Since the point of contact, Indigenous women, girls and two-spirited (Indigenous term encompassing LGBTQ+ identities) have been instrumental in solidifying settler colonialism in North America. Such is especially true in the Canadian context. Historically, Indigenous two-spirited people and women were removed from positions of stability and power by colonial legislation that enforced patriarchy and European gender roles. One example is the Indian Act (1876), which claims that an Indigenous man can marry a White woman and claim Indigenous status, but an Indigenous woman who marries a White man cannot. Similar legal gender-based discrepancies occur in other aspects of life, including education and religious practice. The legal disenfranchisement of Indigenous women gave way to poverty, kidnapping, and rape.
Gender-based inequities and violence persists today. It is estimated that over 1,200 Indigenous women were missing or murdered from 1980 – 2012. Of those 1,200+ women, 88% had involvement in the sex trade. Further, the RCMP found that 16% of all female homicide victims during this period were Indigenous. In 2013, the not-so-secret sex trafficking of Indigenous women, girls and babies in Thunder Bay was uncovered. In 2016, an official national inquiry was launched. Since then, some shocking discoveries have been made. For example, despite the fact that Indigenous women account for only around 4% of Canada’s total population, they account for 50% of Canada’s sex trafficking victims. 25% of these cases are girls under 18. Additionally, Indigenous women say that traffickers are preying on increasingly younger girls to satisfy “fetishism”. Some are as young as eight or nine years old. Ontario and Quebec are the hub of this activity, but cities like Regina, Saskatchewan and Moncton, New Brunswick are also fairly active. These women are known to endure abhorrent conditions and sadistic abuse such as being burned, electrocuted or tied up. One particular survivor recounted being held in a freezer.
The complicated relationship between violence against Indigenous women and their involvement in the sex trade was initially blamed on Indigenous men who were said to be pimping them out. This does happen. One victim who identified as Kimmy says she was brought into the sex trade at age 14 by her sister, when a White man offered them money to fulfill a “colonial myth” fantasy. Kimmy felt a sense of obligation and loyalty that many women feel.
Kimmy’s experience however, shows that the truth is more complicated than that. The longstanding gaps in Indigenous policy, racism and under-funding of resources like education, child welfare and livable housing both on and off reservations result in poverty and the continuation of inter-generational trauma.
One such victim was Alaya M. who was offered a bus ticket to Winnipeg by the social services department in exchange for leaving their care. She says she was raped at the bus stop for the price of a coffee and $5. She had no support or even basic knowledge on how to protect herself. Other noted incidences of pimps preying on vulnerable Indigenous women include at airports or detention. That said, Indigenous women can be vulnerable simply for their race and gender, even if they seem to be successful by the measures of the status quo. Once again, this is because of the racism and sexism entrenched in Canadian society. An unidentified 18-year-old Indigenous woman from Moncton met her end this way. And Victoria Morrison from Windsor, Ontario is lucky to be alive after escaping her pimp.
The pervasiveness of the issues of MMIW and the sex trade in Canada are undeniable. But what is the solution? Several Indigenous women and other stakeholders agree that the best way to minimize the risk to Indigenous women and girls is to end poverty and increase social supports. This is on par with the findings in the final report on the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Though, it is imperative that support is given in a decolonized manner. Decolonized supports seek to empower women, girls and two-spirited people with education, opportunities and resources that do not undermine the First Nations right to self-governance, are culturally specific, and comply with ratified treaties such as the UN Conventions on the Rights of the Child. Also, it is worth noting Quebec received a special recommendation to allow exemptions to its language laws to promote the aforementioned overarching goals.
Indigenous women were instrumental in colonization. They were victimized by the beast they were forced to help make. It is finally time to allow them to find safety and flourish while working toward decolonization.