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Presentation to the House of Commons Standing Committee on the Status of Women
Study on Violence Against Aboriginal Women
Presented by Irene Compton, Manager, Culture Program, Minwaashin Lodge
April 28, 2010

Thank you for inviting me to speak to you today.

It is an honour to be here as a representative of the Aboriginal women and children that Minwaashin Lodge serves, and to give a voice to the countless urban First Nation, Métis, and Inuit women who are living with the reality of violence in our community.

I will be using the time allotted to me to address causes, prevalence, and solutions, as outlined in your mandate, with special emphasis on solutions which can be arrived at…….. through collaboration with Aboriginal women.

Violence against women in Canada was first reported in 1993 when Statistics Canada conducted the first dedicated survey on violence against women. It has become understood that violence against women is a complex issue that needs to be examined within the context of a woman’s reality. In the case of violence against Aboriginal women the reality is one with deep historical roots which span across time. An Issue Paper, “Violence against Aboriginal Women and Girls” written by the Native Women’s Association of Canada, clearly reveals the answers to the questions being asked by this committee. The opening paragraph states, “Systemic violence against Aboriginal women (VAAW) and girls, their communities and their nations is grounded in colonialism…” The paper spells out the impact the Indian Act had on Aboriginal women and girls. The colonization and attempt at assimilation through the Indian Act and the Residential School system all served to rip apart families, communities, and Nations. The “fall out” from these events, ladies and gentlemen, has been, and continues to be, devastating for all Aboriginal people, and it is the reason there is such a high incidence of violence perpetrated against Aboriginal women.

I would like to introduce myself personally. My name is Irene and I am a First Nation’s Saulteaux woman from the Keeseekoose band in Saskatchewan. I am of the Bear Clan.  I am also an intergenerational survivor of the Residential School System meaning that my mother went to residential school in 1926 – 1942. Today, had she lived a long life, she would be 89. My mother had nine children. Today there are only two of us left. My youngest sister committed suicide at 20 years old in 1979. Recently two of my sisters died early, due to alcoholism and mental illness. Another sibling was murdered on the Yellow Quill Highway in Saskatchewan in 1968. I ask you, “How much can a family withstand?” Most of my siblings suffered from alcoholism and depression. Me and my brother are the only survivors of our family today. The reason we are still here and healthy is because we were given a chance………that chance was to go on our healing journeys.  For many years, I did not speak about my background because it was too painful. It was easier to deny anything ever happened to me. Besides there was no safe place to share my story and get the help I needed…. so I carried that pain….. until, Creator brought me to Ottawa and I was given the responsibility of co-founding the Aboriginal Women’s Support Centre in 1993. It was through working at Minwaashin Lodge that I found my identity and purpose, courage to heal and ability to give back to my community. All I can say is that it has been a journey of personal and professional growth.

So let’s fast forward to today. It has taken 40 years to see that the government is starting to assist organizations like Minwaashin Lodge and I hope to see in my lifetime a substantial decrease of unresolved intergenerational trauma in Aboriginal women.

My story is a lot like the stories we hear from the women accessing services at Minwaashin Lodge. Most of the women are intergenerational survivors of the residential school system. Many of them don’t know their identity and culture because throughout the generations there was shame……. so their mothers decided to not teach them their language and their ways. Today, a lot of those women are reclaiming their heritage and culture through Minwaashin Lodge’s Culture program.  Many of the women we see are suffering from the impacts of addictions, poverty, unresolved trauma, untreated mental health issues and low self esteem. 

Minwaashin provides programs and services to assist women and their families to determine a life that is free from violence. We have been operating in Ottawa for 17 years and have seen many women go on journeys of healing…….taking small steps of bravery and building their confidence to determine good things in their lives.  We have a counseling team that supports a lot of women to deal with their unresolved trauma. Additionally we have a grandmother on staff to help women with traditional support and ceremonies to heal. We not only assist the women but also their children and teenagers. We have a shelter that took ten years to achieve sustained funding. It is the only VAW shelter in the City of Ottawa serving First nation, Inuit and Métis women.

We are seeing more women becoming survivors and thrivers. They are doing well. We are also teaching them to be advocates for the prevention and education of violence in the home, schools, communities and workplaces. A lot of them are publicly advocating for change and are speaking out and being heard.  We still have a long way to go though…… because there are still a lot of women suffering from the impacts of violence and the men are lagging behind in their healing.  One of the best ways of empowering women is to provide them with healing and cultural identity and then training and education. Many women are sole supporters of the family and need long term, sustainable livelihoods. 

