OPINION PIECE: Cora McGuire-Cyrette, Executive Director of the Ontario Native Women’s Association (ONWA)
Thunder Bay, ON – It is not safe to be an Indigenous woman and violence does not know jurisdictional boundaries and neither should our response to the violence. Over the past few years we are all well aware of the levels of unacceptable violence that has become normalized against Indigenous women here all across Canada, through numerous reports. Now is the time for transformative action.
Violence against Indigenous women has not only continued during the pandemic but has drastically increased from over incarceration of Indigenous women, family violence to increased rates of human trafficking. This violence continues through the needless deaths of our women, children and community through the mental health and addictions crisis due to the lack of healing services and coordinated approach.
Whether you are walking to the corner store or trying to access services in your community, Indigenous women are targeted for violence and discrimination. Indigenous women have a fundamental right to safety and healing, something all parties must address during the upcoming provincial election. It begins by looking at systemic change, addressing policy and legislation, and investing in safe spaces. Change begins when women can come together and heal as individuals and as a collective community.
In Ontario, Indigenous women experience violence of all kinds at disproportionate rates. A 2021 study by Statistics Canada found that more than half (56%) of Indigenous women experience physical violence in their lifetime. Beyond physical violence, Indigenous women and girls also experience violence in the form of racism and discrimination from the very systems that are supposed to support us and provide safety. There is also a lack of respect for our right to sovereignty over our children, selves, and nations. Most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the violence and mistreatment Indigenous women and families face in the healthcare system – a system that was not built to meet our needs.
As we look ahead to the provincial election, it’s a good time to reflect on how far we have come in Ontario, yet how much work still needs to be done. We must create systemic change that keeps Indigenous women and their families safe in order to strengthen our community post pandemic.
Indigenous Women have the following priorities in the upcoming election:
Health system transformation: Indigenous women have a right to quality health care that meets and responds respectfully to their needs across their life cycle from birthing to end of life care, including prevention services. This means workers in all health care settings across Ontario are trained and competent in providing safe services. While we wait for the systemic change needed, Indigenous women have also created their own health care services. For example, the Mindimooyenh Health Clinic in Thunder Bay that has administered over 14,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines. It is imperative that Indigenous women’s approaches are acknowledged, funded, and supported.
Indigenous women’s safety and prevention: Indigenous women continue to go missing and be murdered at alarming rates. Indigenous women need immediate investments in to their safety and prevention. Indigenous women’ agencies are drastically underfunded to meet their mandate and the funding inequality must be address. We imagine a budget that is based on a community development approach that will have not only transparent accountability but also strong measurements of success.
Safe spaces: Now more than ever, Indigenous women need safe spaces. The COVID-19 pandemic showed us that Indigenous women continue to lack safety and fall through socio-economic cracks. These spaces have been proven to be the most fiscally responsible in the long term. Economic recovery must include investments into community infrastructure.
Healing from the legacy of colonization: As the shadow pandemic of trauma, mental health, and addictions continues to grow, we know that Indigenous women need healing. This means access to barrier and wait time free, wholistic, culture based, trauma informed services that are designed, developed and delivered by and for Indigenous women.
Child welfare redesign: Lastly, systemic change is required to keep Indigenous women and families safe and together. The child welfare system must be redesigned in a way that recognizes and honours the bond between mother and child and their right to choice of agency in their lives. This includes a wholistic community response that recognizes the entire urban Indigenous community and the hundreds of agencies that support Indigenous women each and every day. As part of this work, an innovative ‘Duty to Refer’ instead of a ‘Duty to Report’ model is needed to address the overrepresentation of Indigenous children in care.
It is our hope that the incoming government, no matter which party, will recognize the importance of working together to create better outcomes and safe spaces for Indigenous women and families in Ontario and beyond. We want to see a government that works together on one issue wholistically and this is Indigenous women’s safety.
We look forward to finding ways to work together with the incoming provincial government to advance reconciliation and support Indigenous women’s leadership, safety, and well-being. Women are the ones who hold the communities together and do the community work, and now is our time to create a lasting legacy that our grandchildren’s grandchildren can be proud of.
Cora McGuire-Cyrette, Executive Director
Ontario Native Women’s Association (ONWA)