For almost 40 years, Fay Blaney has worked tirelessly to bring to light the disproportionate level of violence faced by indigenous women in Canada.
In the year since the federal government launched an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women, she has been busy working to focus the commissioners’ agenda on the root of the cause.
“They are looking at colonization, and putting families first, and ‘systemic violence’—none of which are gender-specific,” the former UBC and Langara women’s-studies instructor tells the Georgia Straight during an interview at the Carnegie Centre. “There has yet to be any examination of male violence against women.”
In 2016, Blaney organized three national gatherings on the inquiry: on International Women’s Day (March 8), Aboriginal Day (June 21), and the anniversary of the Montreal Massacre (December 6).
Blaney likens these events to “feminism 101”, where she and other indigenous women—some from the Aboriginal Women’s Action Network (AWAN), of which she is a founding member—act as facilitators to raise awareness and gather information from the community.
“Then we have them set the direction of where our work goes,” she says of AWAN, which has been a voice for indigenous women in Canada since 1995.
Between her own past and what she has witnessed while working with organizations in the Downtown Eastside, Blaney is no stranger to gendered violence. Having fled the Homalco First Nation at age 13, she is quick to recognize women in similar situations.
“When I worked in the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre, that’s what I saw: many of these women are ending up here in the Lower Mainland or in other urban centres because they are fleeing violence.”
According to a 2009 government survey, indigenous women are nearly three times more likely to report being a victim of a violent crime. But Blaney says these incidents often go unreported, especially on reserves.
She recounts the story of her great-aunt, who was sexually assaulted on her family’s reserve in the early 1950s.
“She pressed charges, and the man was incarcerated for five years, but everyone turned against her. At 14, she fled to the Downtown Eastside.”
By 16, she was dead.
Blaney says reactions like the one her aunt’s community had are common and are the direct result of an Indian Act that disempowers women and empowers men. (The act of 1876 defined Indian status based solely on paternal lineage, meaning that if an indigenous woman married a nonindigenous man, or if a woman didn’t know who her father was, she and her children were denied status. Though women could apply for reinstatement after the act was amended through Bill C-31 in 1985, the process was very difficult, and a shortage of government staff meant that many applications were left in limbo.)
“It’s quite contrary to our clan system,” Blaney explains. “In that system, women were the heads, the matriarchs; it was intended that way.”
Now, she says, indigenous women are marginalized not only in dominant society, but in their own communities.
She is quick to point out the collective reluctance to acknowledge violence against women with another case: when the Ontario Native Women’s Association released a report in 1989 on violence within indigenous communities, called Breaking Free, it was shunned by male chiefs.
“They felt sharing the data would be detrimental to our society because it would reinforce the racist imagination that we truly were ‘savages’,” she says. Blaney says that today one doesn’t have to look far to note that Canadian society as a whole continues to see indigenous women in a negative light.
She highlights a recent situation in Val-d’Or, Quebec, where Crown prosecutors determined that despite 37 files of alleged police abuse, all of which were brought forth by indigenous women, not one of the six accused officers would be charged.
Following the conclusion of the investigation in mid-November, residents of Val-d’Or held a citizen-led march—in support of the police officers.
“That clearly indicates that Canadian society still sees us as dispensable and insignificant,” she says. “It took such courage for them to come forward, and the justice system failed them.”
These patterns of violence, Blaney says, can only be addressed when the federal government looks at the status of indigenous women more seriously.
“It took us [indigenous women] a lot of banging down doors to access the feminist movement, but it’s what I see as absolutely necessary to change our lot in life,” she says.
Through all the violence and suffering, the lifelong activist says it’s those “aha” moments at gatherings that make her work worthwhile: “I’ve had the opportunity to meet with women from all over the country, and they are each struggling in their own ways, so when we’re together and debating issues, it feels good.”
As for Blaney’s priority in 2017, she hopes to have an impact on the inquiry, especially with regard to its Families First initiative, which she says negates a huge segment of the population, including the young indigenous woman who died in a tent in Surrey last month after aging out of the foster-care system.
“Far too many recommendations have been ignored from previous inquiries, and my work is cut out for me to continue to pressure them [commissioners] to bring about meaningful change,” she says.
“I hope that before my time is done, I will see a grassroots indigenous women’s movement. Many scoff at the notion of feminism, but they don’t realize that with our clan systems, we really were the original feminists.”