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How the National Inquiry failed Indigenous Women and Girls


In September 2016, the Canadian federal government announced the hard-fought and long-awaited beginning of an independent National Inquiry (“the inquiry”) into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG). Some activists and academics were hopeful that an inquiry would bring to light the root causes of male violence against Indigenous women and girls and that meaningful action to end this violence would result. Others were skeptical that the inquiry would lead to the implementation of concrete measures that would improve Indigenous women’s lives. Initially, I supported the Indigenous women who had been working so long and so hard and their call for an inquiry, even though I was sometimes skeptical and sometimes hopeful about what a national inquiry might achieve.

Today, on June 3, 2019, the inquiry will release their final report. No meaningful action that works to further the liberatory aims of Indigenous women will result. Actually, I am concerned that the final report and subsequent actions will work to further marginalize and silence Indigenous women. The inquiry has loudly and profoundly failed Indigenous women and girls in Canada. By primarily examining the inquiry’s official website at and official documents published on the website, this paper argues that the scope and structure of the inquiry itself has hindered, instead of advanced, an Indigenous feminist[1] agenda in Canada. Ironically, the “missing and murdered Indigenous women’s inquiry” is not only “missing” foundational components to be effective, but has actively “disappeared” women, male violence, and anything resembling a feminist analysis in its process.

Disappeared Women

After decades of work calling for an end to the crisis of Indigenous women and girls in Canada being harmed and murdered by men, Indigenous women and girls have been disappeared in our own inquiry through two primary methods rooted in presumptions about contested feminist issues: firstly, the inquiry adopted a “families first” approach as a foundational component and guiding principle in its framework and processes; and secondly, the inquiry adopted a definition of “women” that includes men.

The inquiry’s framework developed from a “families first” approach to the issue of (male)[2] violence against Indigenous women and girls. The inquiry’s lexicon defines this approach as originating in 2014

“…out of increasing frustrations with how missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and their families were treated by the police, the justice system, politicians and reporters/commentators in the media, the ‘families first’ approach advocated that any process addressing missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, including a national inquiry, should fully include the families of those women and girls, and ensure their voices were heard…Note:…’Families first’ will not displace the lived experience of survivors of violence against Indigenous women and girls but will rather help ensure that those who cannot speak for themselves continue to have a voice” (National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls 2018).

As Fay Blaney, a Xwemalhkwu woman and long-time Indigenous feminist advocate and leader has asked: who speaks for Indigenous women who have been assaulted by male relatives, apprehended by the foster care system, or are estranged from their families (Siebert 2016)? The inquiry uses the terms “families of the heart” or “chosen families” to encompass non-biologically-related families (National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls 2018). Regardless of whether murdered or disappeared Indigenous women are represented by biological or chosen families, no one owns a woman’s story but herself and whether she is here and able to speak up for herself or not, she should always come first. A “families first” agenda, despite claims to the contrary, results in a “women second” reality.

The inquiry’s lexicon[3] states, “[f]or many Indigenous Peoples, family is the core concept of social organization. An individual’s identity, rights and responsibilities are often defined and given meaning through family ties” (National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls 2018). I recall an Indigenous feminist advocate and leader reminding a roomful of women at a meeting that no one owns us – we own ourselves. I understand this to mean that as Indigenous women we can have strong and deep connections to our families, communities, and cultures – but that these families, communities, and cultures do not own us and do not control us. We can be profoundly interconnected, but we are always autonomous women in all areas of our lives. It has been disappointing to see that women who have been attacked or murdered by men have, yet again, been pushed back to make room for someone else. A “families first” foundation promoted a “national inquiry into the families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls”. This is not to say that family members should not have been involved or do not have important information to share, but that this involvement could have happened within a “women first” agenda. The families pushed hard to be centered in this inquiry and the inquiry agreed that families should come first. In this way, academics, activists, and family members who demanded “families first” share responsibility with the inquiry’s commissioners for deciding that Indigenous women and girls should not be centered in an inquiry about Indigenous women and girls.

