December 6 should be the International Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women


In Canada, December 6, is the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women. In 1991, the Canadian government made December 6 the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women to commemorate the December 6, 1989, Montreal Massacre, also known as the École Polytechnique Massacre. On December 6, 1989, a man entered campus, sought and found a Women’s Studies class, separated the men and women, and killed 14 women, whom he identified as “feminists”. Those women were Geneviève Bergeron, Hélène Colgan, Nathalie Croteau, Barbara Daigneault, Anne-Marie Edward, Maud Haviernick, Maryse Laganière, Maryse Leclair, Anne-Marie Lemay, Sonia Pelletier, Michèle Richard, Annie St-Arneault, Annie Turcotte, Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz. Across Canada, people hold memorial services. Everyone in Canada knows of the Montreal Massacre, the worse mass shooting in the country’s history. But what about elsewhere? Where are the memorials for the 14 women, and for the horror of the event, in other countries? What is the geography of our compassion?

After the assault on the women of the École Polytechnique, rape laws were strengthened. Men formed the White Ribbon Campaign, which, according to the organization, is the world’s largest movement of men and boys working to end violence against women. The École Polytechnique established the Order of the White Rose, which created the White Rose Scholarship, a $30,000 prize given to a Canadian woman studying in an engineering Master’s or PhD program.

For days after the massacre, people brought white roses to lay at the site of bloodshed. It was a sea of white roses.

Michele Thibodeau-Deguire was the École Polytechnique’s first woman civil engineering graduate. She graduated in 1963. In 2013, when she was appointed Chair of the Board of Directors of the École Polytechnique, Michele Thibodeau-Deguire became the first woman to chair the Board. On Wednesday, she reflected on Canada’s National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women: “It was something that came out; people just wanted to show how they felt. And every year, white roses were brought here at the door of Polytechnique.” Along with the White Rose Scholarship, the Polytechnique sells white roses to contribute to a science camp for girls from marginalized communities. “From something horrible, something beautiful came out,” said Michele Thibodeau-Deguire.

Valerie Provost, a survivor of the Montreal Massacre, reflected, “In 1989, for me, for my classmates, everything was possible. We didn’t imagine that these doors could be shut, but that’s what Marc Lépine did. He slammed the door in front of us. My classmates will never enter the country of their dreams. No diplomas; no career; no professional achievements; no great love story; no children; no flourishing talents.”

Canadian feminist activist journalist Judy Rebick noted, “Today, rape is the only violent crime that has not declined to the degree that most other violent crimes have. In Canada, women reported 553,000 sexual assaults in 2014 according to Stats Canada. Fifty-three per cent of all women and 82 per cent of young women told pollsters that they experience sexual harassment in a 2017 Abacus poll. Levels of violence and harassment against Indigenous women, women of colour and women with disabilities are even higher. There has been a decline in domestic violence, but 32 women were killed by intimate partners so far this year in Ontario.” The Abacus report opens with numbers, “There are almost 15 million adult women in Canada and according to our latest survey, almost 8 million of them (53%) have experienced unwanted sexual pressure. The prevalence of this experience is highest among women under 45.”

For one day a year, across Canada, people discuss sexual violence, remember the names of the 14 women, remember the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, remember that the struggle continues. Why only Canadians? A review of major news outlets this past week has none in English, French or Spanish even mentioning the day. Canada remembers, the world ignores. What exactly is the geography of our compassion? Why must each nation, and each national community, be left to its own devices and ways of remembering? I live in the United States. Montreal is close; Canada is close, and yet, in the United States, there was no mention of the day. Commodities and capital flow across the border, in ever faster and increasing numbers. People move back and forth across the border as well. Why not memory? Why not the honoring of the martyrs of the war against women? It’s not only Canada’s war. December 6 should be the International Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women.

 

(Photo Credit 1: Feminist Current) (Photo Credit 2: Paul Chiasson / Canadian Press / CBC)

In Guatemala, 12 Q’eqchi’ women say NO to the violence of mining and may change the world

Angelica Choc, at the grave of her husband, Adolfo Ich Chamán

Angelica Choc, Margarita Caal Caal, Rosa Elbira Coc Ich, Olivia Asig Xol, Amalía Cac Tiul, Lucia Caal Chún, Luisa Caal Chún, Carmelina Caal Ical, Irma Yolanda Choc Cac, Elvira Choc Chub, Elena Choc Quib, Irma Yolanda Choc Quib are Q’eqchi’ Mayan women who live in El Estor, located on the northern shores of Lake Izabal, Guatemala’s largest lake. The Q’eqchi’ Mayan populations suffered during the long civil war, and then came “peace”, which meant further marginalization and exclusion, and then came the multinationals. There’s nickel in the ground under El Estor. Despite a ban on open pit mining, the Guatemalan government gave a 40-year lease and a promise of “stability” to a company owned by a Guatemalan company owned by a Canadian company owned by an even larger Canadian company, being Hudbay Minerals. “Stability” meant evicting the Q’eqchi from their ancestral lands. “Eviction” meant mass rape and murder.

