The deeper roots of violence

Angela Cameron urges the public inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls to look at the links between poverty, economic development and violence.

Angela Cameron

“Most of the work that’s been done up to this point on privatization and economic development hasn’t asked questions about gender or the connection between social and economic development and violence against Indigenous women.”

– Angela Cameron

As the federal government frames its inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, Angela Cameron wants to ensure the link between violence and the women’s inequitable access to social and economic opportunities is at the forefront of its work.

“Asking questions about the social and economic rights of Indigenous women really has to be front and centre, and it must be framed as a human rights issue,” says Cameron, a professor of common law at the University of Ottawa. Asking pointed questions about whether economic development projects and social change actually serve Indigenous women’s interests is her specialty.

Cameron, who also chairs the Feminist Alliance for International Action and sits on the board of the Canadian Journal of Women and the Law, has worked with these groups to support the Native Women’s Association of Canada’s documentation of cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women, and their call for a public inquiry.

Cameron now wants to make sure the inquiry focuses not only on the immediate circumstances surrounding the deaths and disappearances of the more than 1,181 women, the number reported by the RCMP. Canadians must also understand the deeper forces that drove some women to leave their communities, to stay in abusive relationships or, in some cases, to be sexually exploited.

“We know that there’s a clear link between women’s poverty and vulnerability to violence,” says Cameron. That is why she organized a national symposium on missing and murdered Indigenous women in January. At the symposium, attended by representatives of the three federal ministers involved in the inquiry, 35 Indigenous women experts and their non-Indigenous allies delivered messages about the broader forces that led to this violence.

Cameron’s research aims to document whether projects touted as the remedy to Indigenous women’s vulnerability actually improve their socio-economic status at the same rate as men.

Cameron is co-investigator on a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council grant with Jackie Dawson, Canada Research Chair in Environment, Society and Policy, to look at the way climate change and economic development are affecting life in hamlets and villages in the Canadian Arctic. Does economic development in the Arctic through mining or cruise ship tourism, for example, deliver high-paying job opportunities for Indigenous women? Or are they relegated to lower-paying menial work?

In addition to analyzing the gendered aspects of the economic agreements, Cameron will also investigate what benefits communities could negotiate with companies, including guaranteed access to training and jobs for Indigenous women.

In other research, Cameron and her colleagues will examine the interplay between violence, changing economic conditions and privatization of lands in three Indigenous communities. Although there is an implicit assumption that more jobs and higher wages in these communities will improve lives, there isn’t any data yet to indicate that any benefits are shared equally with women, she says.

“Most of the work that’s been done up to this point on privatization and economic development hasn’t asked questions about gender or the connection between social and economic development and violence against Indigenous women,” explains Cameron. “In communities where economic development is booming and communities are wealthy, is there a correlation with lower domestic violence rates? Those are the kinds of questions we are asking.”

Cameron plans to look at Indigenous nations that are benefitting from court decisions or land claims negotiations to see if any gains are being distributed equally. Working with fellow law professors Sarah Morales and Darren O’Toole, she will also research differing forms of Indigenous governance to see if there is any connection with successfully reducing rates of violence against Indigenous women.

“We don’t want to paint pre-colonial times as … without having any of the gendered violence incidents, but we did have avenues for dealing with it in the past,” says Morales, who is a member of the Cowichan Tribes in British Columbia. Morales is interviewing Elders in her community about Indigenous legal traditions, including dispute resolution and ways of resolving social issues.

The denial of Indigenous women’s social and economic rights has, at least in part, led to trends of high rates of violence, Cameron says. Her work is designed to support and empower Indigenous communities in their own efforts to end that violence.

“We can’t fix a problem that we’ve created,” she says, speaking of colonialism. “But we can support and be allies to Indigenous communities and Indigenous women as they develop and exercise models of self-determination and governance that ask these questions and take gender into account in healthy ways.”

Morales also hopes that the national inquiry will consider recommendations from Indigenous communities which draw on their own traditions, systems and legal frameworks for dealing with the root causes of violence against women. 


by Laura Eggertson

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