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Vancouver Rape Relief’s Written Closing Submission for the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls

By Hilla Kerner
December 2018
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 “And it is happening for a simple reason. There is nothing complex and difficult about the reason. Men are doing it, because of the kind of power that men have over women. That power is real, concrete, exercised from one body to another body, exercised by someone who feels he has a right to exercise it, exercised in public and exercised in private. It is the sum and substance of women’s oppression. It is an extraordinary thing to try to understand and confront why it is that men believe–and men do believe–that they have the right to rape…men believe they have the right to force sex, which they don’t call rape. And it is an extraordinary thing to try to understand that men really believe that they have the right to hit and to hurt. And it is an equally extraordinary thing to try to understand that men really believe that they have the right to buy a woman’s body for the purpose of having sex: that that is a right. Andrea Dworkin, 1983


Front-line knowledge

Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter is the longest standing rape crisis centre in Canada. Since opening in 1973, our group responded to 45,441 (counted on December 5, 2018) women seeking our support in their escape of male violence. The accumulation of stories told to us by thousands of women, taught us how men use their relative power as men and often their relative power of their race and class to attack women. They also taught us how girls and women survive, escape and resist male violence.

The members of our collective, historically and currently have been of different race and different class background yet our shared life experience as girls and women, in particular our common experience of men’s violence matches what we learned from our front-line work. Applying feminist analysis means a critical examination of the power imbalance between men and women, between white people and aboriginal people and between the wealthy and the poor.

When it comes to violence against Aboriginal women all forms of oppression – sex, race and class – are in play. 

In the mid 80s, an Indigenous member of our collective wrote in an article titled “The truth as we know it that “There is overwhelming evidence that men rape within the same class or race and down”. Thirty-five year later, this statement is still very much, the truth as we know it.

In Canada, Aboriginal women, who are at the bottom of the race and class hierarchy, are victims of all men’s violence.

In preparation for this submission, we looked at more than 1,000 cases of Indigenous women who called us in the last five years.

577 Indigenous women were assaulted by their husbands, boyfriends, or lovers, and another 83 Indigenous women were attacked by their ex-male partner after they left him. 179 Indigenous women were sexually assaulted by someone they knew superficially, often through social circumstances like a party, or mutual friends.

151 Indigenous women were raped by their own fathers or other family members or family friends when they were young. 58 women were raped by men who were complete strangers to them.

Out of the 1,000 Indigenous women who called us, 408 women were attacked by Indigenous men, 351 women were attacked by white men. 

Indigenous women are raped and beaten by their fathers, their domestic partners and other men in their Aboriginal communities. Outside of their communities, they are raped, beaten, prostituted and killed by men from every race. Everywhere they go, Aboriginal women are subjected to horrifying, and sometimes deadly attacks by all men, frequently by white men.

The role of transition houses

Since the 70’s, Transition houses, rape crisis centres and women’s centres have been providing women with immediate protection for themselves and their children.  

In 1981, Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter opened our own transition house.  And since then, we housed 2899 Women and 2,570 children (counted on December 5, 2018).

The women who have been staying in our house are battered women who are leaving abusive male partners, women who are exiting prostitution and sometimes women who were raped by a man that is no longer have access to them so they are safe from him, but they still want to stay in a place where they have the comforting company of other women.

Safety, of course, is the key reason women are turning to a transition houses but what they get is even more than that.  Grouping women in our transition house is countering the abusers’ tactics of keeping women silent and isolated.

Women in feminist transition houses get to be part of a community of women who encourage and reinforce each other in their decision to leave abusive men. They get to be part of community of women who offer concrete advises and practical mutual aid of cooking. child care and search for future housing. They get to speak about their own experience and be heard and they get to hear other women’s experience and realize that they have been beaten and raped by men, not because they did something wrong, or made bad choices BUT because they are women and because we are living in a world that men are entitled to harm women including (and very often especially) women whom they claim they love.

