Thoughts on Unfinished Business: A Parallel Report on Canada’s Implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, with a focus on Indigenous, Metis, and Inuit issues by Julie Pelletier

In lieu of blogs regarding the 64th session of the the Commission on the Status of Women, IIWR will be highlighting chapter reflections on the Unfinished Business: A Parallel Report on Canada’s Implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. This is the first in a series of blogs on the topic.

Julie Pelletier, Associate Professor

University of Winnipeg

Member, IIWR-MB

Past Director, IIWR-Global College

The Unfinished Business report, released by the Centre for Policy Alternatives in advance of the Beijing +25 Regional Review meetings, is the work of “a network of over 50 women’s rights and equality-seeking organizations, trade unions and independent experts” (pg. 5). The comprehensive 150-page report is organized by issue or population of interest and begins with chapters on Indigenous, Inuit, and Metis (IIM) women and girls. Positioning IIM issues first may seem like an insignificant decision – after all, something has to be first. Instead, I interpret this decision as deliberate and deeply significant as it positions IIM women and girls as first peoples, original inhabitants, peoples of the land. 

I am a professor of cultural anthropology focusing on Indigenous peoples of Canada and the U.S. I also identify as a cisgender woman of Indigenous and European ancestry, and as Canadian and American. My twenty + year academic career has been devoted to Indigenous issues of identity and sovereignty, and to the decolonization and indigenization of western academia. I am a mother, an auntie, and a grandmother. This is the lens through which I view the Unfinished Business report.

The overall message of the Unfinished Business report is contained in the evocative title – Canada has unfinished business with women and women’s issues. Chapters on health, environment, leadership, sexuality, representation, rights, imprisonment, education, policies and institutions reveal and detail systemic and systematic discrimination and prejudice affecting Canadian women and girls. Political and government statements and promises have repeatedly been postponed, revised, or forgotten and ignored. 

The chapters on IIM women and girls are consistent with the theme of unfinished business. This is not surprising to anyone who is familiar with Indigenous issues in Canada, a country that has benefited by its proximity to the U.S. by positioning itself as the kinder and more just democracy. As a citizen of both countries who has lived in and studied both countries, I can state that Canada’s record related to Indigenous peoples and issues is a dark one, marked by genocide, ethnocide, oppression, and discrimination. There is little value to playing the Oppression Olympics and trying to determine who has it worse, American Indians (as they are known in the U.S.) or Canadian Indigenous peoples. Nor is it particularly useful to ask who suffers most in Canada, IIM women and girls or IIM men and boys. I heard a grieving mother cry out in anger at the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls’ movement – MMIWG did not include her murdered son, and she didn’t want him ignored or erased. While Unfinished Business focuses on women and girls, there are conditions of racism, ableism, classism and more that intersect with the experiences of men and boys.  As well, the experiences of Indigenous women and girls may be intersectional as well – related to ableism, gender and sexuality issues, education, and health, etc. 

The chapter on Indigenous women and girls provides a six-point analysis of significant issues and conditions for Indigenous women and girls as well as relevant government policies and actions, or inaction. The following is a summary of the chapter. I also summarize the two chapters on Metis and Inuit women and girls. 

The contributors chose to focus on the MMIWG inquiry in a section titled: Genocide in Canada: Violence against Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people.Their summary of the inquiry’s findings is succinct: “The report noted the extreme violence against Indigenous women and girls has been recognized as a human rights crisis, with roots embedded in the history of colonization but continuing in the present” (pg. 12), and includes some of the recommendations for change called for by the inquiry. 

The section titled State-based violence against Indigenous women and girls refers to a 2019 report by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Ms. Dubravka Šimonovic, who described the experience of IIM women in Canada as “gendered colonization” while calling for “an external, independent review of state actors, like police and corrections officers, for their roles in violence against Indigenous women and girls” (pg. 14). 

Indian Act sex discrimination, the third section in the chapter on Indigenous women and girls, reports on the 2019 revision to the Indian Act, meant to reverse more than 100 years of gender discrimination: “In its announcement of August 15, 2019, the Government of Canada estimates removing the sex discrimination from the Indian Act will have the effect of newly entitling about 450,000 First Nations women and their descendants to Indian status” (pg. 15). Perhaps I am cynical but I am not convinced that Canada will follow through and confirm their formal relationship and responsibility to 450,000 new “status Indians,” to use the archaic government terminology. 

Section 4 focuses on trafficking of Indigenous women and girls, a problem also alluded to in the section on MMIWG. This trafficking of women and girls reveals a distressing disregard for the humanity and value of the lives of women and girls. Also uncovered is the effect of a misogynistic and patriarchal society. The preponderance of Indigenous women and girls as targets for sexual exploitation and commodification further bares the anti-Indigenous racism in Canadian society. 