In the few years before the launch of the inquiry, the intensity of calls to include the examination of violence against and disappearance of Indigenous men into the inquiry mandate increased (Jones 2015; Todd 2016). This push came from Indigenous and non-Indigenous women and men across the country. Notably, Cheam First Nation Chief Ernie Crey formed a coalition with the men’s rights activist (MRA) group, the Canadian Association for Equality (CAFE), to advocate for violence against Indigenous men to be included in the inquiry’s mandate (CTV Vancouver 2016). After considerable confusion as the inquiry’s spokesperson Michael Hutchinson[4] announced to the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) that men and boys would be included (National News 2017), the commissioners affirmed that the focus of the inquiry would remain on Indigenous women and girls (Todd 2017). However, the inquiry’s homepage states:

“The Commissioners’ mandate is to examine and report on the systemic causes of all forms of violence against Indigenous women and girls and 2SLGBTQQIA individuals in Canada by looking at patterns and underlying factors”.

In the lexicon, the acronym “2SLGBTQQIA” represents:

“…Two-Spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex and asexual people…Historically, many Indigenous Nations did not limit gender to only male or female, but had third and fourth gender categories” (National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls 2018).

This section also states some limitations of this acronym, making sure readers are aware that those who identify as “…pansexual, pangender, polyamorous, and more” are also “sexual and gender minorities”. Additionally, this section includes instruction as to what type of language Indigenous women can use to describe ourselves. We are told specifically to avoid

“[l]anguage that implies 2SLGBTQQIA women aren’t ‘real’ women…[r]ather than saying ‘Indigenous women and trans women/Two-Spirit women,’ which puts them into two different categories, consider ‘all Indigenous women, including trans women/Two-Spirit women,’ or ‘Indigenous women, no matter what gender or sex they were assigned at birth’, etc.”.

The inquiry does not list preferred terms to use if one recognizes that men cannot be women and women cannot be men; it is automatically assumed that we should all subscribe to an ideology that tells us that any man who says he is a woman is a woman, even though this is biologically impossible.

Although the inquiry was not expanded to explicitly include men, men are included as a particularly marginalized group if they self-identify as Indigenous and a woman, a Two-Spirit person, a non-binary person, a questioning person, or a queer person, among the other identity options. Despite what academia, governments, activists, and media tell us, feminists are critical of gender and what it does. The idea of a “gender identity” has become increasingly popular and in some cases, embedded in legislation and policy, yet remains undefined. One definition of “gender identity” states that gender is an

“…internal experience and naming of our gender…gender is a spectrum, and not limited to just two possibilities. A child may have a Non-binary gender identity, meaning they do not identify strictly as a boy or a girl – they could identify as both, or neither, or as another gender entirely. Agender people do not identify with any gender. Understanding of our gender comes to most of us fairly early in life…This core aspect of one’s identity comes from within each of us; it is an inherent aspect of a person’s make-up. Individuals do not choose their gender, nor can they be made to change it, though the words someone uses to communicate their gender identity may change over time (e.g., from one non-binary identity to a different non-binary identity)” (Gender Spectrum n.d.)

The term “Two-Spirit” has also become more common. This term

“…[encompasses] a broad range of sexual and gender identities of Aboriginal peoples across North America. While some use the term to refer specifically to the cultural role of individuals who embody both female and male spirits, Two-Spirit is also used to describe Aboriginal people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ). Importantly, Aboriginal LGBTQ people name their identities using diverse terminology, including terms in Indigenous languages as well as terms that are prevalent among LGBTQ communities…Two-Spirit is a term that reflects traditional Aboriginal gender diversity, including the fluid nature of gender and sexual identity and its interconnectedness with spirituality and traditional worldviews” (Hunt 2016, 7).

These are two examples of many definitions that attempt to explain the concepts of “gender identity”, “Two-Spirit”, and related terms. These definitions are unclear and further complicated in that they can mean many different things and can change at any time.

