The Moccasin Mafia
In honor of Women’s History Month and the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day on March 8th, ICTMN debuts Navajo writer Valerie Taliman’s new series on the growing human rights crisis in Canada where more than 600 Native women are missing or have been murdered. More than half of the world’s 370 million indigenous peoples are women, and for most, the world is a difficult place. Indigenous women bear the brunt of violence, war, poverty, homelessness, poor health, disease and a lack of access to education and employment opportunities. In the United States and Canada, statistics indicate one in three Native women will be raped in her lifetime. Aboriginal women in Canada are five times more likely to die from violence than their peers of other races. In her new series, Taliman examines government policies that remove women and children from their homelands, force them into assimilation, and ultimately strip them of their rights to land, culture, and basic human rights. Links to her first series are here:
VANCOUVER—At 5:15 on a cold, rainy morning, two women enter the Sacred Circle, pour steaming cups of hot coffee, and move quietly to a corner to speak with Skundaal, a Haida artist and activist who leased this studio to begin carving a new totem pole in honor of women.
The 40-foot white cedar pole rests near the entrance where the women talk in low voices, sharing updates on the people they checked on overnight before departing to continue their rounds of nearby streets and alleys, keeping an eye out for women and girls in trouble.
As they leave, Skundaal and three other women return to sewing intricate Haida designs on beautiful abalone button blankets they’re making for local women to use in ceremony and the Women’s Memorial March. Later that day, other volunteers will take a shift patrolling the alleys where scores of women were murdered or were last seen.
This is not a government program. There is no funding for this work, and there’s no paperwork required to receive help. Instead, word of mouth brings people to this community space—a place where women find acceptance, heart-felt prayers, tools for survival, and hard-earned words of wisdom encouraging them to get off the streets.
The First Nations women who voluntarily patrol the dangerous streets of the Downtown Eastside are survivors, some who fought their way out of drug abuse and prostitution, and are helping others to do the same.
People call them the “moccasin mafia,” a close-knit group of about 10 aboriginal women who are not afraid to walk the streets of the DTES because they know their community. They stand up to authorities, talk down to perpetrators, and hold people accountable for their actions, including pimps and drug dealers who are responsible for much of the daily violence.
They are women warriors working for change alongside a coalition of women’s groups, families and Native leaders who have demanded police and government action for decades.
Among them is Gladys Radek, who co-founded the Walk4Justice, a nonprofit organization that raises awareness by walking across Canada to gather the names of missing and murdered women. She and Skundaal are preparing for their fourth walk from Vancouver, leaving on June 21 and arriving in Ottawa on September 19 where they will make a presentation to Parliament.
They have seen their mothers, sisters, daughters and friends murdered and dismembered, adding to the official toll of more than 600 murdered and missing First Nations women in Canada. No one wants justice more than they do, especially for youth and future generations of aboriginal women and children.
Speaking recently to the Aboriginal Law Association at McGill University in Montreal, Skundaal talked about the prejudice and ignorant attitudes that Native women face in Canada. “You are nothing but a squaw. What have you done for our community? What have you contributed to Canada? This is how Indian women are treated,” she said, noting the crude remarks she and others endure.
“For too long, when a Native woman was reported missing, police ignored our concerns, and instead suggested that they ran away or were simply avoiding their relatives,” she said. “We reported assaults, rapes, and murders, gave eyewitness tips, fingered drug dealers, put up posters of missing women and known perpetrators. It wasn’t a priority for them. Things are starting to change now, but I’m still skeptical about their promises. Talk is cheap—we need action.”
It has taken the persistence of many women and families to mobilize the kind of social change taking place in the DTES. Police, politicians, and policy-makers are finally paying attention to the indigenous human rights crisis unfolding here, but attitudes and government policies change slowly.
While Canada postures itself as a defender of human rights in the global community, it was cited in 2007 by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination for failing to address the serious acts of violence against aboriginal women, who constitute a disproportionate number of victims of violent death, rape and domestic violence.
The lives of the women who end up on the streets and the stories of how they got here are complicated and unique. No one really chooses this life.
One common story is how adult children come to the DTES seeking their relatives from whom they were separated in childhood through residential schools and foster care.
“I didn’t meet my Mom till I was 35,” said Skundaal, a master carver and frontline worker in the DTES for 25 years. “I found her down here at the Regent Hotel after years of trying to locate her. I barely had a chance to meet her before she died a few weeks later.”
Raised by her grandmother on a reserve, she was left in the hands of relatives at age seven after the death of her grandmother. The situation led to physical and sexual abuse by male relatives, and then took a turn for the worse when she turned 11. “I was sold to a man for a few jugs of wine,” she recalls, a shameful and degrading experience for one so young.
The experience of childhood rape—suffered by many in residential schools and foster homes—distorts the ability to enjoy healthy relationships, and most survivors have nowhere to turn for counseling, treatment or safety. Too often they turn to alcohol and drugs to numb themselves, and carry the pain and shame into adulthood.
Learning to value oneself and build a sense of self-worth is part of the long road to healing, said Skundaal, and it’s part of what drives their commitment to care for and protect women on the streets trying to overcome the hardships.
“In my world, the lives of women are hard, sometimes brutal with violence and strife all around them. These are not problems they have created. These are problems they have inherited. Everyday, we see constant reminders of racism, discrimination, and inequities in the way we are treated.”
Walking down dark alleys where men cluster to drink and share drugs, the Moccasin Mafia routinely scouts the DTES for women in distress who need to find safety. Often the women intervene in a dispute, or walk someone home, or take them to a shelter.
But even the shelters are not safe. Eight women were raped in homeless shelters in the last three months, prompting a coalition of women’s organizations to demand urgent action by B.C. Housing Authority to provide women and children with safe shelters in the Downtown Eastside. Six reported sexual assaults occurred at the First United Church Shelter and two took place at The Lookout.
The FUC shelter, often packed to capacity, has been criticized for a lack of supervision to protect women, and not taking corrective action after the rapes were reported to police.
At a meeting with Shayne Ramsey, CEO of B.C. Housing last month, a dozen women leaders voiced anger and frustration that nothing has been done to protect homeless women and children in shelters. They pointed out that nearly 85 percent of space in homeless shelters is dedicated to men, leaving only a fraction of beds available for women who make up the majority of the population.
“Women should not have to choose between the indignity of homelessness and being warehoused in shelters, and the high-risk of assault associated with both,” said Alice Kendall, coordinator of the Downtown Eastside Womens’ Centre.
“We’ve been dismayed by the lack of response by all levels of government regarding the ongoing violence committed against women in the Downtown Eastside. B.C. Housing says the safety of women in co-ed shelters is a priority, yet we have seen no commitment to women’s safety in their contracts with service, shelter or housing providers.”
Based on needs articulated by hundreds of women in DTES, the women’s coalition is demanding a 24-hour women-only drop-in space and, and housing for homeless women and children with at least 100 new units to be made available immediately. They also want clear standards for women’s safety in co-ed shelters to be implemented immediately in all existing and new shelters.
In the meantime, the doors at the Sacred Circle remain open for women, children and families.
“There’s a dire need to address the discriminatory practices that have taken place involving police, politicians, the judicial system and societal acceptance of horrendous crimes against our people,” said Radek. “We are small in numbers, but we have to fight back and say no more. We need to take action to provide safety nets and to stop this ongoing violence against our women and children.”
Part 2: Rounding up the Predators