Violence against Indigenous women land defenders protecting their territories against Canadian extractivism

Published by Brent Patterson on

Still from Gidimt’en Checkpoint video.

Warning: The following article contains disturbing content about police violence against Indigenous women.

It has been acknowledged by the United Nations and even the Canadian government that women human rights defenders face gender-specific threats.

The Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) has detailed this in relation to women confronting extractive industries.

The report Gender-based violence and environment linkages by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has further stated: “Globally, there exists a historic struggle in defence of the environment, one in which women and indigenous peoples have been fundamental actors against the privatisation and destruction of natural resources such as land, forests and forest resources, and water.”

It highlights: “There have been numerous examples of gender-based violence directed against environmental defenders and activists, who try to stop the destruction or degradation of their land, natural resources and communities.”

Violence against Indigenous women land defenders in Canada

Mohawk land defender Layla Staats speaks of being arrested on November 18, 2021 and the “humiliation and degradation” that she felt as a woman when an RCMP officer winked at her as she was handcuffed in the back of his police cruiser.

In this interview with journalist Brandi Morin, Wet’suwet’en land defender Sleydo’ (Molly Wickham) describes how police forcibly cut a cedar bracelet and medicine bag from her at the RCMP detachment in Prince George after her arrest on November 19.

Sleydo’ says four or five RCMP officers physically restrained her and cut the medicine bag off her body as about ten officers watched.

This past summer an email to Victoria Buzz about the resistance at Fairy Creek on Pacheedaht and Dididaht territories also stated: “There have been reports of sexual assaults by RCMP, continued media suppression and repeated targeting and mistreatment of Indigenous women, BIPOC and LGBTQ+ and 2 spirit land defenders.”

And Xiximec Nahua water protector Tia Chicome, who was arrested by RCMP officers in Burnaby in 2018 while opposing the Trans Mountain pipeline, has also stated she feels the RCMP has a bias against Indigenous women.

Violence against women land defenders rooted in colonialism

The APTN article on Chicome quotes Mi’kmaq lawyer Pam Palmater who says the criminalization of Indigenous frontline women land defenders and water protectors is historically rooted in colonization.

Palmater highlights: “From the very, very beginning the Canadian state has tried to separate women from the land. The safety and health of women’s bodies has always been tied to the land so closely that that’s why the state has particularly targeted Indigenous women — to separate them from that because it helps disintegrate their nations.”

Commenting on police brutality and colonial violence in Canada, the Yellowhead Institute has also stated: “While focus and attention is often on the individual police officers and ‘bad apples’, these rationalizations are used as a scapegoat to avoid a focus on the systems and structures that ultimately create individuals who perpetrate these acts.”

The IUCN report echoes the concern: “The GBV experienced by WEHRDs can often be exacerbated when it intersects with racial and ethnic discrimination.”

That report notes: “In Guatemala, indigenous communities, which make up 60 per cent of the national population, often find themselves in defence of their territories against extractive interests. The country has also experienced a startling rise in GBV, particularly against indigenous women.”

RCMP violence against Indigenous women

Gender-based violence specifically by the RCMP against Indigenous women is increasingly being documented.

On December 29, Aljazeera published Morin’s article ‘No one is going to believe you’ When the RCMP abuses Indigenous women and girls.

Morin writes about the sexual assaults experienced by now 65-year-old Gladys Radek, a Wet’suwet’en woman who lives in British Columbia.

The first sexual assault by an RCMP officer happened just outside Chilliwack when Radek was 16 years old and walking along a highway at night to get to Calgary to visit friends. The second time happened about a year later when Radek was hitchhiking near Prince George on her way to visit her mother in Prince Rupert.

The day after Morin’s article was published, she tweeted: “More stories coming out of rape by RCMP since our story was published yesterday. That post shares the story of Christie Brown whose “Gitxsan grandfather Peter Brown was conceived by rape by an rcmp.”

This type of violence was also documented almost nine years ago.

In February 2013, New York-based Human Rights Watch released the report Those Who Take Us Away that detailed violence by the police against Indigenous women.

At that time, CBC reported: “Human Rights watch documented eight incidents of police physically assaulting or using ‘questionable’ force against girls under 18.”

Human Rights Watch said they “heard disturbing allegations of rape and sexual assault by RCMP officers, including from a woman who described how in July 2012 police officers took her outside of town, raped her, and threatened to kill her if she told anyone.”

Meghan Rhoad, one of the authors of the report, told CBC that researchers found levels of fear among Indigenous women with negative stories about police “comparable to post-conflict situations, like post-war Iraq.”

MMIWG National Inquiry

Concerns about impunity also arose during the National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls in Canada.

In March 2019, Marion Buller, the Chief Commissioner of the National Inquiry, told CBC: “We’ve had push back from police [including the RCMP].”

And Commissioner Qajaq Robinson told APTN: “[When] we requested a number of files, I believe it was only with the RCMP that we had challenges with them asserting privilege and that to a degree we did not agree with.”

The National Inquiry stated: The RCMP have not proven to Canada that they are capable of holding themselves to account — and, in fact, many of the truths shared here speak to ongoing issues of systemic and individual racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination that prevent honest oversight from taking place.”

Peace Brigades International-Canada is committed to tracking and stopping RCMP violence against Indigenous women land defenders in this country and situating that within the context of colonialism and extractivism.

“We never wanted to go to the police, because it was the police who were chasing us.”

The Peace Brigades International-Honduras Project has stated: “The National Network of Women Human Rights Defenders in Honduras explains that in Honduras 70% of the attacks against women defenders the aggressors are state security forces, especially police or the military.”

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