The ideology that describes gender as an internal feeling – an “essence” – that an individual is born with and defines for themselves is just that – a belief about gender. In contrast, feminists have long defined gender as a social construction – something that we learn – while sex refers to our biology as female or male. Gender is an external imposition of sex-based expectations, rules, and limitations that work to uphold men’s domination and women’s subordination within a patriarchy (Jeffreys 2014, 1 – 2). For example, women are taught to be polite and quiet while men are taught to be direct and assertive. From a feminist standpoint, politely agreeing with something we don’t actually agree with or not saying anything even though we want to so that we don’t hurt (men’s) feelings is not part of our biological makeup as females. Likewise, being direct and asking for what they want is not part of male biology. If this were true, it would mean that these behaviours would apply to all women and all men and cannot be changed. Feminists work toward women’s liberation and a central component of this struggle is abolishing gender. This means to get rid of sex-based expectations, rules, and limitations that are placed on women and that privilege men. Women can be confident and direct and men can be quiet and thoughtful. It’s important to note that abolishing gender does not mean simply switching roles so that women are aggressive and men are passive. Rather, this is about women’s liberation and the construction of an intentionally feminist culture that works toward a world where we are encouraged to respect and care for each other and all our relatives.

The inquiry decided, before it even began, that “gender identity” is an undefined internal feeling that may or may not match the external body; that gender is a spectrum as opposed to a hierarchy and that many genders should be encouraged; and that each person can be any number of identities, no identities, all identities, either consistently or sometimes by simply stating whatever identity they are identifying with in the moment. Adopting this anti-feminist gender ideology makes it impossible to investigate what part “gender” plays in the material realities – including the lives and deaths - of Indigenous women and the men who harm them. For example, how can the role of sex-based discrimination against women in the Indian Act and connections to male violence against Indigenous women and girls be adequately examined if any individual can identify as a woman or a man? The Indian Act discriminates against women because of our sex, because we are women. The Indian Act does not discriminate based on an individual’s internal feeling of their “gender”. I don’t know of any cases where a man who identified as a non-binary transgender woman lost their Indian status because they felt that they were a non-binary transgender woman.

By changing the scope of the inquiry to include men; promoting the false idea that human beings can actually change our biological sex from male to female or female to male; and supporting a meaningless definition of “women” that includes men without public discussion or debate, the inquiry betrayed Indigenous women. The inquiry’s midterm report states

“Indigenous women who are also LGBTQ, non-binary, or Two-Spirit, have urged us to specifically include them in the National Inquiry’s investigation. We have committed to doing this” (National Inquiry on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls 2017).

The inquiry was not brave enough to take a stand and put women and girls first. The final report will reflect this lack of courage and will send the message that again, Indigenous women and girls belong in the margins while women’s families and anyone who identifies as any number of “genders” come first.

Disappeared Men

While the inquiry has put families, not women, first and expanded to include men as a group that are even more victimized than Indigenous women (despite a lack of formal or informal research that supports this claim) men are disappeared in the inquiry and its official documents as the primary perpetrators of violence against Indigenous women and girls. Alarmingly, statistics demonstrate that in Canada, men are overwhelmingly accused as perpetrators of violence, particularly sexualized violence, against women and girls (Sinha 2013, 30 – 31). Equally alarming is the reduction of the term “male violence” to a generalized “violence” by the inquiry and by Canadian and Indigenous governments, social services, academia, activists, and the media – similar to, for example, the reconstruction of “woman battering in the home” to “domestic violence” or “intimate partner violence” that feminists and particularly front-line anti-violence workers have criticized for obscuring the roles of sex-based inequality and patriarchy. How can we identify “root causes” if the language used does not accurately describe what is happening and who is doing what to whom?

In the inquiry’s midterm report, the commissioners stated that the most significant theme they identified in the pre-inquiry community consultation process were the impacts of racism (National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls 2017, 29) and that the most significant themes they identified in the pre-inquiry advisory meetings were policing and the criminal justice system and media depictions of Indigenous women and victims of violence. The inquiry claims to be “…exposing hard truths about the devastating impacts of colonization, racism and sexism - aspects of canadian (sic) society that many Canadians are reluctant to accept” (National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls 2017, 1).

