Rachel Chakasim holds the Talking Stick while talking about the effects of the residential schools on Canada’s aboriginal women.
Holding an elaborately-carved Talking Stick used by Canadian West Coast First Nations for important gatherings, Rachel Chakasim told the story of how the now-defunct Indian Residential Schools, which she attended as a child, has contributed to ongoing violence against aboriginal women.
“It was at the residential schools that I saw violence for the first time,” said Chakasim, a status Indian from Attawapiskat First Nation, located north of Moosonee, Ont. “They always yelled at us, so I brought that with me.”
She also told the stories of her sister and two brothers who are still seeking healing from their experience at the schools, and of a cousin who was raped when she was 12 and later became an alcoholic. “We didn’t go (to the residential schools) by choice. We were taken away,” she said.
Chakasim spoke at a forum hosted March 5 at the UN Church Center in New York by the Anglican Consultative Council, and the World Council of Churches, and Canadian Anglicans affiliated with the International Anglican Women’s Network (IAWN).
The forum, which focused on “Violence and Indigenous Women,” was one of several parallel events hosted by NGOs at the 54th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (UNCSW) held March 1 to 12.
The Rev. Canon Alice Medcof, a member of the IAWN steering group, said the plight of indigenous women around the world was chosen as a focus because “it is an emerging issue.”
Aboriginal women from Fiji, South Pacific, and the United States also spoke at the forum, each taking turns holding the Talking Stick carved with an eagle’s head that the Canadian Anglicans had brought with them. The Talking Stick, which is passed from hand to hand between people sitting in a circle, is a traditional aboriginal symbol of respect for the telling and hearing of stories. It bestows speakers with an obligation to speak openly and honestly, and listeners to sit quietly and truly listen.
A common thread from their stories was how climate change, mining and other activities have taken a toll on indigenous communities, where women are the life-bearers and caregivers. “The dominant theme was the white man’s penchant for raping the earth to get the goods out,” said Canon Medcof.
In a sharing session at the Toronto-based national office of the Anglican Church of Canada, Chakasim said being at the event and at the UNCSW meeting made her realize that “no matter what nationality, we are faced with similar issues of violence, of being put down and disrespected.” Women “need to get empowered,” she added.
This year’s UNSCW focused on the 15-year review of the implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action on Advancing women’s rights around the world.
In its written country report, Canada acknowledged that while it has made some strides in improving lives for Canadian women, disparities continue to exist, particularly for aboriginal women.
For instance, the good news is that the number of employed Canadian women has increased, the report said. The bad news is that they are “still significantly over-represented in low-paid and non-standard jobs.” Women earned an average of 84 per cent of men’s earnings in 2007.
“Women’s lower lifetime earnings translate into lower savings, and women continue to be over-represented (53 per cent) among those living with low incomes in Canada,” said the report. Groups that are particularly vulnerable are aboriginal women (36 per cent), immigrant women (23 per cent), and women with disabilities (25 per cent).
Young women and aboriginal women experience the highest rates of violence. “The spousal homicide rate for aboriginal women is more than eight times the rate for non-aboriginal women and aboriginal women are three times more likely to experience spousal violence,” said the report.
The report acknowledged that the residential schools continue to have an impact on aboriginal culture, heritage and community. It said that the federal government has acted with aboriginal women and groups to develop family violence prevention programs and services on reserve.
About 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Metis children were taken from their communities and force d to attend state-funded but church-run residential schools from the mid-19th century into the 1970s.