Real and lasting solutions to violence against Aboriginal women can be, and should be, provided through Aboriginal organizations, run by Aboriginal people. Our organization may be a small piece of the puzzle we are all trying to solve, but I can tell you that what we do ……works. That’s because all of our work is grounded in the historical understanding of the impacts of colonization, Indian Act, and Residential Schools. We understand the women who come to us for help. We have lived their life experience, and they know and trust us. These women have an internalized shame about their identity and culture that leads them to live lives filled with violence, addiction, and mental illness. They have been lost, disconnected from their spirit, culture, language, family and community. When Aboriginal women seek out support and ask to learn about themselves they deserve to be received by women who are like them, have lived that reality, and who understand.

It is not enough to send a woman in an airplane to a city far away from her home, to a government office that is foreign and bureaucratic. It is not enough to say we are sorry.

Each woman deserves to be welcomed home.

As I said before, I am hopeful that Aboriginal women can be given a chance in life…. and that Aboriginal women need to be respected, loved and valued in today’s society. We can start here, in the nation’s capital and…… I thank Status of Women Canada for being leaders in the journey towards equality and justice for the grassroots women and their families.

Miigwetch, and thank you for listening.


The Role of Art in Decolonization and Healing from History

On April 13th 2010 a dozen of Canada’s most accomplished Anishnabe artists, curators, art lovers and their friends gathered in Paris to celebrate the opening of Paris/Ojibwa at the Canadian Cultural Centre. This event of major cultural and historical significance was conceived by visionary artist, writer and curator Robert Houle.

The Paris/Ojibwa exhibit is an imposing suite of four simulated classic French wall panels against a floor of simulated marble. Each panel depicts a painted figure: a shaman, a warrior, a dancer and a healer.  Facing toward the horizon of home, their Indigenous roots connect to the landscape in each painting.  Beneath each panel is a depiction of the smallpox which took many of their lives, derived from paintings on an 18th century buffalo robe now in the collection of the Branly Museum in Paris. Even so, the figures in the painting remain standing, symbolic of a deeply-rooted resistance, resilience and will to survive.  Across the top of the panels, the names of the 1845 Ojibwa are painted in gold.  Adjacent to this structure is a video installation by French artist and animator Hervé Dagois, commissioned by Houle as a visual celebration of the healing and optimism of the contemporary Jingle Dance.

The vision of Houle and his fellow collaborators on the Paris/Ojibwa installation was to create art as medicine in the telling of a new history. By ‘re-imagining’ the feelings and experiences of a group of Ojibwa brought to Paris in 1845 as ‘exotically garbed’ entertainment, Houle has not only bridged present to past/past to present; he has deconstructed history in order to bring integrity, honour and healing from what he terms, “the ravenous gaze of pending disappearance.”  As ceremonial lead-in to the formal opening of the exhibit and in homage to the Ojibwa of 1845, artist, curator and dancer Barry Ace performed a series of pow wow dances beginning at the Louvre, winding through the Tuileries Gardens, on to Cleopatra’s Needle, and down the Champs-Elysées with his final dance in front of the installation. Like the Ojibwa of 1845 he too endured the pain of dancing on concrete, cobble stone, pebbles and marble in moccasins designed for contact only with the earth.

It’s difficult to describe the myriad feelings of being part of such an unprecedented and almost surreal event except to say the whole experience was itself a sacred ceremony. Our journeys to Paris were monitored by Project Manager Paul Gardner through emails so that, even though traveling separately we felt a strong sense of collective purpose and anticipation. Although the weather report for the 13th called for rain it held off and the moody skies provided a dramatic backdrop to the vibrant colour of Barry’s regalia and the grace of his movements. Following him on his quest and bearing witness to each dance of homage I noted the reactions of people on the streets and in cars and buses passing by, just as must have happened in 1845. Houle’s Paris/Ojibwa installation itself inspires the same sense of wonder, awe and delight as must have been felt by Parisians in the presence of the Ojibwa and the Ojibwa in the presence of Paris.

One hundred and sixty-five years later Houle has shown us the power and magic of art to forge a healing connectivity across constraints of time, space and the socially constructed colonialist divisions that have wounded humanity. His courage and the scope of his vision are evidence that healing happens on many fronts; the circle is stronger than ever.
By Deb Chansonneuve

May 2010

Congratulations to Minwaashin Lodge – The Aboriginal Women’s Support Centre – and Immigrant Women’s Services Ottawa for putting on a great two-day workshop.  The workshops provided information on violence against women services specifically for Immigrant women and First Nation, Métis, Inuit women.  As requested by the participants, Minwaashin is starting a resource-sharing blog. 