However, as is too often the case, colonization and racism are presented as the primary factors impacting Indigenous women and girls (Kuokkanen 2015), despite the central role of patriarchy and misogyny that allows, encourages, and profits from the high rates and levels of violence committed by Indigenous and non-Indigenous men against Indigenous women.[5] While some women who testified at the inquiry bravely acknowledged that violence is also committed by Indigenous men, other women attempted to conceal this reality. For example, Summer-Rain Bentham, a Gitxsan and Squamish front-line worker with Battered Women’s Support Services (BWSS) in Vancouver stated in her testimony:

“I know you have heard throughout these hearings and in [the] Calgary hearing, that it is mostly Indigenous men who are committing the violence against our Indigenous women and girls. From my 15 years of frontline experience and my 35 years of life, I would strongly disagree with this statement. I would go so far as to say it is a grossly unfair reading of history to blame Indigenous communities alone for the state of crisis across the country”.

Indigenous women are pressured to cover for, excuse, hide, and deny the violence they experience from Indigenous men for many reasons. For example, women can be pushed out of their communities and families as a consequence for standing up to an abusive father or to a male chief that is sexually assaulting women. It is true that Indigenous women and girls are attacked by non-Indigenous and Indigenous men. Failing to acknowledge this fact works to protect abusive Indigenous men and reminds Indigenous women not to speak about the violence perpetrated by certain groups of men. The reality of Indigenous men as intentional adopters of patriarchy (as opposed to victims of it) who continue to enjoy the benefits of this ideology shatters the current romanticization of Indigenous communities and demands that all men take responsibility for embracing patriarchy and its benefits. It’s easier to place blame elsewhere but as advocates, we need to have the courage to put Indigenous women first, even when it’s difficult.

Another way in which the roles of men as perpetrators of violence against Indigenous women and girls in a patriarchy is disappeared is in the inquiry’s brazen support of sex work ideology. Among feminists and self-identified feminists, two dominant perspectives have emerged: prostitution as a form of male violence against women and a barrier to women’s liberation advocated by feminists and sex work as a stigmatized yet legitimate and even empowering form of labour advanced by sex workers’ rights advocates (Mathieson et al. 2015). Feminists recognize that all prostitution, including indoor and outdoor prostitution, brothels, stripping, pornography, and other forms of paid sex acts include primarily men as buyers and women and girls as sellers of sex and is therefore a sex-based act of oppression that constitutes a form of male violence against women (Barry 1984; Jeffreys 1997). The demand for sexual access to the bodies of women is viewed as harmful and as a patriarchal practice rooted in male entitlement, as Kathy Miriam states, “…the root question of an abolitionist approach to prostitution is not whether women ‘choose’ prostitution or not, but why men have the right to ‘demand that women’s bodies are sold as commodities in the capitalist market’” (2005, 2).

In this view, the act of “agreeing” to unwanted sexual acts for compensation is seen as the first source of harm for women in prostitution and to engage in the selling of sex is a result of limited choices available to women and girls who are oppressed in patriarchy (Carter & Giobbe 1999). Prostitution, according to this perspective, cannot be reformed, regulated, or made safe and as a result, the practice should be abolished (Barry, 1984). The “Nordic Model” approach is the policy most commonly supported by feminists to address prostitution (Mathieson et al. 2015). This policy was first adopted by Sweden in 1999 and is a three-pronged approach including: 1. The decriminalization of prostituted persons and the criminalization of sex buyers and pimps; 2. Funding for comprehensive exiting and preventative services including, but not limited to: safe and affordable housing, a livable welfare rate, counselling, health care, and job training; and 3. A public education campaign that promotes the message that prostitution is a form of male violence and that discourages men from purchasing sex acts (Mathieson et al. 2015).