The women who live in our transition house, are escaping one particular man, usually it is their domestic male partner. But as we build our relationships, many will tell us about other men and other attacks. This is particularly true to Indigenous women.  Most of the indigenous women who are living in our transition house have experienced male violence form a very early age.   The man they are currently escaping is the last one to attack them but in no way, he is the first.

Recommendation 1

Feminist transition houses and rape crisis centre –have been tactics that developed for women by women, offering women immediate safety and a place to group, analyze, strategize and embolden women to demand from the state the protection they deserve. Based on these examples and practices we are calling for women’s services for indigenous women that are designed and controlled by indigenous women. These services need to be funded by the state but independent from government, social services, law enforcement, professionals, institutions and band councils.

Poverty 

Even though indigenous women are only 2% of the women in the lower mainland, they compromised more than 30% of the women who are calling us looking for a safe shelter for themselves and their children.

Since the beginning of this year, 466 women called our crisis line looking for a shelter, 130 of them were indigenous. Approximately 2/3 of the indigenous women who call us are on income assistance. This basically means that they are poor.

It has been well established that poverty increases the vulnerability of women to being attacked in their homes, on the job, on public transit and on the street.

It has also been well established that poverty prevents women from leaving abusive relationship, that poverty force women to stay in poorly paid job where they are objectified, exploited and harassed and that poverty is a key coercive factor for women resorting to prostitution.  

Poverty means that women have very few options, sometimes, none.

There are plenty of researches showing that the price of poverty in monetary value, the burden it creates on the healthcare and criminal justice system is actually higher than the cost of elevating people from poverty.

But even if this wasn’t the case, poverty is an unacceptable reality. We live in wealthy country and equal share of its wealth would have meant that no one has to go without nutritious food, adequate housing and all the other basic needs one is entitled to, by virtue of being a human being.

The welfare system, across Canada, have not only kept people entrenched in poverty but also have stripped them from their dignity. The premise of the welfare system is to provide as little as possible to as few people as possible

 “Welfare is like a super-sexist marriage. You trade in a man for the man. But you can’t divorce him if he treats you bad. He can divorce you, of course, cut you off anytime he wants… The man, the welfare system, controls your money. He tells you what to buy, what not to buy, where to buy it, and how much things cost. If things-rent, for instance-really cost more than he says they do, it’s just too bad for you. He’s always right”* -Johnnie Tillmon, 1972

Many researches show that when people have unconditional secured livable income, they use their time to do good by their families and comminutes.

“I’m now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective – the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income… The dignity of the individual will flourish when the decisions concerning his life are in his own hands, when he has the assurance that his income is stable and certain, and when he knows that he has the means to seek self-improvement…” Martin Luther King Jr., 1967

Recommendation 2

We support the demand for a dramatic increase of income assistance rates as a temporary measure of financial support for those in need. But in the long run we believe we are better off with a profoundly different mechanism that will provide people with their economic needs.

We support the demand for livable wage but we reject the idea that a paid job should be a condition for adequate income.

Ultimately, we are calling for Guaranteed Livable Income with the following principles:

Livable – which means that it needs to be high enough to meet adequate standards of living.

Guaranteed- which means that it needs to be given unconditionally, without a means test, without a job search requirement and without limitations on expenditures

Individual and Universal – It must be given to all individual adults in a household regardless of marital status and must be enough to provide for each child that adult has guardianship over.

We are willing to organize, host and/or participate in a national consultation of economic and feminist experts to produce a concrete scheme for the mechanism of delivering Guaranteed Livable Income

We believe that the application of these concept will ensure that no one, let alone women and in this context Indigenous women is suffering from economic hardship and poverty.

Holding violent men accountable

We believe men can change. Men are not inherently violent. Men are violent because of the social construction of masculinity and manhood. We believe men can change. Men can stop raping, and beating women and children. men can stop killing women. We believe men can change but as a whole, they don’t. And until we will hold men accountable, they are not going to change. Otherwise we wouldn’t have been here today.