Recommended by: Deborah Chansonneuve

This reading list was developed in response to requests from participants at Minwaashin Lodge’s recent workshop titled “Strengthening Connections” – ‘Best Practices are Decolonizing Practices’ aimed at educating non-Indigenous service providers about an Indigenous approach to ending violence against women. As suggested, listings begin from basic 101’s to more advanced readings. I’ve further included as requested the titles of my two publications for the Aboriginal Healing Foundation.


Anderson. Kim (2000). Recognition of Being: Reconstructing Native Womanhood. Toronto: Second Story Press.

Ten years later and this is still one of my favourites! The author shows how colonialism undermined Native women’s traditional roles by constructing racist, sexist versions of Native women’s identity. Through acts of self-determination Native women are reclaiming their cultural traditions and creating positive, powerful images of themselves true to their heritage. This book links Indigenous women’s collective strength and vitality to recognition of a time when they were honoured and respected. It describes women’s work and commitment toward revitalize their roles in ways that are relevant to contemporary life.

Battiste, Marie (2005). Indigenous Knowledge: Foundations for First Nations. University of Saskatchewan, Regina, SK.

This paper examines the frameworks for understanding Indigenous knowledge. ‘Cognitive imperialism’ is identified as a form of cognitive manipulation used to deny other cultures their language and cultural integrity. Reversing this process is an act of intellectual self-determination and decolonization which is necessary or Aboriginal consciousness, language and identity to flourish without being hindered by further racist interpretation.

Clark, Erin (2009). Dangerous Intersections: An Examination of Approaches to Sexual Violence Against Native Women. Unpublished thesis, Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut.

This BA thesis draws from the works of Andrea Smith and others who name violence against Native women as a form of colonialism that is enabled by the state, especially the legal system. The limitations of the mainstream VAW movement to address this violence are also discussed in terms of flaws and possible solutions.

Chansonneuve, Deborah (2005). Reclaiming Connections: Understanding Residential School Trauma Among Aboriginal People. Aboriginal Healing Foundation, Ottawa:ON.

This manual was developed as an educational tool for service providers about direct and intergenerational impacts of residential schooling and other strategies of colonization so they can better serve Indigenous people who access their programs. By beginning with a description of pre-contact Inuit, Métis and First Nation history and cultures, it promotes a strength-based approach that links healing strategies with self-determination and revitalization of Indigenous knowledge, values and practices.

Chansonneuve, Deborah (2007). Addictive Behaviours Among Aboriginal People in Canada. Aboriginal Healing Foundation Research Series, AHF, Ottawa:ON

Stating that “No other population group in Canada’s history has endured such a comprehensive, deliberate, and prolonged assault on their human rights” ,this report places addictive behaviours in the context of colonialism and its strategies of genocide and ethnocide. Includes a chronology of activities toward health and healing through cultural revitalization, as well as promising practices drawn from successes in prevention and intervention.

Fournier, Suzanne and Ernie Crey (1997). Stolen from our Embrace: The Abduction of First Nations Children and the Restoration of Aboriginal Communities. Vancouver, BC: Douglas & McIntyre Ltd.

This classic in the field provides a powerful account of residential school abuses and underscores the horrific impacts of profound racism among non-Aboriginal church, government, police and ‘child welfare’ authorities that led to the devastation of Aboriginal families and communities in Canada. The stories reflect courage in the struggle against unjust systems as well as the restorative power of grassroots human rights activism and healing.

Freeman, Victoria. (2000). Distant Relations: How My Ancestors Colonized North America. Toronto, ON: McClelland & Steward Ltd.

At 535 pages, this book is a well-researched and honest personal account of colonization and its impacts from a non-Indigenous perspective. Using her own family history, she makes a compelling case for Canadians to take responsibility for their own decolonization and for insisting Canada be accountable for living up to its image as a world leader in human rights.

Highway, Tomson (2003). Comparing Mythologies. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press.

Read anything by Tomson Highway!! This book is especially fun – it’s a transcript of his University of Ottawa lecture in 2003 where he compared Greek mythology (polytheism), Christianity (monotheism) and Cree mythology (pantheism). Highway is a writer who celebrates matriarchy and women’s creative power – and he’s funny and irreverent with an unfailingly wise acuity.