On January 17, 2017, eleven Q’eqchi’ women were raped by security forces “removing” them from their homes and lands. In 2009, community leader, teacher and father of five Adolfo Ich Chamán was brutally murdered. His widow, Angelica Choc, sued Hudbay Minerals. In a separate case, Margarita Caal Caal, Rosa Elbira Coc Ich, Olivia Asig Xol, Amalía Cac Tiul, Lucia Caal Chún, Luisa Caal Chún, Carmelina Caal Ical, Irma Yolanda Choc Cac, Elvira Choc Chub, Elena Choc Quib, Irma Yolanda Choc Quib sued Hudbay Minerals for its involvement in their rape. In both cases, Hudbay Minerals was sued in Canadian courts. That makes these landmark, precedent setting cases. The cases are yet another testament to the courage and persistence of women saying NO to the seemingly inevitable devastation of mining corporations.

Canada is home to a majority of the world’s mining companies. In 2014, Canadian exploration and mining companies had overseas mining assets worth $170 billion in 100+ countries. When it comes to mining in Latin America, “Brand Canada” is toxic. According to a recent report, between 2000 and 2015, 28 Canadian mining companies were directly involved in 44 deaths, 30 of which were “targeted”; 403 injuries, 363 of which occurred during protests and “confrontations”; and 709 cases of “criminalization.” The violence was spread across Latin America: deaths happened in 11 countries; injuries in 13, criminalization in 12. Again, these figures are for Canadian mining companies in Latin America, 14 countries all told. Of those, only Argentina, Chile and Guyana had no deaths. Guatemala led the pack with 12 deaths; followed by Mexico with 8 and Colombia with 6.

Twelve Q’eqchi’ Mayan women refused to accept the violence as part of the natural order. They refused to submit to intimidation and worse. In 2010, with Toronto-based attorneys, the women initiated lawsuits in Canadian courts. Hudbay Minerals argued that the women had no standing in Canadian courts, and that the issue should be returned to Guatemala. In July 2013, the courts decided that the cases could go forward. This week, Margarita Caal Caal, Rosa Elbira Coc Ich, Olivia Asig Xol, Amalía Cac Tiul, Lucia Caal Chún, Luisa Caal Chún, Carmelina Caal Ical, Irma Yolanda Choc Cac, Elvira Choc Chub, Elena Choc Quib, Irma Yolanda Choc Quib gave their depositions. In January, Angelica Choc will be in Toronto to give hers.

Hudbay Minerals thought they could sweep the local women away and then bury them. They were wrong, just as mining companies have been wrong in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, South Africa, Peru, and so many other places. As Margarita Caal Caal explains, “In my community we are fighting for our lands and we will protect them until we die. I am here to tell you the truth.”

From left to right: Lucía Caal Ch’n, Luisa Caal Ch’n, Rosa Elbira Coc Ich, and Elena Choc Quib

 

(Photo Credit 1: Adriana Zehbrauskas/The New York Times) (Photo Credit 2: Vice/James Rodriguez/ Mimundo)

In Canada, Ava Williams sues to end police rape myth culture

Ava Williams today

For the past 20 months, The Globe and Mail has been investigating the ways police respond to sexual assault victims. On average, in one in five instances, the police decide that a sexual assault allegation is “unfounded.” Nationally, the rate for physical assault is one in ten. In London, Ontario, a university town, the rate of “unfounding” is 30 percent. One in three sexual assault allegations are rejected out of hand by police. In London, Ontario, less than 2% of physical assault charges are deemed unfounded. Ava Williams knows these mathematics in her bones, and has said, “No!” On Friday, Ava Williams sued the London Police Services Board and Detective Paul Gambriel for violating women’s Constitutional right to equality.

On October 16, 2010, Ava Williams was eighteen years old, a first-year student at Western University, in London, Ontario. She went to a party, got drunk, blacked out, woke up outside, naked, under a tree, and found a man sexually assaulting her. She told him to stop, she said No, he didn’t stop. People came, he ran away, two women came to her aid. They found clothes for her. She said she wanted to go home, and so they put her in a cab and sent her home. When Ava Williams arrived at her dormitory, her parents and the police were notified. She was taken to the hospital for a sexual assault examination. She was interviewed, preliminarily. Then she was sent to police headquarters for the full, and filmed, interview. That began in the early afternoon, twelve hours after the assault. Ava Williams had not slept or eaten, and was hung over. That’s how she was when she met Detective Paul Gambriel.