 There is a great promise in communities holding men accountable. So far, there are two few examples for it. Too few communities, in the world, have come together to make a collective agreement that the men in their communities will not harm women and children. Too few communities have sanctioned men for harming women and children. Men, everywhere, know that they can rape and beat women and children with impunity.

 At the moment we must rely on the state, on the Canadian state, to uphold its obligation to protect women and children. Though so far, it has failed, not to say refused, to do so.

 Police

When women are calling on the police about rape, they know it is going to be an excruciating journey. But they are willing to go through it because they want to protect other women.  Alas, more often than not they will realize that the criminal Justice System doesn’t share their commitment to hold rapists accountable.

The high rate of unfounded sexual assault complaints got a lot of attention in the last two years. Statistic Canada is now collecting and publishing the number of unfounded sexual assault cases and according to recent media reports, police forces in 62 jurisdictions have been reducing the number of sexual assault reports classified as “unfounded” since the Globe and Mail expose.

For us this is not reassuring at all. In all likelihood the reduced rate means that police forces are now simply cataloguing cases under a different code and not that they are conducting better investigations.

Last year, in British Columbia, out of 4,279 complaints about sexual assault and rape that were made to police, only third resulted with police recommending charges.

The problems start with the initial statement. The police will not dare to do it in our presence but when a woman is going without an advocate, they from the get-go will discourage her by saying that the case is not going to go anywhere because it’s “she says –he says” situation. They are saying it without even having the “he says” version, without even interviewing the accused.

Sometimes, when the woman comes with a feminist advocate, the officers will not let the advocate to be present while the victim gives her statement.

Usually, after the initial statement it will take months until the woman hear back from the police. It will take multiple phone calls with weeks in between to the constable, the sergeant and the staff sergeant for the woman or for us as her advocates to get any response. When they eventually do come back they will say “we are still investigating” or “it’s still open” and eventually, after many more months, they will say that they are not going to recommend charges because there are not enough evidence. However, in many cases that we are familiar with, they don’t have enough evidence because they didn’t conduct proper investigation.

Recommendation 3

We are calling for a civilian oversight of police investigations of sexual assault cases, that will include front line feminist advocates. We are calling for an open and on-going review that will not result with sexual assaults being classified under a different code but with through investigation and appropriate charges.

We are willing to organize, host and/or participate in a national consultation of front-line women’s groups and other experts to produce a concrete instructions for the designing and application of civilian oversight of police investigations of sexual assault cases.   

Crown

Out of the cases that police is recommending charges; the crown will prosecute only half which means that approximately 15% of the rapes reported to police in BC will go to trial. This is only an estimate based on national data because information on crown decisions in sexual assault cases in British Columbia is not easily accessible.

“Crown decisions to prosecute or not should be recorded and made publicly available. Public confidence in the administration of justice would be bolstered by a system where Crown counsel routinely made strong and public arguments to prosecute sexist violence. By the same token, if the decisions by the Crown not to proceed were made available to the public, there would be room for protest and possibly legal action.”– Louisa Russell, 2009


Recommendation 4

We are calling for Crown decision to not press charges or to stay charges in cases of male violence against women (Sexual assault, wife battering and sexual exploitation) to be made publicly available.

Judges

We know from media reports on trials in sexual assault cases across the country that judges contaminating sexual assault trials with sexist stereotypes and victim-blaming myths about girls and women who experience sexual assault.  Judges are clearly ignorant on sexual assault laws, about Parliament’s intentions behind the laws, and the Supreme Court of Canada’s applications of the laws.

“despite efforts to thwart them, myths and stereotypes continue to stalk the halls of justice in cases involving sexual offences… these persistent presumptions… reduce the entitlement of individuals to the equal recognition and protection of the law. This inequality falls most heavily on women since sexual assault has been, and continues to be, largely a gender-based crime. The vast majority of victims are female, and the vast majority of perpetrators male.”* – Alberta Court of Appeal, 2017


In British Columbia, both in Provincial Court and the Supreme Courts, only written judgements are available to the public. When judges give their judgements and reasoning orally, judgements are recorded but not automatically transcribed. One can order the transcription of a particular judgement but that usually costs hundreds or thousands of dollars (depending on the length of the transcription).  This means that, in reality, the public doesn’t have access to oral judgements and reasons for convictions and acquittals in sexual assault trials.

