The Canadian Press
Breaking the cycle of violence against native women will require a giant mental shift that includes rethinking approaches to the environment, language and human rights, said several prominent aboriginal leaders at a conference near Montreal.
With statistics pointing to alarming rates of sexual violence on Canada's reserves, delegates at an international conference for native women say fundamental cultural changes are needed before those numbers begin to drop.
"It's a constant struggle to have to address these issues in our community," said Beverley Jacobs, president of the Native Women's Association of Canada, said at the meeting of the Indigenous Women of the Americas.
"Women have been specific targets of violence since colonialization," she said Tuesday.
More than 250 native women from 17 countries have gathered for the conference on the Kahnawake Mohawk reserve, just across the St. Lawrence River from Montreal.
According to a 2006 report by the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, aboriginals living on reserves were several times more likely to be sexually assaulted than other people.
Bev Oda, federal minister for the status of women, announced recently that Ottawa would spend $56 million over five years on family violence prevention programs.
Jacobs joined panellists from Canada, the United States and Colombia to discuss methods of dealing with violence against native women.
While some offered concrete proposals, such as continued legal challenges and increased funding, others suggested that wouldn't be enough to counter years of systemic abuse.
Anik Sioui, a Huron-Wendat from Quebec, was among those calling for new cultural perspectives.
"There was culture shock between the European and aboriginal cultures," she said.
"The first role of the woman [in aboriginal society] is to care for the children … and she has been deprived of this role," Sioui added, pointing to child-care services that take aboriginal children from troubled families and raise them in non-native environments.
"That is the greatest violence you can commit against a woman."
Jacobs, a Mohawk from Caledonia, Ont., went further, linking careless attitudes towards the environment to a lack of respect for women.
"The raping of our Mother Earth is the same issue that is impacting our women, the rapes and the violence that are occurring," she said.
Others maintained that their perception of violence has been shaped by their communities using non-traditional languages like English and French.
"When we use those languages we have to be mindful of the meaning of those words that we use, because those words have been used … to colonize us," said Peggy Bird, an attorney with the U.S.-based Native Women Advocacy Center.
"We don't have words for rape, sexual violence, domestic violence. Those are new words for us."
But Bird also stressed it is important for native groups not to only turn inward to solve their problems.
"Not everyone out there who is not indigenous is bad," she said. "We have a lot of allies out there who are wanting to help us."
As for Jacobs, the ultimate solution to violence against native women lies in a return to more traditional forms of governance.
"We have to reclaim our traditional roles as decision-makers."
The conference wraps up on Wednesday.
© The Canadian Press, 2007