The Gendered Dimension of Indigenous Struggles

Afsheen Adam-Haji

On Monday November 30, the Gender and Public Policy Initiative (G&PP) at the School of Public Policy and Governance (SPPG) hosted a roundtable discussion on racism and misogyny in the Indian Act and within the reserve system. During this talk, panelists Lolouwa Habli, Aaron Ames, and Tushna Mehta discussed how western conceptions of gender within a social structure were instrumental to the colonization of Indigenous peoples. This talk opened up a dialogue about the gendered dimension of Indigenous struggle that is often overlooked but extremely important for understanding the struggles facing Indigenous people today. Specifically, the root cause for an alarming number of missing and murdered women in Canada can be traced back to Canada’s history of colonial masculinity.

Historical accounts of settler colonialism, in general, paint a picture of colonialism as an event in time, rather than the by-product of a structured framework that, to this day, continues to perpetuate injustices. In fact, when Europeans settlers first expropriated land from Indigenous people, settlers were threatened by Indigenous lifestyles, which were at odds with Western European culture. Indigenous modes of governance and gender relations in particular were viewed as a threat. Indigenous people, at the time, were self-governed, with men and women often sharing complementary leadership. As well, many Indigenous groups believed that having both female and male characteristics was both acceptable and common. However, this concept of ‘two-spiritedness’ (having both a female and male spirit) was viewed as backwards according to Western ideology. Hence, Europeans invented a frame of colonial masculinity that rejected Indigenous people’s non-binary gender roles and presented it as a barbaric part of human nature that needed to be suppressed. Hence, the idea of advancing from a ‘primitive’ to a ‘civilized state’ was, in part, rooted in settlers’ visions of gender binaries and male dominance.

Policies that aimed to ‘civilize’ Indigenous people were sustained through gendered subjugation and realized through both the reserve system and Indian Act. As was outlined in the Indian Act, women were punished if they didn’t fulfill the role of a female who was dependent on her husband. Women living on reserves were not allowed property rights, and unmarried or divorced women were forced to leave the reserve altogether. This was extremely challenging, especially for women who suffered abuse. They had to make an extremely difficult choice between staying on the reserve or leaving the reserve without any belongings, and often taking their children along with them despite this.

Furthermore, the Indian Act defined status by gender roles as well; women who married non-status Indian men lost their status and legal Indian rights. Before contact with Europeans, many First Nations operated through a matrilineal system, but the European model imposed a patrilineal system that was slowly internalized. In this manner, many Indigenous women have been forced to depend on men and are now stuck in a ’a jurisdictional limbo,’ that Education Professor Sherene Razack has described in her book entitled “Race, Space, and the Law: Unmapping a White Settler Society.”

Due to this patrilineal system becoming normalized within Canadian society, mistrust of the government, authority and fear has hindered progress. Currently, Indigenous women continue to suffer spousal abuse but are more likely to underreport it. Since they have less access to social programs and education, as a result of having relied on men for so long, some are reluctant to have their means of sustenance taken away. In addition, when abuse is reported, children may be apprehended, which is another fear. It is also difficult for authority to confirm abuse, which creates a feeling of mistrust against authority. The disproportionate number of women experiencing violence has been identified in several reports. Recently, the United Nations reported that young First Nations, Métis, and Inuit women were five times more likely to die under violent circumstances than non-Aboriginal women. Furthermore, the Harper government’s neglect to inquire into the missing and murdered women case reinforced negativities. While Stephen Harper initially called for the Truth and Reconciliation report, his comments and lack of action in this regard was detrimental to progress. Creating policy change in this area thus necessitates both acknowledgement and action led by the government, so that a relationship of trust can be established as a starting point.

In the current policy sphere, a window of opportunity has opened for Canadian society to begin this process. As part of his election campaign, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau committed to act on the recommendations made by the Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC). Recommendation 41 called for a public inquiry into the “causes of, and remedies for, the disproportionate victimization of Aboriginal women and girls;” including an investigation into the missing and murdered women. On December 8, 2015, the federal government initiated this inquiry with the announcement that they will engage in dialogue with families to craft a design for the investigation. While the recommendations in this report include ninety-four calls to action, the government has begun work on Recommendation 41 in particular. This recommendation is especially central to women’s rights and the concerns of First Nations, in light of the recent tragedies experienced by Aboriginal women.

The inquiry, which will cost $40 million throughout the next two years, has been criticized as mere inaction that will not address the root causes that lead to missing and murdered women. The argument is that many of the issues plaguing Indigenous communities have already been identified. However, opening up dialogue with Indigenous families and allowing them to express their grief and concerns plays a powerful role in building a trusting relationship, and is key to begin the healing process for many women. Consultation alone is definitely not enough; it should be accompanied by addressing access to social programs and assistance. However, renewing a commitment to reconcile and bridge communication gaps is a step forward.

End Note: The terms “Indigenous” and “Aboriginal” are used while acknowledging that no term is perfect, and it refers to diverse groups of people.


Afsheen Adam-Haji is 2017 Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Political Science from the University of Toronto. Her broad policy interests include welfare, social equity, and healthcare. 


One Comment Add yours

  1. Pingback: Roundtable Recap |

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s