A day both bitter and sweet for Indigenous women — and those who love them

St. Valentine
The still-intact St. Valentine

Today is Valentine’s Day. But what we know as ‘a day for love’ is really just a creation of industry, of the modern greeting card, flower delivery and chocolate companies. St. Valentine was a real person though. According to the Catholic Online web site:

Valentine was a holy priest in Rome, who, with St. Marius and his family, assisted the martyrs in the persecution under Claudius II. He was apprehended, and sent by the emperor to the prefect of Rome, who, on finding all his promises to make him renounce his faith ineffectual, commanded him to be beaten with clubs, and afterwards, to be beheaded, which was executed on February 14, about the year 270.

Some 17 centuries and change later, Feb. 14 has taken on yet another meaning: as a day for a relatively new group to borrow a page out of Idle No More’s activist playbook and join hands with Indigenous women. According to rabble.ca, noted author Eve Ensler (the Vagina Monologues) wants people to come together in song and dance to end violence against all women in a global event called ‘One Billion Rising.’

With its simple, activist slogan “Strike, Dance, Rise!,” OBR has quickly gone viral and is being marked in about 100 countries around the world. (See for yourself: they live-streamed events as I wrote this, and you may find an event close to you on the OBR web site.) Here are the main elements of what drives OBR:

  • One in three women on the planet will be raped or beaten in her lifetime
  • One billion women violated is an atrocity
  • One billion women dancing is a revolution

This all comes one day after the release of a report about the mistreatment of First Nations women in northern British Columbia by RCMP officers. It was researched and released by Human Rights Watch, a respected international organization that monitors human rights abuses.

HRW: Those Who Take Us AwayEntitled “Those Who Take Us Away,” the 89-page report is a chilling indictment of the RCMP’s failure to follow up or investigate complaints of abuse against First Nations women and girls — even rape by other police officers. It describes a long history of abuse, sexual exploitation, and violence against Indigenous women, committed by and covered up by police, judges, lawyers and others in the provincial judicial system. The force simply did not do its job to protect Indigenous women.

In fact, the report had its origins in an invitation from a Vancouver group frustrated with the refusal of B.C.’s Pickton Inquiry to include complaints about police conduct toward missing and murdered Indigenous women in the northern part of the province. What they subsequently discovered while interviewing nearly 90 Indigenous women and girls last summer clearly came as a shock to investigators, as detailed in this Canadian Press report:

“In 5 of the 10 towns Human Rights Watch visited in the north, we heard allegations of rape or sexual assault by police officers,” the report states.

“Human Rights Watch was struck by the level of fear on the part of women we met to talk about sexual abuse inflicted by police officers.”

[Lead researcher Meghan Rhoad] said about a dozen young women cancelled interviews with researchers because they were too scared of repercussions from police officers working in their small communities.

Samer Muscati, a Canadian co-researcher, said the level of fear among the women interviewed was on par with what he’s encountered while researching abuses by security forces throughout the Middle East, Iraq, Libya and Sudan. “You expect that level of fear when you’re in a place like Iraq, in a post-conflict country where security forces are implicated in horrible abuses,” said Muscati. “But in Canada, where police are known to protect citizens, it is quite alarming to hear the stories of women and girls, particularly.”

Indeed, many of the women who spoke to Human Rights Watch only did so anonymously for fear of police reprisals. Now, the group is calling on the federal government to launch an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls across Canada, adding its voice to the Native Women’s Association of Canada’s long-standing campaign for the very same thing.

Confronted with such threats to their lives, even from those sworn to protect them, Indigenous women would no doubt think little of flowers and chocolate on this wholly-manufactured day; it is both bitter and sweet then, that new attention has brought the details of their troubled existence to the surface. For those of us who love them — as grannies and mothers, daughters and sisters, friends and lovers — it is wider recognition long, long past due.

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