This is a follow up piece from my original essay titled, Exploration on Indigenous and Exploitation of Indigenous bodies.
In Afua Cooper’s The Hanging of Angelique, Cooper provides a succinct definition for slavery within a Canadian context. Cooper writes,
A useful definition of slavery is the robbery of one’s freedom and labour by another, usually a more powerful person. Violence and coercion are used to carry out the theft and to keep the slave captive in the condition of bondage and servitude. This definition applies to slavery in Canada. Laws were enacted and institutions created to rob persons of their freedom and labour and keep them in perpetual servitude (emphasis added). In the earliest era of colonial rule in Canada, both Aboriginal people and Africans and their descendants were enslaved (Aboriginal slaves were colloquially termed ‘Panis’). From 1428 to 1833, slavery was a legal and acceptable institution in both French and British Canada was vigorously practised.[i]
I emphasize Cooper’s words in the above definition because it is important to remember how laws and institutions continue to rob Indigenous peoples of their own freedom and labour, and keep Indigenous peoples in perpetual servitude, within both Canada and the United States.
There exists a heightened concern for the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls on both sides of our colonial borders and rightfully so. Far too often do we hear or read about another Indigenous woman or girl going missing and sometimes being found murdered near sites of increased resource extraction. The collective response to this social issue tends to be increased policing and increased criminalization of Indigenous sexualities and bodies, as if Indigenous sexualities and bodies are part of the problem. But when have Indigenous sexualities or bodies ever been the source of the problem? We have only been the problem insomuch as colonialism has been our problem.
If we begin to turn our attention to the social and economic factors which surround the realities of Indigenous peoples living near or around sites of increased resource extraction, we begin to see a different picture: laws are enacted and institutions are created to rob Indigenous peoples of their freedom and labour, and keep them in perpetual servitude. Further, in Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous People, Linda Tuhiwai Smith recognizes the challenge of focusing solely on the “‘indigenous’ (or its substitutes)” as the “problem…rather than with other social or structural issues”[ii] especially as it pertains to settlers’ responses to social issues, like missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit folks. The settler response to these social issues only solidify and validate their own institutions, like the criminal justice system, instead of validating or (at minimum) even acknowledging Indigenous sovereignty over body and land.
We see settler responses manifesting itself through the definition of human trafficking (or often termed, labour or sex trafficking) which focuses on the movement and control of bodies. Instead of focusing on the increased movement of settlers to our traditional territories to mine and extract resources from Mother Earth, we see an increased focus on Indigenous bodies and sexualities. What about the violence to the land? By continuing to focus on the movement of the bodies that surround these sites of violence, without acknowledging the increased movement of bodies to the actual sites, we ignore how violence is created and maintained especially through the creation of laws and institutions that rob Indigenous peoples of their freedom and labour.
In I am Woman, Lee Maracle highlights the aims of the colonial agenda from an Indigenous woman’s perspective. Lee Maracle writes, “the aims of the colonizer are to break up communities and families, and to destroy the sense of nationhood and the spirit of co-operation among the colonized.”[iii] Maracle reminds us of the colonial agenda in relation to the increasing concern over trafficking in Indigenous women and girls. The colonial agenda persists through the conceptualization of trafficking victims, increased criminalization of same and increased policing of our communities. Anti-prostitution and anti-human trafficking legislation continues to police Indigenous bodies and sexuality, and allows for the increasing exploitation of Indigenous lands for economic profit by ignoring the injustices that Indigenous people experience due to [Canada and the United States’] colonial agenda. In order to address the continued exploitation of Indigenous women and girls, there needs to be connections drawn between the colonial agenda and the policing of Indigenous bodies, either as victims or perpetrators.
To help alleviate the issue of relying on the criminal justice system to protect Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit folks, I have thought about ways that communities can respond to the social issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people immediately.
First, we can create safer spaces for Indigenous people who work in the sex trade, regardless of their status (trafficked victim vs. consenting worker). These safer spaces can include space to sleep, change, shower, check in after working or going to a call—all without judgment or fear of being arrested. Second, we can offer to be a safe call for when someone goes out to a party or when someone who works in the sex trade visits a client. Third, we can help keep track of the “bad clients” of those who work in the sex trade, instead of focusing on the actions of the sex trade worker themselves, or we can keep track of the descriptions of those who perpetuate sexual assaults and gender-based violence. Communities can create a response team that does not include law enforcement, but engages with law enforcement only when necessary.
When people ask for help, ask them what that help looks like for that person in both the short and long term. Communities should acknowledge that sex trade workers have a solid understanding of how exploitation takes place, and sex trade workers usually build connections to help keep themselves safe when working alone or in groups. Also, communities can include sex trade workers in building community responses surrounding man camps.
Communities should understand that not all offers to help are genuine and that help should take place on the terms—without judgment—of the person who needs help. People are their own experts. Finally, in the end, we must also look at how the laws that are enacted purportedly to offer real and tangible support or protection, and we should work to end the criminalization of Indigenous peoples through exploitation of their lands and bodies.
[i] Cooper, A. (2007). The Hanging of Angélique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montréal. University of Georgia Press. (pp 71).
[ii] Smith, L.T. (2012). Decolonizing methodologies: Research and indigenous peoples. London: Zed Books. (pp 92).
[iii] Maracle, L. (1996). I am woman: A native perspective on sociology and feminism. Vancouver, B.C: Press Gang Publishers. (pp. 91).