The “serious pervasive and systemic problem” of violence against Indigenous, disabled and refugee and migrant women and girls in Canada

May 8, 2018

BY Nelly Bassily

In April 2018, the United Nations Special Rapporteur (SR) on Violence Against Women completed a 13-day visit to Canada. In her preliminary findings, the SR pointed to three key groups of women who bear the brunt of violence in Canada: Indigenous women and girls, women and girls with disabilities and women who are asylum seekers, refugees and migrants. Violence against these three groups is indeed pervasive and systemic.

In the last couple of years, the increase in activism by Indigenous groups around missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and the over-incarceration of Indigenous women has placed at the forefront, as the SR indicated in her preliminary report, the “marginalization, exclusion, and poverty because of institutional, systemic, multiple, intersecting forms of discrimination that has not been addressed adequately by the State.”  

When it comes to women and girls with disabilities in Canada, statistics from the 2014 General Social Survey on Victimization show that “women with a disability were twice as likely as women who did not have a disability to have been a victim of violent crime”, “women with a disability were nearly twice as likely as women without a disability to have been sexually assaulted” and “more than one in five women with a disability experienced emotional, financial, physical or sexual violence or abuse committed by a current or former partner.”

For women who are asylum seekers, refugees and migrants, Canada’s immigration system puts them at increased risk of violence. For example, sponsored spouses have stringent conditions imposed on them to obtain permanent residency in Canada, which puts sponsored migrant women at increased risk of domestic violence and traps them in abusive relationships. Also, the immigration system puts women temporary foreign workers such as domestic workers and live-in caregivers at increased risks of abuse and exploitation.  

So, what happens when we look at women who live at the intersections of different systems of oppressions? As Audre Lorde so brilliantly coined it, women do not live “single-issue” lives, so what happens when we center the margins and look at, for example, Indigenous women living with disabilities. According to a FemNorthNet fact sheet: “Colonization is disabling for many Indigenous women, their families and their communities in the North and has intergenerational psychological and social impacts. Colonization can erode community and cultural support systems, and can mean that families and communities can face difficulties in providing the required supports for women with disabilities.” Which puts Indigenous women with disabilities even more at risk of violence than Indigenous women without a disability.

When you start to put the power in the hands of Indigenous communities, we see interesting Indigenous models of inclusion like the one from Nunatsiavut (Canada’s first Inuit self-government, located in Labrador). This model is essential to tackling violence against Indigenous women with disabilities because it looks at various systems of oppression by recognizing and addressing “the effects of colonization, residential schools [1], intergenerational trauma, and forced displacement” in its interventions.

If we look at women who are asylum seekers, refugees and migrants AND living with a disability, we know that Canada, as a Northern power “depends on the control they have over resources such as oil [and] in protecting these economic interests, they are often guilty of [contributing to causing disabilities]  through such acts as war and invasion and dumping of polluted waste.”[2] In a Canadian context, it means migrant women with disabilities are discriminated against many times over before they have even touched Canadian soil. All women, but in particular women with disabilities, with long term health and mental health conditions and needs, special education or support services needs, attempting migration to Canada, face the violent barrier of having immigration officers determine if they place ‘excessive demands on health and social services’ as stipulated in  Section 1 of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Regulations. IF admitted into Canada, migrant women with disabilities are forced to develop alternative approaches and resistive strategies in navigating their lives during and post-migration.

Meanwhile, the Canadian government does not adequately factor in its role in creating disabilities through its participation in wars and displacement, and extractive interests,  all-the-while more often than not, denying migrant women with disabilities the opportunity to live/seek refuge in Canada because they are classified as burdens on the system.

In her preliminary findings, the SR has recommended that “the Government adopts measures that will facilitate the process of regularization of migrant status based on humanitarian and GBVAW ground in line with CEDAW General Recommendation No. 32 on the gender-related dimensions of refugee status, asylum, nationality and statelessness of women.”

While we wait for the SR’s final Canada country report, due to be published in June 2019, it is important that the intersecting systems of oppressions that Indigenous, disabled and racialized/migrant and refugee women face in Canada, be made a priority in ALL of the legislations, policies and services that deal with violence against women.

[1] Residential schools were government-sponsored religious schools established by white colonial settlers to forcibly assimilate Indigenous children into the “dominant” society by separating children from their families for extended periods of time and by forbidding them from acknowledge their Indigenous heritage and culture or to speak their own languages. The residential school system is commonly considered to be cultural genocide.

[2] Meekosha, Helen. 2010. Decolonising disability: thinking and acting globally