In contrast, sex worker’s rights advocates view sex work, a term coined by Carol Leigh aka Scarlot Harlot (Leigh 1997), as a form of labour that can and should be made safer for those participating in the industry. In this view, the stigma of engaging in sex work and any laws that criminalize any aspect of sex work are the primary sources of harm for those in the industry as they impede the ability of sex workers to access basic needs and social services when in need due to misinformation and negative judgement of their occupation (van der Meulen et al. 2013). Those who frame sex as work advocate for either a legalized model, under which the sex industry (including sex workers who provide sexual services, clients, managers, drivers, receptionists, bodyguards, and all others who profit from the sex industry) is fully decriminalized and regulated by government legislation, or a fully decriminalized model, in which the sex industry is formally decriminalized but regulation is provided in the form of workplace health and safety guidelines (van der Meulen et al. 2013) and municipal regulations and policies (Mathieson 2019). According to this perspective, sex workers would be eligible for employment insurance, worker’s compensation, health insurance, and all other benefits afforded to other workers and could organize into unions to further protect their rights (van der Meulen et al. 2013).

In its lexicon, the inquiry attempts to make clear distinctions between “chosen” sex work and “forced” youth exploitation and human trafficking:

“While not all sex work between consenting adults is always considered exploitative, it is if it involves children and youth (‘sexually exploited children and youth’)…[a] distinction should be made between sex work and sex trafficking (a form of human trafficking). They are not interchangeable terms, but are often grouped together. Sex trafficking is the act of human trafficking for the purposes of obtaining sex by coercion or exploitation. Sex trafficking, like other forms of human trafficking, is a human rights abuse” (National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls 2018).

While sex worker’s rights advocates believe that prostitution can be categorized as “forced” or “chosen”, feminists argue that the supposed distinction between “forced” and “chosen” prostitution is not an accurate or useful way to examine the issue and serves the interests of men as pimps and johns rather than women in prostitution. As written in an article I co-wrote with Dr. Maddy Coy and Dr. Meagan Tyler:

“Stating that prostitution and trafficking are two separate and distinct actions poses questions that do not have clear answers. For example, how does one differentiate between a woman who is a sex worker and a woman who is trafficked? Do we rely on her statement that she is there willingly, when we know that there are cases where women do not speak out of fear of retaliation? How, too, would we differentiate between sex buyers who purchase sex workers and those who buy trafficked women so that we make sure to stop the demand for sex trafficking, but not the demand for sex work? Studies show that some sex buyers neither know nor care if women have been coerced or trafficked (e.g. Yonkova & Keegan, 2014). In attempting to offer empirical support for how policy approaches can address women’s safety and the harms of prostitution, it is unhelpful to disregard the multi-layered links between prostitution and trafficking” (Coy et al. 2019).

Despite the ways in which prostitution is discussed on the website and in official inquiry documents, there is no consensus that sex work is work and that it can be made safer by the decriminalization of men as pimps and johns and encouragement of male entitlement to sex acts from women and girls. These debates have increased in the public sphere in Canada over the last decade due to the Supreme Court Challenge Bedford v. Canada, the subsequent striking down of Canada’s previous prostitution laws, and the 2014 implementation of new legislation that adopts prostitution as a form of violence, criminalizes pimping and the buying of sex, decriminalizes prostituted person in most, but not all, circumstances, criminalizes advertising for prostitution by third-parties, and allocated not-nearly-enough one-time funds for exiting and preventative services, among other things. This legislation was debated as bill C-36 and is known as the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (PCEPA).[4]

The inquiry has decided that prostitution is a legitimate occupation – “sex work”. In its literature review that examined recommendations from previous reports on the issue of violence against Indigenous women, the section entitled “The need to better protect Indigenous women involved in survival sex work or who are being trafficked for sex” states:

“This [recommendation] does not appear to have been fully implemented. There have been several legal and policy developments in this area over the last several years. In 2012, the federal government introduced a National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking. However, it fails to provide distinct measures to address Indigenous women’s vulnerability to trafficking. Also, recent changes to Canadian prostitution laws may have negative impacts on more vulnerable Indigenous women” (National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls 2017, 49).

