Too Quiet for too Long
Someone told me recently that I rarely show anger. The rules of femininity don’t allow for anger and showing this emotion can be dangerous for women. Maybe we’ll feel guilt or sadness or fear instead – but the anger is buried in there; covered up; pushed aside. We can go through a rollercoaster of a million different emotions over a week or a year or a lifetime and my hope is we’ll get to feel our anger collectively, fully, and honestly.
In 2016 I was awarded a Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation (PETF) doctoral scholarship. I am grateful for the support the PETF has given to me and to others. Without this, many of us wouldn’t have been able to do the research we wanted to do and some of us wouldn’t have been able to pursue a PhD at all. I’m grateful for the genuine connections I’ve made with PETF community members.
2018 was a time of great change for the PETF with new leadership restructuring programs, events, and policies to reflect new visions and new directions.
In May 2019 the PETF hosted their annual gathering for new and active scholars, fellows, and mentors. I had planned to, but did not attend this year. My silence and anger was right in front of me as the annual May gathering took place. I didn’t know how to attend the event. The notice that Yellowknife, Northwest Territories would be the first location for the PETF’s new Institute for Engaged Leadership in October 2019 with the theme of Power & Knowledge spoke loudly to me, as did the lack of reconciliatory action on behalf of the PETF.
It has taken a long time for me to process what happened in its entirety and to find the words that I feel accurately describe what happened and how I felt. I have reflected on the events of the past year and need to be honest with myself and others.
Although I am angry, I have not written this in anger or with intent to harm. I have written this because I can't continue to feel the pain of my own silence; because these are important issues that go beyond individuals and individual organizations that need to be discussed; and because I believe it is the right thing to do.
At the 2018 May PETF gathering in St. John’s, Newfoundland, I met the mentor I had been matched with. Until 2018 the PETF matched a third-year scholar or scholars with an individual selected as part of that year’s mentorship program. Another scholar and I were matched with former premier of the Northwest Territories, former President of the Dene Nation, and founder of Canadians for a New Partnership, Mr. Stephen Kakfwi.
We were encouraged to get to know our mentors and our mentors were encouraged to get to know us without much guidance from the PETF. During the 2018 gathering there were two occasions when Mr. Kakfwi stood uncomfortably close to me, grabbed and rubbed my upper left arm, which is near my breast, at length in what seemed like a “massaging” fashion. I consider this behavior to be unprofessional and inappropriate. The first time this occurred was late at night in the empty lobby of the hotel where PETF community members were staying and where the gathering primarily took place. I don’t recall if or what he said to me in this moment. The second time this happened was at the closing gala event where he reminded me, as he was holding and rubbing my upper arm, of his invitation to visit and stay with him in the spare bedroom at his family home in Yellowknife. At our first meeting, he had invited both myself and the other scholar, a male, to visit him at his home. The combination of Mr. Kakfwi’s behavior, the location the behaviour happened in, what was being said, and the class- and sex-based power dynamics made me feel extremely uncomfortable, fearful, and distressed. As is so often the case in these situations, I began to doubt myself and my feelings – maybe I was overreacting?
When I returned home to Montreal, I wasn’t sure what to do, what to say, how to say it, or if I could even say or do anything at all. I knew that I did not feel comfortable around Mr. Kakfwi and I knew that I did not feel comfortable going to visit and stay with him in his home, but I also knew that I needed a fourth year of funding from the PETF and that I needed a recommendation letter from my mentor, Mr. Kakfwi, in order to apply. I received a phone call from the PETF a few days later. Grateful, I explained what had happened.
From approximately May until September 2018, the PETF and I went back and forth about the situation. Lawyers were involved and the PETF provided me, at my request, with an amount of funding so I could seek legal advice. I won’t go into too much detail as many things were said by many different people over a long period of time but suffice it to say it was and remains an extremely painful experience for me. At the time the incidents happened, there was no harassment policy in place at the PETF so there was no procedure to follow to address the situation. I lost trust in the PETF and my relationship with the PETF is damaged beyond repair.
After informing the PETF about what happened and feeling hopeful that the situation was being sensitively addressed, I received an information-gathering phone call from the outgoing president. I was asked what I consider to be hostile and victim-blaming questions. After I wasn’t able to accommodate follow-up requests for additional conversation with the outgoing president, his term ended and I engaged from then on with the incoming and current president, Dr. Pascale Fournier.
I was told to keep everything confidential – don’t tell anyone what happened and what was going on and this is what I did for far too long. Two male representatives of the PETF met with Mr. Kakfwi in-person without my knowledge and upon their return, met with me and shared explanations, context, and what I consider to be excuses for Mr. Kakfwi’s behaviour. A non-disclosure agreement (NDA) had been mentioned previously and in the meeting at the PETF offices, I was told that Mr. Kakfwi had requested I sign an NDA. In return, he would step away from the PETF while admitting no wrongdoing. A non-disclosure agreement means that the parties who sign (in this case Mr. Kakfwi, the PETF, and myself) agree to keep the information included in the agreement confidential. I felt pressured to sign the NDA even though the PETF assured me they were not pressuring me. The PETF suggested an NDA would avoid bad press for the organization and also avoid a third-party investigation that could be time-consuming. I was told that the NDA would also protect me from potential negative consequences if I spoke publicly about what happened.
