There is no defiance or bravado in her voice.
For Sylvia Maracle, executive director of the Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres, it’s a simple statement of fact: “We will move ahead on violence against aboriginal women with or without the federal government.”
The Mohawk leader, who has spearheaded efforts to improve education, housing, health care, child welfare and addiction treatment for her people, has outlasted seven prime ministers. She has learned to bend, tack, bide her time and always have a backup plan. When someone slams a door, Maracle finds at least half a dozen windows.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has definitively slammed the door on the 10-year quest by aboriginal women — led by the Native Women’s Association of Canada in partnership with the Métis Nation of Ontario, the Independent First Nations Alliance and the network of 117 friendship centres that serve indigenous peoples in urban centres — for a public inquiry into Canada’s missing and murdered aboriginal women. Maracle accepts that. She is not interested in head-butting.
“Let’s move beyond the inquiry,” she says. “Let’s simply acknowledge that there is an alarming rate of violence directed at aboriginal women and do what we can to break the cycle, repair the damage and rebuild healthy communities. We have the knowledge. We have the evidence. Unless we broaden our scope, we’re not going to move the agenda forward.”
Maracle shared her thoughts before heading to Membertou, N.S., for this year’s aboriginal women’s summit. On her return, she will unveil a campaign at Queen’s Park aimed at stopping violence against aboriginal women in Ontario.
She hopes the premiers and territorial leaders attending the summit pledge financial backing for the initiative. But money is not imperative, Maracle says.
Increased funding would allow more of Ontario’s 27 indigenous friendship centres to offer the programs the federation has developed to break the cycle of violence against aboriginal women. But there are other ways to move forward. She is looking for a commitment that municipalities, school boards, hospitals and courts will incorporate aboriginal knowledge into their services. She would like a pledge that teachers, nurses, judges and social workers will visit local friendship centres. She would like to hear political leaders talk about racism; not just diversity or multiculturalism.
The reason aboriginal women originally sought an inquiry was that no one believed there was a systemic problem, Maracle says. Successive governments demanded evidence. They now have plenty. By Maracle’s count, more than 700 documents now back up what native women have said for 30 years. An RCMP investigation, launched last year, found that 1,181 aboriginal women — more than police or governments had estimated — had been reported missing since 1980. The vast majority were murdered.
Understanding why this epidemic occurred remains a priority, Maracle says. “But if they (the governing Conservatives) don’t want to pay for an inquiry, let’s look at the practical options that exist.”
What the survivors don’t want to talk about are the mechanics of policing or the prosecution of the perpetrators, she says firmly. “That’s not going to go anywhere. We want to prevent the violence.”
That means starting with children. “Violence is a learned behaviour.” Friendship centres have trained facilitators who coach youngsters to settle disputes without hitting or hurting. Counsellors provide treatment for violence-prone youth who often have mental health problems and addictions. And aboriginal men lead programs rooted in the First Nations’ traditions.
The prototype is the Kizhaay Anishinaabe Niin (“I am a kind man”) program spearheaded by the Six Nations of the Grand River. It is built on the principle that strength of character — not physical strength — is the measure of a man. These are just three of more than a dozens programs developed by — and for — indigenous peoples.
Maracle, who helped create and disseminate them, is a force to be reckoned with. She has an armload of awards and honorary degrees. She has served on dozens of task forces, boards, commissions and councils. She is a trained journalist and accomplished public speaker. She has never taken a cent of government money.
She expects to outlast Harper. She outwits or out-waits anyone who stands in her people’s way.
Carol Goar is a news services columnist.
Source: The Record.com