Endnote 104 is attached to the final sentence in this section and references the Bedford v. Canada decision of 2013 and the Pivot Legal Society-produced document, Bill C-36: A Backgrounder. Pivot Legal Society is a Vancouver-based organization that works “…in partnership with marginalized people and grassroots organizations to challenge legislation, policies, and practices that undermine human rights, intensify poverty, and perpetuate stigma” (Pivot Legal Society n.d.). Pivot understands prostitution as a form of labour (sex work) and campaigns for decriminalizing johns, pimps, and sex workers who sell sex. This source, Bill C-36: A Backgrounder was published November 6, 2014 on the day PCEPA received Royal Assent[6] and before the legislation came into force on December 6, 2014. This source, legitimized by the inquiry states:

“The Government of Canada has consistently misrepresented Bill C-36 by saying that this legislation only targets clients and exploitive third parties, while not criminalizing sex workers and others who may enhance sex workers’ safety. In fact, Bill C-36 will result in sweeping criminalization of the sex industry, targeting sex workers, clients, and third parties, and will have the effect of increasing sex workers’ vulnerability to violence and other forms of abuse… Bill C-36 proposes a regime of total criminalization that will recreate and exacerbate all of the harms faced by sex workers under the provisions that were at issue in Canada v. Bedford. Bill C-36 is an unconstitutional variation of the recently struck laws, and it imposes the same or increased danger, criminalization, and stigma on sex workers” (Pivot Legal Society 2014).

This source document, which does not refer specifically to Indigenous women at all, also lists ways in which Bill C-36, PCEPA may target sex workers, clients, and third parties. This document contains only Pivot Legal Society’s predictions of the impacts of PCEPA although the inquiry and the document itself presents these predictions as fact. How can we trust that the resources and analysis that were used to examine prostitution – not to mention all other issues – in the inquiry were examined thoroughly and presented accurately? Given that the document referred to above was written before PCEPA even came into force yet is presented as fact by the inquiry causes doubt about the integrity of the entire process and what will be shared in the final report.

The term “sex work” and accompanying terms such as “sex workers”, “clients”, and “third parties” disappears the sex-based reality of prostitution and the ways in which each group – the women in prostitution, the men who buy sex, and the men who pimp and profit from women’s prostitution – relates to the sex industry (Farley 2006). In short, this terminology completely obscures unequal power relationships, presenting women selling sex acts and men who are sex act purchasers and pimps as equal parties in an enthusiastic and mutually-beneficial economic exchange while ignoring the historical and contemporary patriarchal, capitalist, and racist context that prostitution occurs in. While women’s motivations for entering into prostitution are often examined and debated at length, sex work ideology refuses to question, challenge, or sometimes even acknowledge the roles of male entitlement to sex on demand. This is because sex work ideology relies on a belief that men are entitled to purchase and profit from the prostitution of women. The inquiry failed women by adopting the ideology of sex work is work and by embracing this perspective so early in the process.

In the inquiry’s lexicon, “sexual violence” is defined as:

“…a range of abusive and violent behaviours including, but not limited to: rape, sexual harassment, molestation, unwanted sexual contact. The acts are conducted without a person’s freely given consent” (National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls 2018).

This definition is troubling in that it foregrounds “consent” as a determining factor in the perpetration of sexualized male violence. As many feminists have cautioned, if we use the presence or absence of “consent” from women who have been assaulted to determine if sexual violence has occurred, men and their actions once again disappear in the conversation. This is particularly clear when considering prostitution. For example, is a girl who was prostituted from the age of 10 consenting to her prostitution the day after she turns 18? How do men use money to obtain “consent” from women in prostitution? Did Indigenous women and girls who exchanged sex acts in return for food rations from Indian agents and other men when starving and confined to reserves as part of the pass system (Carter, 1998) “consent” to this male violence? A feminist analysis recognizes the ways in which women’s “choices” and “consent” are impacted by patriarchy, capitalism, and racism.

Public debate on the issue of prostitution continues across Canada: Is prostitution a job (sex work) or a form of male violence against women and girls? What is the role of “choice” and “consent” in the actions of women and men in these situations? What should we do about it? Any mention of these debates are completely disappeared from the inquiry’s website and official documents. Rather, the idea of sex-as-work is presented as fact that informs the inquiry’s process. By failing to acknowledge different perspectives – or that there are even different perspectives – on this issue (and other issues mentioned above), the inquiry cannot fully investigate and offer possible solutions if they began their examination with the conclusion that sex work is “real work”.

