self-determination and sovereignty. This issue is critically related to why Aboriginal women and girls continue to experience violence.
BCP: What advice do you have for other activists, writers, and allies out there who want to help stop this epidemic of Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women in Canada?
RSB: Commit yourself to anti-oppression in work. Do not make gains on the backs of other people, or by reinstituting systems of privilege. We cannot undo violence by agreeing to commit it against other marginalized people.
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Tune in to Black Coffee Poet Friday February 18, 2011 for videos of Cree poets Nicole Tanguay and Dana Wesley reading their poems about Stopping Violence Against Aboriginal Women.