By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
Since 1992, October has been designated Women’s History Month. October was selected to commemorate the “Persons Case” in which the British Privy Council (then Canada’s highest court of appeal) ruled in October 1929 that women were persons under the law, a decision that contradicted an earlier ruling of the Supreme Court of Canada.
Five White Canadian women took the case to the British Privy Council and won the right to become members of the Senate. Even after that “victory”, not all Canadian women were considered equal. A quote from the CBC website (www.cbc.ca/strombo/news/women-the-right-to-vote-in-canada-an-important-clarification.html) informs that: “Most women of colour – including Chinese women, “Hindu” or East Indian women, Japanese women – weren’t allowed to vote at the provincial and federal level until the late 1940s. And under federal law, aboriginal women covered by the Indian Act couldn’t vote for band councils until 1951, and couldn’t vote in federal elections until 1960. So, there you go – it wasn’t until 1960 that ALL Canadian women finally had the right to vote.”
The article, entitled “Women & The Right To Vote In Canada: An Important Clarification”, was published on February 26, 2013. It is not surprising that the “Famous Five”, led by Emily Murphy, did not pay attention to the fact that there were groups of women in Canada who could not even vote much less hope to sit in the Senate. Murphy, in her 1922 book, The Black Candle, made her disdain for racialized people very clear. In her book she attacks “Chinese, Hindus, Mexicans and Negroes” as people unfit to live in Canada. Some people have sought to excuse her White supremacist diatribe as being a product of her time. To give Murphy her due, she did fight for the rights of White Canadian women.
While planning to write about Women’s History Month I thought about the more than 200 schoolgirls who were kidnapped by a group of men in Nigeria who call themselves “Boko Haram”, which supposedly means “Western education is a sin” in the Hausa language. Some scholars have argued that is not a literal translation. Whatever the two words mean the group that bears that name has done irreparable damage to parents, siblings, friends and community members of the kidnapped girls.
Even the girls who managed to escape are traumatized. Following the April 15 kidnapping of the girls, there was a flurry of activity, including the “Bring Back Our Girls” publicity campaign. The campaign garnered international attention and participation. For a few weeks it seemed the fashionable thing to do was organize a “Bring Back Our Girls” event with much media hype and politicians seeking publicity eagerly agreeing to address the crowds that gathered. Celebrities were out in numbers displaying their “Bring Back Our Girls” signs while posing for the paparazzi. Social media, especially Facebook and Twitter, was lit up by activists. Everything imaginable was used during the few short weeks that posing with a placard reading “Bring Back Our Girls” was fashionable. The First Lady of the United States was photographed somewhere in the White House with her placard reading “Bring Back Our Girls”.
On May 6, U.S. President Barack Obama, accompanied by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, held a press conference where it was announced that the U.S. government would commit military resources in an effort to find the kidnapped girls. Kerry announced: “Our embassy in Abuja is prepared to form a coordination cell that could provide expertise on intelligence, investigations and hostage negotiations and to help facilitate information-sharing and victim assistance. And we are immediately engaging in order to implement this. We remain deeply concerned about the welfare of these young girls.”
Well here we are almost five months later and the girls have not been rescued, plus the U.S. government seems to have forgotten all about them, including Kerry, in spite of the “deep concern about the welfare of these young girls” that he expressed in May.
Now it is almost as if the world has forgotten about these unfortunate girls. Even here in Canada as we prepare to “celebrate” Women’s History Month, there is no mention of “Bring Back Our Girls”, of whom approximately 200 remain missing. The group that kidnapped the girls may be considered a lunatic fringe of the society in which they dwell. Here in Canada there is no such lunatic fringe (that I am aware of).
Yet there are hundreds of missing Aboriginal women and not much of a public outcry by Canadians. The Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) in a report titled, “NWAC’s response to the Special Committee on Violence Against Indigenous Women (SCVAIW)”, released in March, 2014 wrote: “NWAC has been addressing the issue of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls in Canada for many years and remains deeply concerned that this issue is far from being resolved. NWAC documented 582 cases of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls in Canada through the Sisters In Spirit project, which ended in 2010, however, we continue to hear of ‘new’ cases of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls from various regions in Canada. Just recently, research carried out by an Ottawa University Doctoral candidate, revealed that number to be well over 800. NWAC is the only organization to have systemically collected data on this issue and in doing so, was able to identify the many factors and commonalities that put these women and girls at risk.”
The report also includes this statement from NWAC president, Michèle Audette: “This would have been an opportune time for the Government to demonstrate to all Canadians, and to our international colleagues as well, that it truly is committed to ending all forms of violence against Aboriginal women and girls. This report fails to show the needed commitment and resources to adequately address this ongoing tragedy – a tragedy that is a reflection on Canada as a whole.” On Friday, March 7, the federal Conservatives rejected appeals for a national inquiry into murdered and missing aboriginal women.
In the United States, where President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry promised to support the search and effort to rescue the kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls, there are thousands of missing African-American girls. According to the founders of the organization “Black and Missing”, although African-Americans are 12 per cent of the population, they account for 34 per cent of people who are missing.
October is Women’s History Month and we should be concerned about all the women and girls who are missing. There should be an outcry and a campaign to find them all instead of creating a show for a few weeks about the kidnapped girls who do not live in North America or any developed nation and can quickly be forgotten. Every life is valuable and should be equally valued. Women’s History Month can be used as the starting point to put more effort into investigating and searching for all missing women.
In Toronto there will be a “Sisters in Spirit Week” held at the “Native Women’s Resource Centre of Toronto” (NWRCT), which is located at 191 Gerrard Street East. The “Sisters in Spirit Week” includes a letter writing campaign with Amnesty International and button making with the Native Youth Sexual Health Network from 10:30 am to 12:30 pm at NWRCT on Thursday, October 2.
There is also an NWRCT presentation and teach-in: “Dispelling Stereotypes about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women” from 5 to 7 p.m. at NWRCT with Dr. Suzanne Stewart and Lee Maracle. On Friday, October 3, a “Social Media Campaign” to raise awareness about Sisters in Spirit and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women using Twitter, Facebook, etc. The week’s activities will culminate in a “Sisters in Spirit Vigil” on Saturday, October 4, in Allan Gardens (Sherbourne and Gerrard Streets) from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.