Disappeared Feminism

The term “feminism” has come to have different meanings to different individuals. This “feminism” can be categorized as “third wave”, “popular”, “fun” or “choice” feminism and is the most visible and dominant idea of “feminism” today (Kiraly and Tyler 2015, xi – xvii; Whisnant 2015, 3 – 16) . “Third wave feminism” draws on liberal feminist principles and focuses on individual experiences and women’s choices within a patriarchy (Kiraly and Tyler 2015, xi – xvii). In other words, the goal of this ideology is to find the best way for women to accommodate patriarchy. While this “third wave” ideology self-identifies as “feminism”, a feminist analysis seeks to examine, take action, and dismantle the root causes of women’s oppression (Rowland and Klein 1996). As such, what has been termed a “radical feminist” (meaning “pertaining to the root”) analysis encompasses the foundations of feminist thought, action, and political movement, and builds upon the following principles:

“…radical feminism insists that women as a social class or a social group are oppressed by men as a social group as well as individually by men who continue to benefit from that oppression and do nothing to change it; the system through which men do this has been termed patriarchy; radical feminism is women-centered and stresses both the personal as political and the need for collective action and responsibility; it is ‘power’ rather than ‘difference’ which determines the relationship between women and men…” (Rowland and Klein 1996, 13).

Radical feminism allows for a structural and politicized analysis of the oppression of women by men and works to end patriarchy and its accompanying oppressive friends: racism and capitalism.

One would think that an inquiry into (male) violence against Indigenous women and girls would adopt a feminist framework that takes into account sex, class, and race in addition to Indigenous frameworks and methodologies. The inquiry adopted a “culturally-relevant feminist intersectional gender-based analysis” into its research framework (National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Research Team 2017, 2) and the inquiry’s website reflects this buzzword-filled but ultimately meaningless ideology: this inquiry is about violence, not male violence; this inquiry is about peoples, not women; and this inquiry does not name who is doing what to whom or allow others to accurately describe reality. The inquiry is not feminist because it is not about women and it is not working toward women’s liberation.

Another way in which feminism is disappeared in the inquiry is the idea that “Indigenous women and girls are sacred”. The title of the inquiry’s midterm report is Our Women and Girls are Sacred:

“In all that we do, we are guided by the National Inquiry’s overarching principle- that our women and girls are sacred. This informs our vision: helping Indigenous women and girls reclaim their power and place. We have listened to families and survivors to better understand what we weren’t hearing before, and how we must go about our work moving forward” (National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls 2017, 3).

The inquiry website elaborates on this concept:

“Indigenous women and Two-Spirit people have traditionally been revered as life-givers and caregivers. This is why we say, ‘our women and girls are sacred.’ But Indigenous women and girls, including those who are LGBTQ2S, continue to be devalued. All too many become the victims of violence. Our vision for the National Inquiry is to build a foundation that allows Indigenous women and girls to reclaim their power and place”.

Previously, I too uncritically accepted these ideas in an emotional response to the negative ways we are constructed as Indigenous women. However, the idea of Indigenous women as “sacred” brings up connotations of reverence and tradition and ultimately presents the issue of male violence against Indigenous women as immune to critique lest someone be labelled “disrespectful”. With feminist politics and women-only space to think, read, write, discuss, and debate, my analysis in regard to Indigenous women and our “traditional” roles has developed. I no longer believe that Indigenous women are sacred. Women, as a class, have historically been and presently are oppressed by men, as a class, on the basis of our sex (Rowland and Klein 1996). Being “revered” as life-givers and caregivers is the other side of the coin to being devalued as "squaws" and "welfare moms". A feminist analysis does neither; instead, women are intrinsically respected as women, whether we are life-givers, caregivers, sexually active, on welfare, or not.

