B.C. Aboriginal Women on a Fraser River Journey

The Aboriginal Women's Action Network (AWAN), in coalition with other Aboriginal women from Vancouver-based anti-violence agencies, have come together to conduct a participatory action research project on the issue of violence against Aboriginal women, as it relates to new restorative justice initiatives or alternative measures policies. Our primary objective is to ensure that Aboriginal women's voices become an integral part in policies and programs development.

Partners in the project include Women Against Violence Against Women (WAVAW), Vancouver Rape Relief and Women's Shelter, Battered Women's Support Services (BWSS), and Feminist Research Education, Development and Action (FREDA) Centre.

The first phase of research involved organizing a series of 15 workshops on such topics as the violence against women in relationships (VAWIR) policy, children who witness violence policy, protective orders, custody and access, divorce act, cuts to legal aid, violence against sex trade workers, against the elderly, anti-racism, poverty issues, mandatory sentencing, provocation defense, etc. The final three workshops focused specifically on restorative justice. Included in this portion of the research is the literature review, which is being coordinated by Audrey Huntley. She brought some significant articles and documents for workshop participants to review and analyze. Aboriginal women, from various sectors of Aboriginal communities in the Vancouver area were enrolled. From this exploratory phase of our work, we are formulating research questions for the next phase, as well as developing a preliminary policy paper.

The second phase incorporates our involvement in the "World March of Women 2000", through our "Fraser River Journey". Beginning on September 8, we will be rafting down the Fraser, from Prince George and arriving in Musqueam territory (Vancouver) on September 25, which has been designated as "Aboriginal Women's Day of Action". The launch on September 8 will consist of a panel discussion on Aboriginal women's issues, to be hosted by the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC). This event will be held at the Native Education Centre in Vancouver.

The first "Aboriginal women's focus group" will be held in Prince George on September 10, with our departure scheduled for the following day. Other focus groups will be held at Soda Creek, Lillooet, and Yale. The results of these focus groups will be produced in the form of a "comparative analysis". Additionally, we have scheduled rallies, to include our allies and supporters, at Quesnel, Lytton, Cheam and New Westminster. With the support of the World March of Women 2000 steering committee of the Vancouver area, we will be organizing a huge celebration at the culmination of our journey.

Aboriginal women from around the province, particularly those who are involved in anti-violence work, are being invited to join this rafting trip. The two rafts that we will be traveling in have the capacity to accommodate up to 45 women. Some women may wish to travel only through their own territory while others may be willing to go the entire duration of the journey. Whatever portion women chose to participate in, we're convinced that this will be a memorable experience that will advance the struggle to end state and male violence against Aboriginal women and children.

The third phase of our work involves organizing a women's provincial symposium to continue the discussions that were started in the first two phases. Namely, we are questioning the appropriateness of bringing cases of violence against women and children through restorative justice programs. Our concerns have ultimately been for the safety needs of Aboriginal women and children, when offenders have been permitted by the justice system and its agents to remain in the community. Rather than charging, police officers sometimes divert these offenders to various counseling programs. One implication of this action is that these offenders will not have a formal criminal record, since charges do not go through court procedures. By extension, another implication is that an offender could potentially continue to re-offend, without having to face any consequences. Another issue is that, with inadequate resources and funding, community agencies may not have the capacity to treat offenders, and to bring violent behavior under control. Numerous questions have come out of this work and our task is to engage Aboriginal women in this process, so that questions continue to be raised, and that we have meaningful input in the development, evaluation and re-evaluation of these policies and programs.

AWAN's long range plans include a fourth and fifth phase of research. The task we have set for ourselves is to conduct in-depth province-wide interviews with Aboriginal women. The report that comes from these interviews will be presented to a national Aboriginal women's symposium. Our sense is that this type of work is urgently required. Alternative forms of justice projects are being piloted, largely in Aboriginal communities, and autonomous Aboriginal womens groups need to be involved to ensure that an adequate monitoring process and systems of accountability are in place. And we need the alliance of non-Aboriginal women's groups to support our efforts.

For further information, contact: 
Fay Blaney: [email protected] 
Helen Haig-Brown: [email protected]