 Recommendation 5

We are calling for a genuine application of the “open court” principle, a fundamental concept in a democratic society that allows the public to hold judges accountable. We are calling on the Attorney General of British Columbia and the other provinces to create a transparent justice system and to ensure that all judgements in sexual assault trials (oral and written) are transcribed and posted online available for public scrutiny.

Only Transparency and accountability will transform how the criminal justice system – the police, crown and judges deal with violence against women in general and violence against indigenous women in particular.

Hyper-criminalization of Indigenous women  

It is a tragic irony that the criminal justice system that have been failing to protect indigenous women, has been extremely diligent in criminalizing and imprisoning them. Although indigenous women are 4% of the women in Canada they account to 43% of female admissions to provincial/territorial sentenced custody.

“The disproportionate representation of aboriginal women and women of colour in Canadian jails and court rooms must be understood to reflect enforced poverty and violence heaped on these women. There must be release and court deferment programs; even in circumstances of gross inequality, these women hardly pose a threat to the Canadian public.” – Lee Lakeman, 1993

Recommendation 6

We are calling on immediate release of Indigenous women who are in custody for a result of being convicted of poverty related crimes and crimes of self-defense.

Abolition of prostitution

Our collective historically and currently, includes women who have exited the sex industry. Our authority and understanding of prostitution as sexual exploitation and male violence against women is informed by our own members and by our front-line work with women in prostitution who are calling us in their effort to escape individual johns and pimps or prostitution all together.

What indigenous women tell us about their road to prostitution is that it is paved with sexual assaults in their childhood, with devastating poverty, with terrible losses, including the apprehension of their children and with such grief and pain that sometimes can only be subdued with drugs or alcohol. They resorted to prostitution. they didn’t choose it.

Recommendation 7

We are calling on providing women in prostitution, feminist existing services, detox and long terms women-only recovery program on demand and livable income.

Achieving safety to women in prostitution is inherently impossible. Men who buy women (sometimes not even that, sometimes they will refuse to give her the money or forcefully will take it back) are the source of the harm to women. “Screening” will not protect women – women are constantly attacked and harmed by men they know and trust. “In doors” will not protect women –   most violent acts against women are committed “in doors”.

The murder of Cindy Gladue refutes the myths that “indoor prostitution” is safe, and that “screening” will provide security to women the sex trade. The fact that Cindy Gladue was recruited in an hotel and not on the street; the presence of security cameras in the hotel; the fact that Barton was a returning guest at the hotel or the fact that Cindy Gladue’s boyfriend arranged, screened and negotiated the price of her “sexual services” did not protect her from violence or death.

Legitimizing and legalizing prostitution, allowing men to buy the sexual use of women’s bodies, normalizes men’s entitlement to our bodies. The same entitlement that allows men to rape, and beat and kill women.

Recommendation 8

We are calling for the application of the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act. Police and prosecutes must uphold the law and criminalize men who sell, buy and profit form the sexual exploitation of women in prostitution.

We do not accept murder, rape, wife battering and incest as inevitable and we do not accept prostitution as inevitable.

These are all acts done by men to women in patriarchal world where the relationship between men and women are based on domination and subordination. we do not accept that this kind of relationships between men and women are inevitable.

Learning that Indigenous women in pre-colonial Canada were treated in their nations with respect and honor, gives us hope. It reinforces our refusal to accept women’s oppression as inevitable. Knowing that fairly recently in human history, women had social and spiritual roles that were regarded as valuable as those men had, makes our fight for liberation not only possible, but tangible.



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We recognize the many useful recommendations made by the commissioners of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and call on all levels of government to promptly and diligently implement them in order to protect Indigenous women from men’s violence and get them closer to safety and freedom.

By Vancouver Rape Relief Collective
June 3, 2019
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