Activism, Aboriginal Women & Alternative Ideas

Andrea Smith Speaks At ConU

  • Photo Riley Sparks

Violence against aboriginal women is a problem in Canada, and according to Andrea Smith, it is not one that can be understood, studied or solved as an issue in and of itself.
“Sexual violence is a tool by which Native people become inherently dirty, and by extension inherently rapeable,” she said, further explaining that a similar phenomenon occurs with Native land.

Smith is an intellectual, a feminist, an anti-violence activist, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, and an associate professor at the University of California, and she is considered an expert on indigenous women’s rights.

She believes that violence against aboriginal women is intrinsically related to colonial violence—and that an inability to link the two is a roadblock to progress. Smith spoke to a jam-packed auditorium in Concordia’s Hall Building last Friday, giving a talk titled Violence Against Native Women and Struggles for the Land.

The event was jointly organized by activist groups Missing Justice and Concordia’s 2110 Centre for Gender Advocacy, as part of the centre’s two-week-long series, Another Word for Gender: An Intro to Feminist Action and Organizing.

Smith explained that governments and “the state” are often portrayed as a solution to both the issue of violence against Native women and colonial violence, when they are actually at the root of the problem.

She identified a disparity in the distribution of wealth as a fundamental issue with today’s society, which results in a phenomenon she called the “pyramid system.” This reality is such that 95 per cent of the population owns five per cent of the wealth in the United States, and the numbers aren’t much different in Canada.

“The bad news is that they have all the money and the guns—but the good news it that there are a lot more of us then them,” she said. “That is our strength: the power of people.”

But Smith pointed out that the “sneaky” five per cent have found a way from preventing the 95 per cent from banding together.

“They come to an indigenous group and say, ‘Hey, you look cool and interesting and spiritual to us, so if you can prove how cool and interesting and spiritual you are, we will recognize you, give you a grant, give you money, give you something that you asked for.’”

The catch is that this group must then prove that they are cooler, more spiritual and more interesting and oppressed than the others, thus creating a culture of competition rather than camaraderie among the oppressed.

In acknowledging this shortcoming, Smith explained that it is participation from the masses that is needed to instigate change.

She pointed out that activism doesn’t necessarily require hundreds of hours of one’s time—all it takes is one hour each from hundreds of people. She continued to say that no one needs to completely separate themselves from corporate institutions, but rather that we simply need to strive for alternative ideas and solutions.

“It’s really just trial and error. People feel like they have to wait for instructions, but you really just need to go for it,” she said.

Maya Rolbin-Ghanie, who spoke on behalf of Missing Justice, a grassroots organization that meets, plans events, and pressures the government on issues related to missing and murdered aboriginal women, said one of the organization’s goals is to draw the links between native women and the endless struggles for land between First Nations of Canada and the Canadian government.

“When someone like Andrea Smith comes and draws a very large number of people the way she did today, the information gets taken in more widely, and can change the way a more diverse group thinks and interacts with the world,” she said.

Bianca Mugyenyi, the programming and campaigns coordinator at the 2110 Centre for Gender Advocacy, was personally inspired by Smith and her idea that activism should be accessible and practiced by everyone.

“Her approach is really intersectional. She looks at problems from so many different perspectives—and I think that is something really powerful.”

But regardless of Mugyenyi, Rolbin-Ghanie and a slew of audience members describing Smith and her ideas as inspirational, she herself says otherwise.

“I don’t think I’m particularly interesting,” Smith says. “I mean, I don’t see myself as being particularly significant. I’ve just listened to cool people that have listened to other cool people. It’s really together that we become inspirational.”

The Sixth Annual Sisters in Spirit Memorial March and Vigil for Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women will take place Oct. 4 at 6:00 p.m. at Cabot Square, on the corner of Atwater St. and Ste. Catherine St. W.

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