Positioning the restoration of Indigenous women’s “power and place” is a foundational vision for the inquiry and is another idea that I uncritically accepted. I no longer think that this is a useful concept in the struggle for women’s liberation. We are told that pre-white-men-invasion, many, if not most, Indigenous nations did not have systemic capitalist and patriarchal sex-based inequality as we do today. However, there could have been a devaluation of women and limitations placed on women in Indigenous nations. When examining male violence against Indigenous women and girls, why does it matter if Indigenous women, prior to colonization, were considered as female human beings equal to Indigenous men as male human beings? Whether we were treated as equals as Indigenous women before, or not, and whether non-Indigenous women were previously treated as equals, or not, is irrelevant to ending the oppression of women by men today. Decoupling the idea of women’s liberation from Indigenous cultures is a necessary step if we are really invested in ending male violence against Indigenous women and girls and against all women and girls. Our freedom, as women, is inherent, whether sanctioned by our cultures, other cultures, or not at all. Restoration of Indigenous cultural traditions is important for some Indigenous women, and these women should be able to learn and participate in their traditions; but this is a process that is separate from the fight for women’s liberation.


We will only have one federal government-funded inquiry into violence against Indigenous women and girls. The inquiry we had uncritically accepted the idea that gender is an undefinable internal feeling; that sex work is work; and that colonization and racism, not patriarchy and misogyny, are the primary causes of violence against Indigenous women and girls in its foundational analysis, structure, scope, and process. We should be outraged that in her testimony, Secwepemc lawyer Katherine Hensel stated that sex work is a valued and valuable service to men and described it as being beautiful and kind, stating that sex work is medicine. No outrage followed because "sex work is work". Failing to consider other ideas in relation to gender, prostitution, and the role of colonization fails Indigenous women – we deserve to have the most thorough examination of (male) violence possible. The interim report states:

“The National Inquiry will build upon the central conclusion of the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: that violence against Indigenous Peoples, including Indigenous women and girls, is rooted in colonization. For the violence against Indigenous women and girls to end, the ongoing colonial relationship that facilitates it must end” (National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls 2017, 13).

Why wasn't the Royal Commission on the Status of Women examined and built upon? Presenting only certain perspectives on controversial issues and assuming that concepts such as "colonization" are already fully defined limits our ability to get to the “root causes” of the life-and-death issues the inquiry is claiming to examine. For example, I previously thought and publicly stated that patriarchy, racism, and capitalism are expressions and a result of colonization. After reading and discussion I have come to think differently. Instead of the assumption that colonization brought patriarchy to North America, I now believe that patriarchy brought colonization to North America. Non-Indigenous women were not “sailing the ocean blue” seeking new lands, resources, and people to exploit, men were. I now understand the process of colonization, racism, and capitalism are the result of patriarchy and not the other way around. I am currently engaged in reading, thinking, talking, and discussing with other feminists to fully develop this idea.

Women-only space where women can share experiences and develop theory together is absolutely essential if we are to take meaningful action toward women’s liberation. At current, that space is almost completely eroded as self-identification and “inclusivity” as opposed to “political organizing, which does not include everyone” becomes the dominant way of thinking.

Without examining different perspectives on contentious issues, this inquiry failed Indigenous women. Coming forward to share stories of male violence requires great courage on the part of Indigenous women who participated in the inquiry; the inquiry should demonstrate that same level of courage as it examines controversial issues.

Despite all of this, however, there is still some hope. The inquiry veered so far off course from the beginning that it was no longer useful in finding and addressing any “root causes” of (male) violence against Indigenous women and girls. However, those of us outside the inquiry can use the public interest in these issues to intervene and draw attention to the concerns of Indigenous women that were disappeared in the formal inquiry process.


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[1] I use the term “feminist” meaning “radical feminist”.

[2] I use “male” in parentheses to draw attention to the ways that male violence is concealed.

[3] The lexicon lists preferred terms used by the inquiry.

[4] Michael Hutchinson was subsequently fired from his position.

[5] See McIvor and Nahanee, 1998 and Brennan 2011 for statistics that demonstrate the rates of violence committed against Indigenous women and girls by Indigenous men.

[6] A bill becomes an act of Parliament and part of the law of Canada once it has passed both house of Parliament and achieved Royal Assent.


by Cherry Smiley