Jokes about Aboriginal Women are not Jokes

The Canadian Government rejected the call for a National Inquiry into the estimated 582 missing Aboriginal women in Canada. How is this possible?

Photo by Janelle Marie Baker
Photo by Janelle Marie Baker

I will begin with a story: I was working for a First Nation in Alberta and staying with a family on the reserve. My co-worker and I had gone to a meeting with the local head of police to discuss the issue of racial profiling on highways. What I mean by this is that the police in the area had a habit of putting up a road block on the edge of the reserve but only stopping people who looked Aboriginal and letting white-looking people through. The police officer agreed that this was unacceptable and said to call him whenever we observed this happening. While we were at the meeting my co-worker had leant her truck to her daughter, who was 9-months pregnant, to run into town. We got a phone call. She was being held in a jail cell at the police station and we needed to come bail her out. The truck was also being held. It turns out that my friend’s daughter had been pulled over and didn’t know where the insurance was. Her mom had just paid the truck insurance, but had forgotten to put the slip in the glove compartment. We asked if the insurance company could confirm with the police that the truck was in fact insured. Nope. Apparently the daughter also had some unpaid speeding tickets and we had to come pay them before she would be let out. So we made the one-hour drive into town. On the way we worried my friend’s grandchild might be born in a jail cell. We arrived, paid the “bail” and were reunited with the silent but crying pregnant hostage. We had to wait until the following Monday before my friend could have her truck back. Aboriginal women are treated differently in Canada. I can promise you that in the same set of circumstances that there is NO WAY a women with white features who was obviously pregnant would have been jailed.

But wait a minute, Canadians aren’t racist, right? After all, Canada was the final stop for the underground railroad. We are multicultural! We love Indian buffets and sushi! But there is a shocking exception: The average Canadian is racist towards Aboriginal people. It’s our dirty little secret. The minute I tell someone at social gatherings that I work for First Nations, people have harsh, racist, ignorant comments, even though the majority of them have never even stepped onto a neighbouring reserve or know what treaty area they live in. “Do they ever pay you?” “None of them actually go on the land anymore do they?” “One time a drunk Indian…” Please, enough with the stupid urban legend about people cutting a hole in their house trailers to water their horses in the bath tub. You did not see this yourself so stop swearing it’s true to make yourself feel superior.

The absolute worst are the racist comments and “jokes” we hear on a regular basis from many Canadian men. We’ve all heard the horrible stories that men tell about working in a remote areas, near an Aboriginal community. This repulsive tradition started with the British taking “country wives,” continued with building of the Alaska highway and is upheld by oil workers today. They return from shifts to brag and tell disgusting stories about the Aboriginal women that they allegedly have used as sex objects. The stories are always dehumanizing and describe the women as somehow unattractive. Even a local musician told me recently that my moose call (that was much better than his by the way) “sounded like a fat, ugly squaw he f**ked once”. I know these are harsh words to repeat, but I’m doing it because I am making a call to put an end to this kind of “joking”. Another guy I know expressed his concern that a group of us were walking into an “Indian bar” and I said “great”. We sat down, he told us about recently getting engaged. A drink later he “joked” about grabbing himself one of the Blackfoot women sitting at the bar. It’s not cheating when she’s not human, right? People rarely flinch at these kinds of comments. In fact, they often snicker. What happens when it’s socially acceptable to make these kind of dehumanizing “jokes”? Some drunk guy staying in a northern work camp who has mental health issues goes out and rapes and kills an Aboriginal woman, because he has been socialized to think of her as a non-human. What about the mountie who investigates when this woman’s family reports their loved one missing? Well he was likely raised around this same kind of speech and mindset. He thinks, “she was probably bothering the men in the work camp and just went out and got drunk somewhere. No need to talk to the men in the camp. Oh wait, they just had a shift change and are gone anyway”.

The “Highway of Tears” is a stretch of road in northern BC that had at least 43 women go missing along it. How many of the women in the Robert Pickton murders were Aboriginal? Many of them. The Native Women’s Association of Canada has gathered information about 582 cases of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls. Loretta Saunders, Inuit, pregnant, was recently murdered WHILE doing research on missing Aboriginal women in Canada. James Anaya, the UN special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, called for a nationwide inquiry to no avail.

There are many changes that need to be made. First of all, let’s put an end to dehumanizing “joking”. Call people on it. It’s not funny. Another thing we need is a class that all Canadians take, say in high school, on the history and cultures of Aboriginal peoples in Canada. The average Canadian just doesn’t know about Treaties, land claims, the diversity of cultures, residential schools, the reserve system, settlements, our history. Even a lot of school teachers are guilty. My own colleagues in anthropology who do research outside of Canada often have no idea whose territory they live on. I’ve heard a fellow student say that there are no Aboriginal people left where they grew up in Canada. A student in my cohort told me it was “a fallacy to believe that the potlatch is still intact”. One of my professors admitted to not knowing what “Metis” means. How is such extreme ignorance possible? The assimilation myth exists even amongst educated North Americans. It’s time to learn. To respect the very existence, diversity, ways of life, and resilience of the First Peoples of the land on which we live. Let’s have the conservative government take the first class on it. In the meantime, invite everyone you know to visit the Walking With our Sisters exhibit for a visual representation comprised of 1,726+ pairs of moccasin vamps (tops) created and donated by hundreds of caring and concerned individuals to draw attention to this injustice.

This blog was also posted on Pass it to the Left


3 thoughts on “Jokes about Aboriginal Women are not Jokes

  1. Leslie Main Johnson

    Oh my God. I guess I don’t hang with the right folks to hear these “jokes”. Lived along the Highway of Tears myself, have heard stories ….a girl locked out of the bus station in Kamloops being murdered before the station opened again. Yes the anger I feel at your stories….is hard to describe. Appalled to hear that someone at McGill- McGill for God’s sake- doesn’t know the potlatch is ongoing, never was fully suppressed, and is a strong and vibrant contemporary institution. They call it the Feasthall, Wilpli’ligit in Gitxsamax. A major feast is yukxw. Even I, not having a place in the system, have been to a number of funeral and headstone feasts.

  2. Lauren Matheson

    I heard similar things in Australia, and always wondered what it said about the men who engaged in these behaviours – do they have any cognitive dissonance around “bestiality”? Why is it manly to f*ck someone you find unattractive and subhuman? (Frankly to interact with sexuality using that verb at all…)

  3. Jennifer Gyuricska

    Great post. A point of note, however, that Canadians aren’t very nice at all. We may have been the destination for the Underground Railroad, but shortly after slavery was abolished, African Americans left Canada in droves due to the poor treatment and bias they were subject to.

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