From the start, Detective Gambriel doubted Ava Williams’s account. He wonders how drunk she really was, how much she does and does not remember, how her clothes could have been removed without being torn. All of this, and more, according to Canadian law, is completely beside the point. Once intoxicated, a person cannot consent. Period. The law be damned, Detective Gambriel insinuated and intimated, and Ava Williams decided not to pursue the case. The police easily found the man who raped Ava Williams, and let him off with a warning. A warning. The case was closed as unfounded.

Later, Ava and her family protested the proceedings. The London Police Service Board investigated Detective Paul Gambriel, and found him innocent of any wrongdoing. Twice over, the case was closed.

Then The Globe and Mail investigated the situation of unfounded sexual assault cases, and highlighted this one. Initially, Ava Williams insisted on a kind of anonymity, only using her first name, but when the series began to run and she saw the response, she decided to come out, say her name fully, Ava Williams, and sue: “I feel like I’m in a place that I can use my voice to help other people.

Unlike an earlier similar case, in the 1990s, that of Jane Doe vs Toronto, Ava Williams is charging more than negligence. She’s protesting the violation of her civil rights as a woman. If she wins, the London Police Service Board will have to adopt the Philadelphia Model, in which advocates audit police case files looking for bias and missteps. According to Elaine Craig, a law professor specializing in sex-assault and constitutional law, “If it was litigated all the way up to the Supreme Court of Canada and the Supreme Court concluded that there was a constitutional obligation on the part of the police to adopt the Philadelphia Model, that would have massive ramifications for police services – that’s shooting for the stars. But I think just bringing a claim of this sort is groundbreaking, regardless of the outcome because … it’s framing the issue as a matter of constitutionality – as a fundamental right.”

Women, as women have a constitutional right to safety and well-being. You know what’s unfounded? 30 percent of sexual assaults are unfounded compared to 2 percent of physical assaults. You know what’s unfounded? That Ava Williams has had to go to heroic lengths to argue for simple decency and equality. You know what’s unfounded? A State that abandons women.

(Photo Credit: The Globe and Mail / Galit Rodan)

Yukon First Nation women water protectors organize to save the Peel Watershed, the planet … and our soul

Protect the Peel

Today, March 22, World Water Day, Canada’s Supreme Court heard a case concerning the fate of the Peel River Watershed and of the three Yukon First Nations who live with the river. This case has gone through the courts for three years, but it has gone through the land for centuries. First Nation women water protectors decided enough was way too much, and they’ve organized, for the water, for their nations and communities, for the planet, and for our soul.

For Roberta Joseph, Chief of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, the struggle engages betrayal and redemption: “Six rivers flow from the Yukon’s northern mountains down through boreal forest, tundra and wetlands to the Peel River, which runs north to the Arctic Ocean. Along the way, these rivers drain 68,000 square kilometres, an area larger than Nova Scotia. The Peel Watershed is intimately known by three Yukon First Nations—the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, the First Nation of Na-Cho Nyäk Dun, and Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation—and the Tetlit Gwich’in in the Northwest Territories, who have hunted, harvested, and lived on the land and the rivers for millennia. The parties ended up in court due to the Yukon government’s betrayal of its agreements with the three First Nations. In 1973, Yukon Chiefs presented Canada with the historic document Together Today For Our Children Tomorrow, convincing the federal government to begin negotiating a modern-day treaty with Yukon First Nations.

“Today, most Yukon First Nations have reached agreements with the Yukon and Canadian governments. The First Nations whose traditional territory includes parts of the Peel River watershed signed their Final Agreements in the 1990s. In these agreements, First Nations yielded control of much of their traditional territory in exchange for a meaningful role in land-use planning for these settlement lands and guaranteed surface and subsurface rights to smaller fractions of their traditional territory.”

In 2004, the Yukon government established a land use commission to consider the disposition of the Peel Watershed. In 2011, the commission issued its final report. According to Roberta Joseph, “The ‘Final Recommended Land Use Plan’ called for 80 per cent protection of the watershed (55 per cent permanent protection, 25 per cent interim protection), with 20 per cent open to roads and industrial development. First Nations have always called for 100 per cent protection of the watershed, but accepted this compromise. Then, the betrayal occurred.”

In July 2014, the Yukon government released its own report, without consultation with First Nations, and it called for 29 per cent protection, and leaving the remaining 71 per cent open to “development”. There are currently nearly 8000 mining claims waiting for the floodgates to open. In 2014, the Yukon First Nations joined with conservationist groups CPAWS Yukon and the Yukon Conservation Society and sued the government.