Section 5 describes the sterilization of Indigenous women without their consent. When I lecture on this topic to university students, they are overwhelmingly loath to believe that such a heinous practice is happening in Canada. My students’ reaction is reflected in settler society as there appears to be little mainstream media coverage of this issue. Sterilization without consent, typically through coercion or deliberate misinformation, when associated with a particular population, is genocide – a term that the Canadian government has, so far, refused to use for the Canadian Indigenous experience. In its refusal, the Canadian government has repeatedly stated that discussions about calling the Indigenous experience in Canada genocide should be left to the experts, as it is a complicated issue. As someone who could be labeled an “expert” on these matters, I have used and continue to use the word genocide to describe Canada’s past and ongoing treatment of Indigenous peoples. 

The final sixth section, Participation in governance: Indigenous women’s voice excluded, reports on the lack of Indigenous women’s representation in governance, in both male-led settler colonial government and in male-led Indigenous organizations. Of particular concern is the silencing of Indigenous women’s voices on issues that particularly affect them. 

Unfinished Business contains two shorter chapters focused on Indigenous women and girls. One is titled Metis Women and Girls and is an excerpt from Women of the Métis Nation (2018), Women of the Métis Women Perspectives, 5th National Indigenous Women’s Summit. Because the material was not written purposely for the Unfinished Business report, it does not provide Metis specific data or analysis. 

*Note: The earlier chapter on Indigenous women and girls notes that the contributors include data about Metis, Inuit, and First Nations women and girls, and most include “non-status” and unenrolled women as well. 

The Metis women contributors remind us that: 

Métis women and girls are distinct from First Nations and Inuit women and girls. We have different political and organizational approaches. Our life circumstances are different. While many of our women share the same levels of poverty, their circumstances stem from different socio-economic determinants and have been shaped by a long history of non-recognition by federal, provincial and municipal governments [WMN, quoted in Unfinished Business, pg. 18]

The chapter on Inuit Women and Girls is another timely reminder that women and girls falling under the umbrella definition of Indigenous may have qualitatively different life experiences due to government definitions and policies in addition to location and cultural differences. Housing is one of the three significant factors in the lives of Inuit women and girls. Housing in Nunavut is a crisis situation: “Statistics Canada data show that in 2016, over half (51.7%) of Inuit in Inuit Nunangat live in crowded housing compared to 8.5% of non-Indigenous Canadians” (pg. 20). The shortage has implications for health, stress, and family violence. In the section Violence Against Inuit Women, we learn that:

At the rate of 14 times the national average, violence is a leading cause of morbidity and mortality for Inuit women. In Nunavut, women and girls continue to be far more likely to be killed than in any jurisdiction in Canada and the risk of a woman being sexually assaulted is 12 times greater than the provincial/territorial average. [Unfinished Business, pg. 21]

Because Inuit communities are not defined as “reserves,” they are unable to access Services Canada funding for shelters, available to First Nations reserves and even for off-reserve services for First Nations individuals. This is a dire example of settler colonial policy decisions that limit resources by defining communities and individuals out of their service obligations. 

Inuit Women and Poverty notes that food insecurity is at a crisis level in the region while lack of access to reliable and safe child care impedes access to work and wages. And for Inuit who do earn wages, the reality is stark: “The median individual before-tax income for Inuit in Inuit Nunangat is $23,485, while it is $92,011 for non-Indigenous people in the same region, a gap of more than $68,000” (pg. 22). 

The Inuit Women and Girls chapter concludes with a call for Inuit women’s involvement in leadership and decision-making. This is a consistent theme throughout the three chapters of Unfinished Business focused on Indigenous, Inuit, and Metis women and girls – a desire and demand to speak on behalf of themselves, to bring to decision-making their own knowledge, expertise, and perspective. Another theme is a reckoning on unfinished business. The contributors to these chapters are aware of their rights on the national and international levels and are calling upon the Canadian government to fulfill promises, to behave in a respectful manner, and to be an ethical partner in the nation to nation relationship. 

The situation for Indigenous, Metis, and Inuit women and girls is understandably bleak. The Indigenous contributors to these three chapters are frank about the discriminatory and oppressive conditions of life in Canada. What I also read in these chapters is a story of resilience, survival, and hope for the future. I am not sure if Canada deserves such a response from Indigenous, Inuit, and Metis women and girls but I applaud my IIM sisters, aunties, and nieces and will support you always. 

The following is a link to the report referred to above: