Elections in Ontario must be about the safety of Indigenous women

It is not safe to be an Indigenous woman and violence knows no jurisdictional boundaries nor should our response to violence. Over the past few years, we are all well aware of the unacceptable levels of violence that have become normalized against Indigenous women across Canada, thanks to numerous reports. Now is the time to take transformative action.

Violence against Indigenous women has not only continued during the pandemic, but has increased dramatically, from excessive incarceration of Indigenous women, domestic violence, to increasing rates of human trafficking. This violence continues through the needless deaths of our women, children and community from the mental health and addictions crisis due to the lack of healing services and a coordinated approach.

Whether you are walking to the convenience store or trying to access services in your community, Aboriginal women are targets of violence and discrimination. Indigenous women have a fundamental right to safety and healing, a right that all parties must meet in the upcoming provincial election. It begins by looking at systemic change, addressing policy and legislation, and investing in safe spaces. Change begins when women can come together and heal as individuals and as a collective community.

In Ontario, Aboriginal women experience violence of all kinds at disproportionate rates. A Statistics Canada 2021 study found that more than half (56%) of Aboriginal women experience physical violence in their lifetime. Beyond physical violence, Indigenous women and girls also face violence in the form of racism and discrimination from the very systems that are meant to support us and keep us safe. There is also a lack of respect for our right to sovereignty over our children, ourselves and our nations. More recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the violence and abuse that Indigenous women and families face in the health care system – a system that was not designed to meet our needs.

As we look to Thursday’s provincial election, it’s a good time to reflect on how far we’ve come in Ontario, but how much work remains to be done. We need to create systemic change that keeps Indigenous women and their families safe to strengthen our community after the pandemic.

Indigenous women have the following priorities in elections:

  • Transformation of the health system: Indigenous women have the right to quality health care that respectfully meets and responds to their needs throughout their life cycle – from childbirth to end-of-life care, including preventive services. This means that workers in all Ontario health care settings are trained and competent to provide safe services. While waiting for the necessary systemic change, Aboriginal women have also created their own health care services. For example, the Mindimooyenh Health Clinic in Thunder Bay, which administered more than 14,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines. It is imperative that Indigenous women’s approaches be recognized, funded and supported.
  • Indigenous Women’s Safety and Prevention: Indigenous women continue to disappear and be murdered at an alarming rate. Indigenous women need immediate investments for their safety and prevention. Indigenous women’s agencies are significantly underfunded to fulfill their mandate and the funding inequity needs to be addressed. We envision a budget based on a community development approach that will not only have transparent accountability but also strong measures of success.
  • Secure spaces: Now more than ever, Indigenous women need safe spaces. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that Indigenous women continue to lack security and fall through socio-economic fissures. These spaces have proven to be the most financially responsible in the long term. Economic recovery must include investments in community infrastructure.
  • Healing from the legacy of colonization: As the phantom pandemic of trauma, mental health and addictions continues to grow, we know that Indigenous women need healing. This means access to barrier-free, wait-time-free, holistic, culture-based and trauma-informed services that are designed, developed and delivered by and for Indigenous women.
  • Overhaul of child protection: Finally, systemic change is needed to ensure the safety and cohesion of Indigenous women and families. The child welfare system must be redesigned in a way that recognizes and honors the bond between mother and child and their right to choose the agency in their lives. This includes a holistic community response that recognizes the entire urban Indigenous community and the hundreds of organizations that support Indigenous women every day. As part of this work, an innovative “duty to refer” model instead of a “duty to report” model is needed to address the overrepresentation of Indigenous children in care.

We hope the new government, regardless of party, will recognize the importance of working together to create better outcomes and safe spaces for Indigenous women and families in Ontario and beyond. We want to see a government that works together on one issue holistically and that is the safety of Indigenous women.

We look forward to finding ways to work with the new provincial government to advance reconciliation and support Indigenous women’s leadership, safety and well-being. Women are the ones who hold communities together and do the community work, and now is the time to create a lasting legacy that our grandchildren’s grandchildren can be proud of.

Cora McGuire-Cyrette is the Executive Director of the Ontario Native Women’s Association.

Mara R. Wilmoth