As Roberta Joseph explains, “We do not want the government to carve up the Peel Watershed with roads and industry. We do not want the government to be rewarded for betrayal with a second chance to overturn the collaborative, democratic land-use planning process. The Final Agreements are supposed to be a meaningful partnership, and the Yukon government did not honour the spirit of these agreements. That is why we appealed to the highest court in the land.”

Elaine Alexie, a Tetlit Gwich’in First Nation member, adds, “What’s most precious to us is the water. If anything should happen to that water, it will directly affect us … I spent half my childhood in the Peel. I see it as a place that I have a connection to as a Tetlit Gwich’in woman. Once a year I go up the Peel, because it’s such a part of who we are.”

Roberta Joseph agrees, “The Peel Watershed is a place where the rivers run clear, the herds of caribou are healthy, and grizzlies have the room to roam. Please visit www.protectpeel.ca to learn more about this irreplaceable landscape and how you can help support the campaign to protect it.”

Roberta Joseph

 

(Photo Credit 1: The Guardian / Tyler Kuhn) (Photo Credit 2: CBC News / Cheryl Kawaja)

Is the disappearance of solidarity our most imminent threat?

Notre-Dame Basilica

Notre-Dame Basilica

On the morning of November 9, 2016, many NWSA members packed their bags and went to Montreal to attend the National Women Studies Association conference. I was one of them. Our families and friends joked, “Please come back,” because for several weeks, Americans who feared a Trump presidency swore they would leave the country if the unthinkable happened. The unthinkable did happen. And I, along with my fellow members, had to somehow get our dispirited selves together and make the trip.

Arriving in Montreal felt like a breath of fresh air: we were greeted by narrow streets, ivy covered brick walls, flowers on the balconies, the sound of French, French cuisine, Chinatown, Notre Dame. The conference focused on the theme of decolonizing, the tensions facing indigenous communities, transnational views of political issues, and so on.

On Saturday, my friends from the South Asian caucus and an African-American professor went for lunch in the old town and walked up to Notre Dame. A woman who was at the entrance said the church was closed; it had closed just 5 minutes back. We asked if we could just step in for a few minutes since we were leaving back to the U.S. the next day. She said in a hostile tone that the church was closed and would open for Mass at 5 pm. So we spent some time taking pictures and went to the gift shop adjoining the church. The woman there said she would be closing in 10 minutes. She repeated this a few times. I said, “We heard,” and she said, “in case you are caught off guard.” I was surprised at her choice of words. One of my friends bought a tiny statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and we left feeling we were not welcome.

My friend Fawzia, a fan of Leonard Cohen, wanted to stay for Mass where a tribute was being paid to him. The rest of us left back to the hotel. Later that evening, a traumatized Fawzia called us and we ran to meet her in the conference center. She was visibly shaken. She said that after we had left, she had hung around the steps of the cathedral for a while and went up to the guard who asked her to come back in 15 minutes, and that the Mass will be in French. So Fawzia stopped at a store across the church and bought something and went back after a few minutes. The guard again intoned that the Mass will be in French. At this point, a stream of people were entering the church. When Fawzia joined the line, the guard stopped her and said “Not you. The Mass is in French.” At this point Fawzia spoke to her in French that she was planning to stay for the Mass and why was she letting the white people enter but not her. Another guard then joined her and came close to her with his hand up and told her to go away. Fawzia immediately said she would not and why were they being racist. A third woman joined the guards and blocked Fawzia’s way. The first guard said she found her aggressive and the second guard threatened to call the police. At this point Fawzia said they could call the police if they wanted. She took out her camera and began taking their pictures. The first guard quickly shielded her face. The other two continued to block the entrance. People who witnessed the scene passed by even though Fawzia said loudly to them that she was not being allowed into the church and only white people were being let in.

She took a cab and burst into tears and told the cab driver what happened and wondered if this was what Montreal was like. The cab driver said he was sorry she had this experience.

Our collective illusion that Canada was somehow going to be a reprieve from our fear of the beginning of the nightmare that had unfolded in the U.S. was just that—an illusion. The reality, as our Canadian feminist friends reminded us, was the history of white supremacy in Canada and the U.S. alike. Canada was also fighting the fracking war; immigrants who were people of color have had a rough history there; indigenous populations continue to face a wall that Fawzia and her friends were up against. The wall is that of white hegemony; the Anglo-French war of old resurfaces from time to time in Montreal and immigrants get caught in its midst.

