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Helping aboriginal women starts at home, college panel hears

Yukon College hosted a panel discussion this week on the subject of missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada.

Yukon College hosted a panel discussion this week on the subject of missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada.

Three aboriginal women living in the Yukon told the assembled crowd of about 50 people that pushing for a national inquiry is important, but so is fighting for change at home and in our communities.

The panelists were Nesta Hagar, a member of the Selkirk First Nation who works with the Victoria Faulkner Women’s Centre; Tosh Southwick, a member of the Kluane First Nation who is Yukon College’s director of First Nation initiatives;

and Angela Code, from Manitoba’s Sayisi Dene First Nation, who moved to Yukon at age 10 and now works for Bringing Youth Towards Equality.

Change starts with individuals, and challenging society’s perception of aboriginal women as less valuable, said Code.

She told the story of a Gwich’in friend who worked for a time at a gelato shop in Vancouver.

A frequent customer asked her, one day, about her ethnic background. “Are you Hispanic? Are you Asian or something?” he asked. And she told him she is Gwich’in.

“Right then, he changed his attitude, and all of a sudden, to him, this older white man, she became almost sexually available or something. He started hitting on her, whereas before when he thought that she was Asian or Hispanic, or whatever, he didn’t do that.”

Challenging that sort of attitude is crucial, said Code.

“The aboriginal peoples in this country is the fastest growing population, and if we don’t do things to empower aboriginal peoples and to support them and protect them, then we’re into a lot of challenge up ahead as a country.”

The important thing is to push for the issue of missing and murdered aboriginal women to be at the forefront of Canadians’ minds, said Southwick.

“One of the things that we need to happen in terms of this conversation is for it to be happening regularly, not just with the politicians and the bureaucrats, but at our dinner tables, because it’s going to take all of us to solve it,” she said.

“It’s really scary out there. We’re raising our daughters, our nieces, our cousins, our granddaughters, in a reality where they are three times more likely to deal with this situation for no other reason than the fact that they are aboriginal.

“The considerations that my husband and I have to take into account with our daughter, because she’s First Nations that she faces such a reality, affects all of us. It affects my entire family, it affects my First Nation, it affects all my friends.”

Groups across the country, including all provincial and territorial governments, have asked Ottawa to hold a federal inquiry, an idea the Harper government has steadfastly opposed.

The panelists argued that an inquiry would not only generate discussion, it would come with resources for the groups tackling the problems and have broad implications for federal policy.

But waiting for an inquiry alone isn’t good enough, they said. There’s no reason why Yukon can’t lead the charge and start the discussion here.

“We need to be a united voice,” said Southwick. “All 14 First Nations need to say this is an issue and this how we want to move it forward. And that’s easy to do. If we can personalize it, and we can show that it’s relevant to all of us, and it affects all of us, and that it will continue to, it’s easy to unite the chiefs.

“One of the things I always say when I go Outside is, ‘Man, if we could do it in the Yukon, you guys had better be able to do it down here.’”

Making a change starts with individuals, in our families and in our communities, said Hagar.

We may think we only have one voice, but one voice can be like a mosquito in a dark room, she said.

“We have the power to absolutely change the world.”

And it starts with teaching our children, and learning to treat each other better, she said.

“It’s also really important that we empower each other, and not call each other down and be judgemental. We have to learn to love each other in society as men and women.”

Aboriginal men also have an important role to play, said Yukon filmmaker Dennis Allen, who was a member of the audience.

“As men, we have to start talking to our sons. My son is nine years old right now,” he said.

“It’s always uncomfortable as native people to talk about sex, to talk about anything that’s sensitive. We were trained - when you go back to residential school, that’s where it started - we were trained to be quiet, we were trained not to tell on anybody. We have to break out of that mould, especially as men.”

Changing the world takes individuals who are not afraid to speak up for what they believe in, the panelists said.

“Know that you are utterly important,” said Hagar.

Code mentioned the story of Malala Yousafzai, who was only 15 when members of the Pakistani Taliban shot her in the head for standing up for girls’ rights to go to school. Yousafzai was recently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her advocacy work.

If she can stand up to the Taliban in the face of real threats on her life, “What excuse do we have?” asked Code.

Contact Jacqueline Ronson at