I was afraid if I didn’t do what the PETF and Mr. Kakfwi wanted that I could lose the doctoral scholarship I had worked so hard for - I didn’t trust the PETF’s assurances that I would not lose my award over this. I was distracted, anxious, and exhausted from lack of sleep. I wasn’t productive and could see my graduation timeline stretching off into the horizon. I was morally conflicted about continuing to accept scholarship payments from the PETF in general and particularly while remaining silent. I spent months agonizing over what to do. Fearing repercussion for myself and the PETF, I abided by the request for confidentiality. I sat with my feelings and questions and worries alone until I finally shared what was happening with my partner and trusted friends.
I felt as if the PETF didn’t believe me and that they were most concerned with protecting themselves and their reputation and were not concerned about ensuring accountability for Mr. Kakfwi or acknowledging the impact of his and their actions on me. There seemed to be very little understanding about the power dynamics at play that are embedded between scholars and the rest of the PETF community. There was one female PETF board member that was supportive during this time. Although I increasingly felt that I couldn’t trust anyone during the process, this board member’s patience, empathy, and understanding made me feel supported and feel that she cared about me, as a woman, first.
At a meeting with Concordia University to see if there was any assistance they could provide, I was told there was little they could do as this situation fell outside of any of their potentially applicable policies. They offered to attend meetings with me but as I had been meeting with the PETF for months alone or with supportive friends, I declined their late offer of assistance. What struck me about the meeting is that I was explicitly told that it was important for Concordia University to keep a good relationship with the PETF. To me, that seemed to be the university’s primary concern.
Mr. Kakfwi’s profile was removed from the PETF website last year. I don’t know the details of his departure. I did not sign an NDA and I asked for some accommodation that the PETF did grant me. There is now a harassment policy in place. I was asked to give feedback on the initial draft policy and I did, without offer of compensation for my time or expertise in this area. I had suggested the PETF offer a dedicated and comprehensive session on the harassment policy at the next event. My understanding of the May 2019 gathering was that there was a mention of this new policy, opportunity for questions, and then the session quickly moved on.
Relationships Do Not Rebuild Themselves
I used to state in public talks and articles that “patriarchy was imposed on Indigenous communities”. I no longer agree with this statement. I now think and state that “patriarchy was adopted by Indigenous men”. In the same way that no one forced billionaire businessmen to adopt capitalism against their will, Indigenous men chose to adopt patriarchy and run with it because it benefits them. Unfortunately, too many Indigenous sisters run beside these men, “holding them up”, believing that men and their issues are somehow the responsibility of women to heal. Too many non-Indigenous sisters also run beside these men, thinking they are responsible to protect them from consequences rooted in racism. No woman is ever responsible for a man’s violence and no woman is ever responsible for “healing” a violent man or any man. Indigenous men can fight against racist stereotypes in the media and injustice in the justice system themselves; we women are not responsible to take on everyone else’s struggles. Indigenous men can “hold themselves up” all by themselves just fine.
I used my PETF research and travel funding to conduct research in New Zealand and Australia this past year and I’m grateful that I had this opportunity. I was contacted by the supportive board member who asked how I was doing and invited me for coffee. Other than that, I have not been contacted by the PETF in regard to this situation.
My relationship to the PETF and to Concordia University are incredibly damaged. Both institutions are aware of this and yet neither has reached out in an attempt to repair these relationships. It is important to know that relationships do not rebuild themselves. Failing to follow up with me about a very difficult situation may not impact the PETF or Concordia University in any substantial way but it does continue to significantly impact my life in negative ways. Individual PETF community members are wonderful to deal with, as always. I admire Dr. Fournier’s confidence and dedication to achieving her vision. But this is not about individuals or just about the PETF and Concordia University. This is not just about Mr. Kakfwi’s behavior as an individual, this is also about patriarchy and the pivotal role it plays in our lives as women and particularly as Indigenous women.
Don’t Write This
I am frustrated and angry, and I think that it’s ok to feel this way. I can no longer accept that everything looks just fine on the surface: Mr. Kakfwi quietly stepped away from the PETF and has gone on with his life; the PETF has promoted “inclusive excellence” and conducted the organization’s first-ever cross-country community consultations; Concordia continues to support students nominated for a PETF doctoral scholarship; and I continue to receive scholarship payments from the PETF.
I've been told my whole life not to write this in many different ways by many different people. I’ve been reminded numerous times by academics about the ways the media and justice system treat Indigenous men unfairly due to their Indigineity. These reminders send the message that it’s better to keep quiet about abusive or harassing behaviour from Indigenous men because of the racism they may experience if exposed. This in turn sends the message to us that the portrayal of Indigenous men in media and their treatment by the criminal justice system is more important than the safety, security, and lives of Indigenous women and girls. I’ve also been told that if I went public and especially if I named names, I could be sued.