The hands that pushed her away are the hands that push away migrants heading into European countries, the hands that push away the disenfranchised, the impoverished, the asylum seekers, the refugees. It is important to recognize the wave of fascism that we are currently seeing in the U.S. –with the Trump Presidency being heavily endorsed by the KKK and neo Nazi and white supremacist groups—is now giving the nod to right wing forces in France, Belgium, Germany, and Hungary. Turkey has already noted the progress of demagoguery in the U.S. and is engaged in a wave of arrests of journalists and intellectuals. Putin is happy that he has an ally. The makers of Brexit also have in Trump an ally so the unwanted minorities can be deported or eliminated. Transnationally, racism and xenophobia are ruling out inclusion and democratic processes.

The following morning, at 7:30, a few members of NWSA and the local South Asian women’s group held a protest outside Notre Dame. The held a pink sari as a banner on which they had pinned the sign of the South Asian Women’s Community Center and signs that read “Love Not Hate,” while one of the members took pictures and a video to be sent to media outlets. Fortunately, the protest ended peacefully. There was no police presence or arrests.

Those of us from abroad may want to ponder what it means to protest in a foreign country; what it means for a conference whose headquarters is in a foreign country to show its support to its members who have encountered racism at the hands of locals; what would be the result if police did indeed arrest protesters on the basis that they are foreign and are disturbing the peace, just as it is currently happening in Turkey and is now looming as a threat in Arizona toward undocumented immigrants who are protesting; why none of the bystanders and the people entering the church intervened, and if the disappearance of solidarity is our most imminent threat; the hegemony of the U.S. over Canada that distorts the picture of racism against a U.S. citizen of color, which has played out all over the world against men and women of color in contested sites in the Middle East.

 

(Photo Credit: Montreal Gazette / Marie France Coallier)

Canada built a special hell for women: the Nova Institution for Women

Camille Strickland-Murphy, left, and Veronica Park, right

On April 24, 2015, Veronica Park died in the Nova Institution for Women. On July 28, 2015, Camille Strickland-Murphy killed herself in the Nova Institution for Women, committed suicide. On October 31, 2006, Ashley Smith, a “troubled teenager,” was shifted from youth custodial services to a federal women’s prison, the Nova Institution for Women, in Truro, Nova Scotia. From there, over the next year, Smith was transferred 17 times, and subjected throughout to full body constraint, shackles, and extended solitary confinement. On October 19, 2007, Ashley Smith hanged herself while seven guards watched and did nothing. The State was “shocked”. Some said, “Ms. Smith’s death should haunt Canada.” It didn’t and, as the corpses of Veronica Park and Camille Strickland-Murphy demonstrate, it hasn’t. The death of women prisoners haunts absolutely nothing. Last week, the families of Veronica Park and Camille Strickland-Murphy sued Canada’s federal correctional service for “negligence.” Rather call it torture. This play unfolds in three acts: the deaths, the after-death, and the darkness gathering.

Act One: Veronica Park and Camille Strickland-Murphy die.

Veronica Park entered Nova Institution for Women on August 14, 2014. Her family says she suffered from mental health issues, which they attribute to having been sexually and physically abused as an adult. She took to self-medicating and became addicted. In prison, she continued to self-medicate. Prison staff responded to her “situation” by throwing her, three times, into “segregation”, where she spent a total of 22 days. In the weeks before her death, Veronica Park went to the clinic seven times. She was clearly sick. On April 23, 2015, Veronica Park went twice to the clinic, where the nurse recorded a sore throat, cough, body aches and shortness of breath, and sent her on her way. The next day, Veronica Park was found incapacitated, gasping for air. She was taken to hospital, where she was diagnosed with a serious case of pneumonia. By 4:30 pm, Veronica Park was dead.

Camille Strickland-Murphy entered Nova Institution for Women on November 10, 2014. Strickland-Murphy had been in Nova before, at the age of 19. At that time, she had been beaten twice, by other inmates. Her family says that Strickland-Murphy’s mental illness began then, with untreated concussions. She began having seizures, fainting spells, and periods of loss of consciousness. The State responded with “segregation”, seven times totaling 23 days. When Camille Strickland-Murphy returned to Nova, her condition was worse. She was engaging in self-harm, which, again, resulted in segregation In February, she cut her face, and was found in a pool of blood. In March, she set her leg and room on fire. On July 20, she attempted suicide, and was sent to hospital. She was then returned to the Nova Institution for Women. On July 28, Camille Strickland-Murphy killed herself.

Who really killed Veronica Park and Camille Strickland-Murphy?

Act Two: The State abuses the families of Veronica Park and Camille Strickland-Murphy.

When Veronica Park and Camille Strickland-Murphy asked, directly and indirectly, for help, they were sent into segregation. Segregation means no family contact and that one’s security changes from medium to maximum. The families say they were never told about their loved ones’ deteriorating conditions. No one in either family knew how bad the situation was. How could they, when Veronica Park and Camille Strickland-Murphy were in and out of “segregation”? After the deaths, the State met the families’ various requests for information, both on what happened and what follow-ups were going on, with stone dead silence. According to Kim Pate, of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, when the Park family asked for more information, “they were told it was protected. It is outrageous.” There’s no outrage here, and Ashley Smith does not haunt the Canadian justice or prison system. The State kills women in prison, and then “protects” information. According to the family, the investigation into Veronica Park’s death didn’t even begin for a full four months.

