New NWAC president Michelle Audette looks at the big picture for International Women’s Day
With International Women’s Day being celebrated March 8, the Nation checked in with Native Women’s Association of Canada President Michelle Audette for her views on how well Aboriginal women are faring in Stephen Harper’s Canada.
An Innu activist and well-known champion of Aboriginal women’s rights, Audette was elected NWAC president in 2012 after working as president of Quebec Native Women Inc., the provincial Aboriginal women’s lobby, for several years. She had previously served a short term as acting NWAC President in 2001.
The Nation: How do you feel the landscape in Canada is changing for Aboriginal women and how do you see the bigger picture?
Michelle Audette: I have travelled a lot with QNW and since September with NWAC and it seems to me that we have more women engaged in economic development, engaging in micro-businesses or businesses or other partnerships.
While travelling I was able to listen to a lot of women and it is really sad to say but family violence is a huge issue. When I hear the federal government say that they are investing so much money, by the millions, into issues like family violence it really made me wonder.
So, I asked the chiefs that I met with from across Canada how much funding they got to address the issue; most of them said that they got between $12,000 and $20,000.
I was shocked also to listen to these women, either from remote communities or cities, to hear that most of them had experienced rape or sexual abuse. I realized that the statistics really weren’t accurate.
I can see however that these women are so incredibly resilient, so strong and I was really impressed by that and they have this willingness to bring family into the forefront.
I just feel like there is a really huge gap between what the government is saying in terms of job creation for First Nations and these women.
TN: What do you see as being the biggest threat against Aboriginal women and their children in this country?
MA: Of course this is just my opinion but I feel like they are just being passed up by opportunity.
For example, take when a community is signing an agreement for development. In the past I had walked with the Innu women when they were against the Plan Nord. I also spoke to those who had been for it because they were working but it was such a small group.
It really made me wonder what is going on in our communities when there are employment or education opportunities. When I spoke to those who worked in education, I got the impression that a lot of women were too busy taking care of other people in the family (kids, parents, grandparents) and therefore missing out in the labour market. So this says that programs and services are not adequately adapted to our realities across Canada.
As a result, poverty is ever-present and we are still behind.
Despite this, we are now actually seeing more and more Aboriginal women going to college and university, despite the fact that they are often already young parents when they get there. They are facing this struggle.
While my colleagues at NWAC have been telling me that many women are starting businesses, I don’t see this as strong enough yet. We need to create more opportunities for them.
As the average salary for an Aboriginal women in Canada is around $20,000 annually, significantly lower than that of women in the rest of the country, despite the fact that some are getting a post-secondary education, why are they still behind? Why is it that we always finish last?
The other challenge that I am noticing is that Aboriginal women, whether they live in the cities or the communities, don’t seem to know that there are organizations out there just for them. It just seems so sad that, in 2013, with all of the social media and technology out there, that they are not aware that there is legislation, laws, services, programs and organizations such NWAC, QNW, Ontario Native Women and so forth that can help them and support them.
This is a big challenge for us also.
TN: Moving on, how do you see this whole issue with the RCMP being accused of rape in northern BC when they are the organization that is getting all of the funding to address the issue of missing and murdered women?
MA: My take on this issue is that I see it as another strategy to undermine all of the beautiful work done by our previous president, Beverly Jacobs.
I wasn’t there but I am capable enough to say that when I examined all of the work that had been done previously by NWAC’s Sisters in Spirit (who compiled the first database on missing/murdered Aboriginal women) department I can say that it was really, really professional. This information was compiled for us by us.
So, if the RCMP is saying that our numbers are not accurate, how come they are complaining still three years later about our methodology and our database? It is just a political strategy to undermine this work and to that, I would like to toss the ball back into their court and remind them that we are talking about real live people and that people are still suffering.
It is as though they are playing a game when they should sit down and say, I think as a public organization like the RCMP, maybe we should re-examine the way we are doing things with First Nations, Metis and Inuit communities across Canada. In Quebec and Ontario we have tri-partite agreements for Aboriginal policing but in the rest of Canada it is the RCMP.
When you have non-Native women who have worked for that organization complaining that they were harassed by their own colleagues within the RCMP and then that story a few weeks ago with the RCMP being charged with molesting an 11-year-old child after holding them captive in their basement, it comes as a real wake-up call.
These systemic problems are actually happening to all Canadians but unfortunately disproportionately to us because we are the most vulnerable.
We are the most affected by extreme poverty and also evidently this discrimination is there. It is affecting our children and all of us: men, women and Elders.
After five weeks of research and interviews done in Northern BC by Human Rights Watch with Aboriginal women, some who were afraid to speak because their lives had been threatened, wow! This shows that we are only going to hear more horrible stories.
The government is trying to undermine Aboriginal women.
TN: Well, some have argued that this is a whole tactic in genocide, to go after a people’s women.
MA: Mais oui!
TN: In light of all of this, what do you recommend and how will you address this?
MA: I am going to be focusing on my energy on the fact that we need to sit down with the head of the RCMP and also with the head of other police forces from across Canada as well as Aboriginal police forces and talk. We need to stop looking at who is right or wrong because we all know that there is a real problem right now and so how can we address this.
There are success stories in other provinces where the RCMP sat down with the families of victims and developed some tools to help the women and the frontline workers and also the police in the case of missing/murdered Aboriginal women.
Why don’t we spread these stories?
Also, why don’t we sign an MOU to put our energy and our passion behind changing these statistics?
Perhaps we could do some training with the police on who Aboriginal women, examining the history and who we are today so that they can know more about us. We did it with the police force training facility in Nicolet when I was president of QNW many years ago. We worked on issues of family violence and sexual abuse and since then we do this every six months at the facility.
Why don’t we do this officially with the RCMP across the country?