Despite the messages I’ve received to keep quiet, I cannot and will not continue to receive PETF scholarship funds without speaking honestly and openly about what happened. I felt that this entire situation was swept under the rug and that rug benefits the PETF, Concordia University, and Mr. Kakfwi. I however, am left uncomfortable and anxious about the broken relationships I am trying to navigate.
Institutions like the PETF and Concordia University often claim to be progressive, supportive of Indigenous scholars, and working toward reconciliation while at the same time failing to acknowledge and remedy their mistakes. A lumping together of “Indigenous scholars” is part of the problem: “Scholars” functions as “people” and today in 2019, “people” still means “men”. At best women are an afterthought tacked on in a footnote or more commonly, “disappeared” from the conversation altogether. If women are not explicitly acknowledged in conversations about decolonization or in policies that are implemented to achieve this goal, the issues that pertain to us as women are not acknowledged. Women need to be centered with intention or else men are.
Indigenous men have appeared to acknowledge the high rates of male violence Indigenous women suffer. However, they take no responsibility as intentional adopters and benefactors of patriarchy and as perpetrators of violence themselves. They take up space at the front, refusing to step aside and sharing their thoughts about "communities" and "peoples". If men cannot even admit to their behaviour, how can we women work with them?
There are many things that could have been done to prevent or to deal sensitively with what happened. There were multiple opportunities for the organizations I was dealing with to be honest, admit mistakes, offer an earnest apology, really listen and reflect, seek compensated help from experts such as women’s anti-violence groups if needed, work to rebuild relationships, ask me what I would like to see happen, and start by believing me.
There is no excuse for organizations to treat women as if they are liars when they disclose a situation that they consider to be harassment or to abandon women because they might be too “inconvenient” for their policies. In my opinion, there is also no excuse for men, especially former Premiers and the like, to not know the difference between appropriate and inappropriate touching in a professional setting.
Here are some recommendations that may be useful:
In all “decolonizing” or “indigenizing” policies, the particular historical and contemporary circumstances and particular needs of Indigenous women must be intentionally and explicitly included as a foundational component of the policy. For example, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls for Action (Calls for Action) or the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) do not sufficiently address the particular circumstances of Indigenous women and girls. In the Calls for Action, the word “women” is mentioned twice and in UNDRIP the word “women” is mentioned three times.
When creating policies, a feminist analysis is essential. Feminism is the only ideology that centres women and girls.
Consulting with feminist legal and other experts, examine the use of NDAs and Canada’s defamation laws in cases of harassment and other forms of male violence against women and girls to ensure these mechanisms work to protect women, not silence them.
Do not tell Indigenous women and girls about all the racist abuse Indigenous men will suffer from the media and criminal justice system if their unacceptable behaviour is exposed. However true this may be, this statement works to stop Indigenous women from speaking out about Indigenous men who have assaulted them. We are already aware of the many barriers and risks we face in these situations. The last thing we need is discouragement from speaking up and speaking out. What we need is women who will have the courage to stand with us when we do.
Stop calling #metoo a movement because it is not a movement. #Metoo is a moment in feminist action that has managed to somehow sever itself from the herstory of the women’s liberation movement. It is not new that women name and speak out against male violence. What does seem to be different is that maybe, for the moment, this practice is more mainstream. Do not participate in helping to erase the herstory of feminism. Read about accomplishments and failures of our foremothers, talk to older women about this herstory – learn it and move it forward.
The “taking down” of individual men online is not a useful strategy in and of itself. It isn’t even effective because at least some high-profile men who have been “cancelled” have disappeared for a few months or so and then bounced right back. When speaking of individual men, we must always do so in the context of patriarchy which necessitates a discussion of women as an oppressed sex-class and men as an oppressor sex-class and the structural changes that are necessary for women’s liberation.
Men: Don’t harass or sexually harass women in professional settings or anywhere else. If you can’t figure out how not to harass a woman, go somewhere and learn how to do that. It is not women’s responsibility to teach you how not to harass women.
If men can figure out how to build robots and fly to the moon but cannot figure out how not to harass women, how not to touch women inappropriately, or how not to make women uncomfortable around them, this a very sad state of affairs (for women) and demonstrates how deeply patriarchy is embedded in our culture. Let's talk about this.
Indigenous men: Colonization and histories of state violence are not excuses to beat, rape, abuse, kill, or otherwise harm Indigenous women and girls. Sort yourselves out.
Academics and liberals: Colonization and histories of state violence are not excuses for Indigenous men to beat, rape, abuse, kill, or otherwise harm Indigenous women and girls. Sort yourselves out.
It is not easy to speak up for ourselves as women. We spend lifetimes deferring to men while doubting, questioning, and disregarding our own experiences and expertise: I have a thought, should I say it? Can I say it? Will I hurt someone’s feelings by saying or doing something I want to say or do? The short answer to these questions is yes, yes, and yes; and that’s ok. We spend our lives tiptoeing around on eggshells, trying not to offend or upset. Sometimes, if we want resolution, even just for ourselves, we need to take matters into our own hands and this means centering ourselves and our needs over the hurt feelings or offense taken by men or male-dominated institutions.