Act Three: The darkness gathers.

Howard Sapers, the federal prisons ombudsman, released a report last week on how Canadian prisons deal with families after prisoners have died “in custody.” Investigative reports are consistently blacked out. Sometimes whole pages are missing. This repeats the treatment prior to the death, when the prisons don’t inform families. Prisons treat the families callously and worse. One man told the prison he would be coming to view his family member’s body on a certain day. When he arrived, he was told, for the first time, that his family member had been cremated. Later, without any notice, the ashes were couriered to him: “They cremated him and they sent him by Purolator…sending someone in the mail…it’s just not right.” It’s just not right. Sapers’ report is titled In the Dark.

Ashley Smith died, or was killed, nine years ago. In the interim, the darkness has gathered and thickened. In the name of Veronica Park, Camille Strickland-Murphy, and Ashley Smith, no more red flags, reports, inquiries or commissions. It’s time, it’s way past time, for action. Close the Nova Institution for Women. Close all places where segregation and isolation are the protocols for healing. Build spaces that are actually for women. Anything else is just not right.

A report to a family on their loved one’s death

 

(Photo Credit 1: CBC News) (Photo Credit 2: News 1130 / Office of the Correctional Investigator)

We all killed Ashley Smith, Kinew James and Terry Baker, and it’s not over yet

On October 19, 2007, 19-year-old Ashley Smith died by self strangulation while seven prison guards in a Canadian women’s prison, Grand Valley Institution for Women, followed orders, watched and did nothing. By doing nothing is meant committed homicide. That was a decision of a coroner’s jury, December 19, 2013, six years and two months later. As a result of Ashley Smith’s murder, Howard Sapers, the Correctional Investigator of Canada, issued Risky Business: An Investigation of the Treatment and Management of Chronic Self-Injury Among Federally Sentenced Women – Final Report. This also appeared in 2013. Risky Business focused on eight federally sentenced women prisoners “selected for this investigation because they were deemed to be the most high risk and chronic self-injurious women in the federally sentenced women population.” Kinew James was one of those women. Kinew James was in and out of solitary confinement. Kinew James was interviewed in the middle of 2012. In January 2013, Kinew James died, in custody, because nobody answered her pleas for help. An inquest into Kinew James’ death was supposed to start in April 2016, but it’s been indefinitely postponed. Terry Baker was another of the eight most high risk and chronically self-injurious women. On Monday, July 4, in Grand Valley Institution for Women, Terry Baker killed herself. She was pronounced dead on Wednesday. Canada claims to be shocked, and yet for nine years now the State has “done nothing”, killing woman after woman with absolute impunity. What happened to Terry Baker? Kinew James? Ashley Smith? Absolutely nothing. After scathing reports and damning juries, the murder of women living with mental illness continues unabated. Despite sincere, or not, expressions of concern, suicide among women prisoners is part of the plan. It’s the new normal, and it’s too late to protest shock or concern. Shut down the segregation units, once and for all.

Kim Pate, Executive Director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, said: “We know that she was in restraints a number of times; we suspect there were uses of force, but we don’t know that for certain and we have asked the correctional investigator to also look into it … It’s a terrible tragedy for her family, her friends, the women she served time with. It’s a tragedy all around and it’s a travesty, and it should not be happening in this country. It needs to stop. I hope the minister pays attention to this and makes a decision very quickly to end the use of segregation. Terry was a very sweet, gentle young woman except when it came to herself. She had been very self-destructive and self-harming for a number of years,” said Pate. “She’s someone who, when I last saw her in Saskatchewan, she was actually doing quite well. She was involved in a dog therapy program. From our perspective, [this] underscores exactly why we have the position of no women in segregation, particularly those with mental health issues.”

Other prisoners said she was kind and courageous, but in need of help.

The week before her death, Baker had complained to prison advocates about being forcibly bound to her bed for prolonged periods of time. She had a history of self-harming, and a revolving door relationship with solitary confinement. Rosemary Redshaw, former chaplain at Grand View, remembered Terry Baker: “I really liked her. She had a childlike sense of humor and was great to get along with. In the midst of her struggle, she seemed to get help in the time I was there.” Redshaw added that Baker should not have been in prison or in isolation.

