Drummers gather outside of Ottawa City Hall in May 2015 during the closing ceremonies of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, a response to the widespread abuse of students in the Indian residential school system and resulting intergenerational trauma. Photo by Matt Gardner

#MeToo and the Church—Part Three: Perspectives on Indigeneity, colonialism and the legacy of the residential schools

Read Parts One and Two.

For many Indigenous peoples in Canada, the increased public attention to sexual violence in the wake of the #MeToo movement can carry a very different meaning than it might for non-Indigenous peoples.

The historical experience of colonization, widespread abuse of children in the Indian residential school system, the resulting intergenerational trauma, and the ongoing struggle against racism and sexism create unique challenges for Indigenous people, the effects of which can be felt in attitudes to the current public conversation sparked by #MeToo.

Indigenous Ministries Coordinator Ginny Doctor said that she knew “more than several” Indigenous women who had experienced sexual violence in the past, but who were reluctant to publicly share their stories.

“From my point of view, I don’t think a lot of Indigenous women have responded by saying ‘me too,’” Doctor said. “I think that’s the case for a lot of Indigenous women … They’ve been silenced or not encouraged to speak about it, and if they do speak about it, what alternative do they have? Are there safe places for them to talk about what happened to them?”

Experiences of sexual abuse in Indigenous communities are often related to issues such as alcoholism and drug use, caused or exacerbated by the intergenerational trauma that resulted from colonization and the residential school experience.

“I’ve been working in Indigenous communities for most of my life, and I’ve heard the stories of Indigenous women being raped or sexually molested by either family members or people who have been drinking,” Doctor said. “It all seems to stem from people abusing alcohol, and it’s a dysfunction that we really haven’t dealt with, and I’m not quite sure how we do deal with it.

“We can say ‘me too’, but what happens after that, I guess, is my concern.”

Unique challenges for Indigenous women

Determining the cause of harassment directed against Indigenous people can be doubly vexing, since discrimination may also be based on race or gender.

“For Indigenous people, it’s kind of a double whammy, because the harassment could be because they’re Indigenous more than because of their gender,” Doctor said. “So it’s really hard to differentiate or to tell where that harassment is coming from and what’s at play.”

Reflecting on current policies towards sexual misconduct both inside and outside the Anglican Church of Canada, Doctor suggested that harassment needs to be defined to reflect and include  linguistic and cultural differences.

“The whole issue I have with a lot of policies that come out not only through the church, but even through the government as well, is that they’re written in a language that is okay for Western thought and comprehension—but when you take it to Indigenous communities, it’s like a foreign language,” Doctor said.

Words such as “harassment” may not be understood by those whose mother tongue is not English, she noted, and must also be translated accordingly.

“How do you translate ‘harassment’ into Cree or Oji-Cree or Plains Cree to have it make sense to the people, and so they know what you’re talking about?”

Abuse in residential schools

While #MeToo has shined a light on the problem of sexual violence in present-day culture, the Anglican Church of Canada is no stranger to witnessing the bravery and importance of truth-telling by survivors. In grappling with its own role in the residential school system, the church heard many survivors describe their experiences of sexual, physical, verbal, and emotional abuse in the schools.

Reconciliation animator Melanie Delva was and continues to be struck by the courage of residential school survivors who came forward and shared their stories in a pre-#MeToo era, at a time when public reactions were more likely to range from skepticism to outright hostility.

“There was no social media hashtag to connect [survivors] to one another, and there was certainly no groundswell of public support for them at any level—most often the exact opposite,” Delva said.

“Above all, to me that speaks to the incredible strength and bravery of these Indigenous women and men. It’s one thing to come forward with a hashtag which almost guarantees you the support of hundreds of thousands of people. It is a whole different story to come forward when—quite frankly—people don’t want to hear what you have to say.”

Yet Delva was unsure whether “the dominant church and society” would have listened to survivors of sexual violence in the absence of social media and the related hashtags such as #MeToo.

She noted that it was a woman of colour, Tarana Burke, who began the #MeToo movement in 2006. However, it was not until a famous white woman, actor Alyssa Milano, began using the hashtag in 2017 that #MeToo truly captured the public’s attention—a fact that Delva called “hugely problematic.”

“I believe that Indigenous survivors of sexual abuse were the #MeToo movement calling to the Church decades ago—but instead of a groundswell of support, they were often not believed or had to fight to have their claims taken seriously and treated fairly,” Delva said.

“Some are still in that fight,” she added, noting ongoing attempts by survivors of St. Anne’s Indian Residential School to settle claims with the federal government.

Taking action

Delva said the controversy faced by the St. Anne’s survivors indicates the need for everyone to be more vigilant in listening to the voices of marginalized and vulnerable people in society and within the church, and in ensuring safe environments for all.

“We can’t wait until the dominant culture decides to ‘accept’ it as a valid issue,” Delva said. “And after listening, we have to act. Policy is good, but there also needs to be training on the policy, so that the people who need to do the hard work of responding to allegations know how to do so in a way that is fair and respectful and not re-traumatizing.

“We need to listen to the racialized in communities in terms of what they need as culturally respectful approaches to policy and procedure.”

Doctor said that the discussion on sexual violence sparked by the #MeToo movement was a significant enough issue that it may well become a topic of discussion at this year’s Sacred Circle.

“If we can create that sacred space for women to feel safe and be comfortable, perhaps we can begin a discussion and begin to talk about how we can move forward from there.”

In the final instalment of this series, we will further explore the work of the Safe Church Commission of the Anglican Communion and the worldwide push for safe church policies.

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