Throughout history, Indigenous innovators have been finding sustainable solutions to local challenges, supporting their communities and empowering women’s leadership. For the past few centuries, colonial structures — from imposed patriarchal attitudes to residential schools — disrupted traditions and created systemic barriers to prosperity. The impacts of this are still very real in Canada, as shown by the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women.
In Northern Canada, women and young girls are almost three times more likely to be victims of a violent crime than women in the south, and Indigenous women are three times more likely than non-Indigenous women to report spousal violence. There are many reasons behind the rate of domestic violence in Canada’s North, such as the racism and trauma endured by Indigenous communities.
COVID-19 has exacerbated domestic violence, with organizations across the country responding to an increase in demand for support services. Based in the Yukon, Liard Aboriginal Women’s Society (LAWS) — which provides social services, education and advocacy to improve the lives of the Indigenous Kaska Dena Community — has received funding from Health Canada and the Yukon Government. For the past 20 years, LAWS has been providing programs to address intergenerational trauma and gender-based violence, focusing on preserving traditions, restorative healing and gender-based empowerment.
Lockdown sees rise in domestic violence
During the pandemic, LAWS has been offering phone and digital conferencing counselling sessions to victims of domestic abuse, which were supported through the federal government’s Indigenous Service Funds to address mental health needs during COVID-19. With increased pandemic-related stresses and a rise in gender-based violence, LAWS has seen a steady usage of the service. In April 2020, one in 10 Canadian women reported that they were highly concerned about the possibility of facing violence at home, with front-line service providers seeing a 20 to 30 percent increase in reported cases.
“Violence is a factor of isolation, because perpetrators isolate with victims,” says Ann Maje Raider, LAWS co-founder and executive director. “The big question is: where do victims go? They feel trapped… [so,] we provide support service from three professional psychologists, who are very familiar with our community,” Raider says.
As well as offering counselling sessions during lockdown, LAWS held an Anti-Violence Vigil and Solidarity March in June 2020 in response to the rise in violence against women and girls in the Kaska Dena community. The vigil also protested the failures of the legal system; in Northern Canada, there are often delays in the criminal court schedules, which becomes especially problematic for domestic violence cases, and especially during the pandemic. LAWS states that this can lead to the release of alleged offenders despite outstanding charges. Raider adds, “Even if [victims] have a no-contact order from the courts, it’s a small community. The perpetrator still finds a way to the woman.”
Delays are not the legal system’s only issues. “Oftentimes the victim’s life will fall apart if they report violence — the victim is blamed, and there is no perpetrator accountability,” Raider says, adding that “a mother will protect her children and not report, because oftentimes they report violence, and social services apprehend the children.”
The role of cultural relevance
Before a domestic violence case goes to court, it’s the local RCMP’s role to investigate the matter, and to connect the victim to social services. At such critical moments, it becomes imperative that the officer is able to act in an unbiased, culturally-educated manner. This is of extreme importance when members of the BIPOC community are involved, who otherwise may not feel safe calling the police for help.
The huge gaps in the legal system have led to feelings of distrust between Yukon’s Indigenous communities and the local authorities. From 1999 to 2010, there were five deaths of Indigenous people in the Yukon after contact with the RCMP. In 2010, following an inquest into the death of an Indigenous man who died in a cell at the Whitehorse RCMP detachment, and two police officers being acquitted of sexual assault in the Yukon Supreme court, the Ministry of Justice called for a public review of Yukon’s police force.
To help foster better relationships between Indigenous people and local authorities, LAWS launched the Together for Justice Protocol in 2013 with the local RCMP: a series of unique workshops focusing on violence against women, policing, colonialism and the residential schools. The program was a response to “a lot of dissatisfaction and anger at the RCMP in the Yukon,” says Raider.
For its workshops, LAWS collaborated with facilitators Dr. Allan Wade and Dr. Cathy Richardson of the Centre for Response-Based Practice in British Columbia. This practice takes an innovative, socially-just approach, addressing violence through direct counselling services, education, research and advocacy. “They had the RCMP go in a big circle, then they had some in the middle, pretending they were Indigenous women,” Raider says. The facilitator “asks them the question: ‘You’re an Indigenous woman now. What should we see happen in Indigenous communities?’ Then they would reverse it and have Indigenous women sitting in the circle, pretending they were RCMP.”