None of this matters. Terry Baker is dead, and nothing will bring her back. Her planned death will now be desecrated by a series of reports and recriminations, just like the deaths of Ashley Smith and Kinew James. Remember this: we all killed Ashley Smith, Kinew James and Terry Baker, and it’s not over yet. Close segregation units. Don’t send people who need help to prison. Invest in mental health and wellbeing. It’s not magic.

Terry Baker’s birthday would have been July 15. She would have turned 31

 

(Photo Credit: Office of the Correctional Investigator Canada)

Judy Da Silva: “The bottom line is the river has to be cleaned up”

Judy Da Silva is the environmental health coordinator for the Grassy Narrows First Nation, also known as the Asabiinyashkosiwagong Nitam-Anishinaabeg, in northern Ontario. Judy Da Silva is 54 years old, a mother, grandmother, and activist. Her story is the story of contemporary Grassy Narrows, a tale of industrial violence followed by State brutality with a stream throughout of community activism, organizing and hope.

In 1962, the year Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published, Reed Paper, in Dryden, Ontario, began dumping untreated mercury waste into the Wabigoon River. By 1970, the mill had dumped more than 9,000 kilograms, or close to 10 tons (US), of untreated mercury into the waters. Just downstream lay Grassy Narrows, an Ojibwa community that had been on the Wabigoon and English Rivers for centuries. For centuries, they had relied on fishing as a food source and a cultural and economic base. For centuries, the people of Grassy Narrows had prospered. Then the mercury came, the fish turned to poison, and the mercury levels of the Grassy Narrows First Nation population hit astronomical heights. Members of the community recognized early on that they were suffering new and catastrophic symptoms.

Judy Da Silva is 54 years old, and so she was born in that fateful year, 1962. In an interview this week, Judy Da Silva noted: “I have mercury poisoning. It affects me physically. I’m like the age of the mercury poisoning. I was in my mother’s womb when the poison was being poured into the river … It’s like a slow degenerative form of dying … My mom is still alive and she says they roamed the land freely. They fished, they hunted, they lived off the land. They hardly went to the store. They were very independent economically and socially. Now, it’s like our hands have been severed.”

Since the 1970s, a team of Japanese scientists has been studying and documenting the mercury poisoning in Grassy Narrows. Others have as well. The contamination is considered “a prominent example” by scholars, activists, and just plain folk. And since the 1970s, the Canadian government and the provincial government of Ontario have done absolutely nothing to clean up the river. This week a new report said that the river can be and should be cleaned up. Ontario has a new regime, which seems to be more committed to the rights of indigenous populations, and to the need to address the centuries long violence committed against indigenous people. Will the new provincial government clean up the river?

Thursday, over a thousand people, led by Grassy Narrows teenagers, marched through Toronto, demanding justice. Judy Da Silva was among them, having returned from Geneva where she made a case before the United Nations, arguing Canada had violated the Grassy Narrows First Nation’s right to access to clean water. Back in Toronto, Da Silva is of two minds. On one hand, “We are not valuable enough to be considered. We, as Indigenous people, are expendable. And that’s why the poison is allowed to be still in the river. Money is more important than us.” On the other hand, “I always gotta be hopeful. I can’t be a victim. I gotta be a powerful person.”

In the end, “the bottom line is the river has to be cleaned up.” Judy Da Silva joined the women, elders, teenagers, and everyone in the Grassy Narrows First Nation to say: “No more fancy words, no more studies”. They say NO to the murderous racist devaluation of their lives. They say the time is NOW.

(Photo Credit: Legal Defense Fund for Judy Da Silva)

Ghomeshi’s trial: Men are complicated, women are liars

Humans are complicated beings; they can surprise, anger, disappoint, amaze or frustrate you by what they do and how they react. That is a common and acceptable narrative when one refers to “men”. The narrative changes and complexity is viewed differently when women are the subject of the talk.

In my years of working with perpetrators and survivors of domestic and sexual violence, I have witnessed many women who have felt compelled to ‘be nice’ to their perpetrator. Many often apologize, authorize contact and seek to get back with him. This reaction to trauma is the result of a ‘social conditioning’ that most women are taught from an early age, which they have internalized to be deferential, fix problems, and avoid conflict at all costs. It leads them to second guessing and undervaluing their own experiences with a question hovering over their heads most of the time: “Maybe I’m overreacting?”

If a woman’s reaction to trauma is anything less than “perfect” behaviour deemed suitable for a victim, people are inclined to dismiss it. And when we realize women’s passivity in dealing with trauma and having difficulty with confrontation, we get frustrated and turn on them. We ask them: Why did you stay in touch? How bad could it have possibly been?

So for Lucy DeCouture, the only one of the three women who was publicly named in the trial of Jian Ghomeshi – the former CBC host who was acquitted of one charge of choking to overcome resistance and four charges of sexual assault related to three women, on the basis of ‘inconsistencies’ and ‘deception’- everything came back to one big question: Why did she keep in touch with Jian?