Jaimes*Guerrero, M. Annette (2003). “Patriarchal Colonialism” and Indigenism: Implications for Native Feminist Spirituality and Native Womanism. Hypatia (June 2003), 18 (2), pg. 58-69.

Identifying the failure of early feminism to address “Euroamerican patriarchy,” this author proposes that Indigenist female principles more fully challenge both colonialism and patriarchy. She points out this approach is already being used by Indigenous women who’ve taken a leadership role internationally in response to genocide, “ethnocide” and “ecocide.”

Paul, Daniel N. (2000). We Were Not the Savages: A Mi’kmaq Perspective on the Collision between European and Native American Civilizations. Fernwood Publishing, Blackwood:NS.

This book provides a male, Mi’Kmaq perspective on 300 years of colonization. It is thoroughly researched and detailed – an important and compelling read. It does have a troubling  limitation in that the author is seemingly unable to accept the notion of matrilineal or matriarchal systems; he seems to share the dualistic Eurocentric dominance/submission perspective that men of such societies ‘permit their women to dominate’ them, missing the point that such societies promote gender equilibrium and mutual respect.

Sinclair, Raven (Ôtiskewàpiwskew), Hart, Michael Anthony (Kaskitémahikan) and Bruyere, Gord (Amawaajibitang), Editors. Wicihitowin: Aboriginal Social Work in Canada. Fernwood Publishing, Black Point, NS: 2009.

This is another ‘must-read’ as a Canadian social work book written by Indigenous authors who teach social work. It covers foundational theoretical perspectives, relational worldviews and philosophies that further an understanding of the history of colonization and theories of decolonization in the context of an Indigenist social work practice.

Smith, Andrea (2005). Conquest: sexual violence and American Indian genocide. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.

Smith, Andrea (2006). Boarding School Abuses, Human Rights and Reparations. Journal of Religion & Abuse, Vol. 8(2).

Smith, A. (2003). Not an Indian Tradition: The Sexual Colonization of Native Peoples. Hypatia, June, Vol. 18, no. 2, pp. 70-85.

Read anything by Andrea Smith! In the above two papers and book she places violence in Indigenous communities within the context of the larger global strategy of colonialism. Starting with widespread child abuse at state-sanctioned boarding schools from the 1880s to the 1980s, she expands the concept of violence to include: appropriation of ‘Indian’ cultural practices by whites; environmental racism; and population control. By situating violence in Native communities within the context of impacts of continuing human rights violation she frames the work to end gender violence as an anti-colonial strategy.

Valaskakis, Gail Guthrie, Dion Stout, Madeleine, and Guimond, Eric Ed. (2009). Restoring the Balance: First Nations Women, Community, and Culture. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press.

This is another ‘must-read’ that celebrates the work, ideas and strength of women despite centuries of colonization that undermined their traditional roles.  Grounded in traditional approaches, it underscores the immense, creative contributions of Indigenous women in the areas of law, politics, education, community healing, languages and art. I especially enjoyed the chapters on women’s writing, arts and culture.

Waziyatawin, Angela Wilson and Yellow Bird, Michael, Ed. (2005). For Indigenous Eyes Only: A Decolonization Handbook. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research.

Colonialism continues to impact the lives of Indigenous Peoples mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually. This series of exercises helps readers develop their own personal practical strategies for change based on their cultural teachings and experiences of colonialism. It includes decolonizing our diets – crucial in a population with such high rates of diabetes and heart disease.


Alfred, Taiaiake (2005).  Wasàse: indigenous pathways of action and freedom. Forward by Leroy Little Bear. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press.

Wasàse is a ceremony of unity, strength, and commitment to action toward rejecting white societies control over Indigenous people in order to create a society based on respect, justice and peace. Such action includes “massive restitution” including land, financial transfers and other compensation for past harms as well as ending persistent injustices against Indigenous Peoples. Alfred is one of the all too rare male authors who celebrate female strength and women’s leadership.

Tuhiwai Smith, Linda (2006). Research Through Imperial Eyes, in Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, University of Otago Press.

This book describes an approach to academic research that assumes Western ideas are the only rational and legitimate way to make sense of the world, of reality, of social life, and of humans. She reveals its assumed superiority over Indigenous knowledge coupled with “an overabundance of desire to bring progress into the lives of Indigenous peoples – spiritually, intellectually, socially and economically.


Google Robert Houle – his art and thinking has taught me so much about decolonization and innovation; also Louise Erdrich – anything by her but especially ‘The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse” – a great read!

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