Raider says that at first, some members of the RCMP were uncomfortable. “I believe they thought we were there to bring up historical wrongs, but we were in there in the spirit of our culture, which was to share and to collaborate. After several workshops, it was nice to see everyone relax and show their vulnerability, which brought about rich ideas on better community policing for Indigenous communities.”
She adds, “A lot of the RCMP members felt that was the best training they’ve ever had in terms of understanding culture, understanding people. It’s a very, very powerful exercise.”
This practice shows just how crucial cultural relevance is to building respect and empathy. “It’s a game changer in the [policing] field,” says Raide. “Together for Justice was very deep in terms of sharing who we are, and the RCMP showing their vulnerable sides as human beings.”
At the end of the program, LAWS and the local RCMP signed a protocol committing to their work together. As an extension of this, in 2016, LAWS held a land-based program called the Culture Camp. “The Elders took [the RCMP] up to the mountains, showed them our ancestral lands and how we lived,” Raider says. “In the evenings, we talked about violence in our community, historical wrongs by the government, and the residential schools. They came away with a new perspective.”
The past few months have seen a push for police defunding as a result of police brutality in both the U.S. and Canada. “I would never advocate for defunding the police — however, what I would advocate for is better training on violence and sexual assault,” says Raider, who has recently co-authored letters to the Chief Commissioner of the RCMP, Brenda Lucki, requesting to see the RCMP’s training materials. “It is very evident that the RCMP aren’t well enough trained on understanding violence and sexualized violence,” Raider says.
Together for Justice educated the RCMP on these complex topics. “It helped to break some of the walls down,” Raider says. “It’s about community safety. We need each other. That’s where we would like to start — not to be critical of the local RCMP, but to be an agent with them to change, so that our women are better served by them, with dignity and respect.”
A lack of funding
Social service organizations can learn a lot from LAWS, from their community partnerships to their many programs, but Raider says the organization needs more funding. “Violence in our community is very high. There is an expectation that we should address it all, but we don’t have the resources. We have a very strong partnership with the Help and Hope for Families shelter, with Dena Keh Justice at the Liard First Nations Justice Department. We try to make things work as best as we can — but the system has failed.”
She continues, “Canada talks about Truth and Reconciliation. Trudeau ageed with the statements in the [calls for justice for Missing and Murdered Indigenous women and girls], that Canada has committed genocide. Through our work, we see that. It is often difficult with colonial structures to try and make substantial changes. The work [to support Indigenous women] needs to be grounded and rooted.”
Although LAWS has had many impactful projects over the years, Raider says their funding is limited to a per-project basis, making it difficult to sustain services over the long-term.”That’s what I heard for Missing and Murdered Indigenous women, all across Canada,” Raider continues. “Lots of women’s organizations are doing fantastic work. Lots of shelters are doing fantastic work. However, it’s always a struggle to get funding. That’s the crux of the whole issue. And when I say colonization, that’s state racism: not providing women with the funding we need.”
With its many important programs, LAWS has a large workload, but only enough funding for Raider and an office manager.
“Our vision is to have a Kaska Women’s Centre, [where] we can gather to connect with each other, practice our culture, have weekly lunches, and provide training,” Raider says. Between $615,000 to $3,500,000 is required for development. “We met with the Government of Canada in 2019 and presented them with our prospectus reports, but have not received any favorable response,” Raider says. LAWS is now considering approaching philanthropists for the project.
Looking to the next generation
Raider says there is so much LAWS could do to create lasting, generational change, if only given the funding to run its programs on a long-term basis. She gives the example of the Youth for Dignity program, addressing gender-based violence by giving youth at Watson Lake Secondary school the knowledge and the leadership skills needed to promote safety and justice for women and girls in the community. LAWS is currently training 15 anti-violence advocates to help lead the program. “These are young mothers who may have not finished high school, but have a desire, a passion to help their community,” Raider says. “If we had the money, we’d hire all of them and put them to work.”
As schools reopen, LAWS is preparing to continue the program. “We’re looking forward to engaging our youth again, because it’s all about the next generation,” Raider says. “I envision a day where if there’s a woman who was beaten, it would be the young men who would be up in arms, drumming and marching, because a sister has been hurt.”