Sometimes, in the moment, says Jaclyn Friedman, “It’s less painful to convince ourselves that we made a poor decision and shouldn’t blame whoever did it because we don’t want to internalize the violation. You then reach for the niceness training as a way to express this denial. Especially as a woman, blaming yourself is really familiar. That script is super handy.” One can see this pattern in DeCoutere’s testimony when she told the packed Toronto courtroom: “As I say this now, it’s outrageous that I stayed and did not leave but that was my reaction.” Later in an interview she said that after giving her testimony she felt like she had to “go up to every person in the world and apologize for ruining the case.”

Among other troubling aspects, the trial of Jian Ghomeshi exposed a double standard, that deep down we have all been taught that a complicated man is a just a complex human being, but a complicated woman is a liar. We need to draw on our innate understanding that no one can be a perfect victim, people are complex, trauma is complicated and reactions to it differ from person to person in different circumstances and should not be scrutinized from outside.

Carissima Mathen, an associate professor of law at the University of Ottawa, says that the frustration and outrage spawned by the judge’s decision is understandable: “Sexual assault law has been stained by sexist myths, unsupportable evidentiary rules, and skepticism of women’s basic truthfulness. Owing largely to the efforts of feminist advocates, Canadian law has formally shed itself of many of those deficiencies. Yet, translating rules into effective enforcement has proved damnably difficult.” However, some have concluded that the judge was left with no choice but to acquit Ghomeshi as a result of the damaging cross-examination of the complainants.

It should be highlighted that in his verdict, Judge Horkins said that while the evidence in the case raises a reasonable doubt, it is not the same as deciding in any positive way that these events never happened. It is also equally important to keep in mind that during the trial Ghomeshi’s lawyer, Marie Heinen, did not ask his accusers the single most important question that was at the centre of this trial: whether Ghomeshi actually assaulted them.

 

(Photo Credit: Kenny Mason / News 1130)

Kinew James? Maureen Mandijarra? Just more Aboriginal women’s deaths in custody

Kinew James

Kinew James and Maureen Mandijarra were two Aboriginal women who went into custody and never came out. They are part of the Commonwealth of Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women. Canada killed Kinew James; Australia killed Maureen Mandijarra. And the abuse of these two women doesn’t end with their death. Kinew James died in January 2013, and her inquest is finally going to take place in April 2016. Maureen Mandijarra died in custody in 2012, and her inquest is only now taking place. The State honors Aboriginal women with brutality.

Kinew James was a “troubled” young woman. She entered prison at 18, sentenced to six years. That doubled to twelve, thanks to “misbehavior” and to her deteriorating mental health. Subsequent years were a blur of self harm and attempted suicide; frequent relocation as one institution after another failed to help her; and long and frequent periods of solitary confinement.

But she was improving. Kinew James succeeded in graduating from high school while in prison, and, at the age of 35, was looking forward to getting out and moving on. On Saturday, January 19, 2013, Kinew James talked with her mother, and all seemed well. By evening, she was complaining of pains. That night, moaning and crying, she pressed the distress button … five times. The guards ignored her pleas, and are reported to have turned off or muted her alarm. After an hour, a nurse finally went in, and found Kinew James unresponsive. The nurse then waited 12 to 15 minutes to declare a medical emergency.

James died in the hospital, but she was killed long before the ambulance took her away.

Maureen Mandijarra was arrested for public drinking on the evening of November 29, 2012. She died in police custody the next day. Mandijarra was 44 years old. The police brought her in and dumped her on the floor in a police cell. She lay there perfectly still for at least six hours. She never moved, and no one, other than a cellmate, noticed, because no one ever checked. Over three years later, the inquest is now taking place. It’s taken so long because provincial and local police dragged their feet for years, and never provided any reports until recently.

Kinew James’ and Maureen Mandijarra’s stories are not the same story. What is the same narrative is that of State abuse of Aboriginal women. Like the United States, Canada and Australia have invested heavily in the devaluation of Aboriginal women’s bodies and lives. The rising rates of incarceration married to the plummeting budgets for assistance say as much. So do the women’s corpses, decade after decade, year after year. For Aboriginal women, the histories and lived experiences of colonial occupation and violence not only continue to this day. They are intensifying. Since the 1990s, the number of Aboriginal deaths in custody in Australia has skyrocketed, through one Royal Commission on Aboriginal Deaths in Custody after another.

State practices and policies generally criminalize mental illness, alcohol abuse, and poverty; and add additional punishments if the subjects at hand are women. For Aboriginal women who live with mental illness, alcohol or drug dependency, poverty, the sentence is death.

(Photo Credit: CBC News