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Gender lens needed on indigenous claims

Winnipeg Free Press by Cindy Hanson 02 March 2017

What price would you place on the loss of your children?

This is perhaps the most gripping question ignored by the largest compensation process within the Indian Residential School Settlement. It also makes clear why a gender analysis of policy is important, because it can demonstrate how policies affect men and women differently.

The Canadian model set up to compensate survivors who endured serious physical and sexual abuse at Indian residential schools is called the Independent Assessment Process (IAP). Because it is so large — involving 38,000 survivors and costing $3.1 billion dollars to date — it offers important insights into how programs and policies can discriminate, even if that is not the intention.

The government states the goals of the IAP are “healing and reconciliation.” It is hard to imagine that recalling serious physical or sexual abuse from childhood memories, which are then judged and assessed a level of compensation under the IAP model, is a form of healing or reconciliation. What’s more, the model discriminates by not valuing care-giving or unpaid work — work done mainly by women.

A Prairie-based, community-university gender analysis of the IAP demonstrates several ways the model discriminates. One finding was the irreparable cost, frequently born by the indigenous mothers, of losing their children — a cost the model did not acknowledge or support. For example, the IAP compensates former residential school students for loss of income or opportunity if the abuse they suffered at the schools can be linked to their inability to hold or function in paid employment or in succeeding with educational pursuits. But the model fails to compensate survivors if the abuse they suffered at Indian residential schools led to substance use or social dysfunction that disrupted family functioning, leading to a child welfare system’s apprehension of their children.

It is ironic that although Indian residential schools trained indigenous women to be domestics and caretakers, the removal of children by child welfare authorities is not compensable.

This omission of valuing unpaid work is not unique to the IAP model as other Canadian legislation also fails to value unpaid work traditionally done by women.

Although internationally, Canada was one of the first countries to count unpaid work in its national accounts or census (a practice subsequently dismantled by the federal government under Stephen Harper), it still finds itself developing key policy models without consideration for how the impacts of that model affect the lives of men and women differently. Women’s organizations in Canada continue to push for laws and policies that will encourage a more equitable social- and government-sharing of the unequal burdens of unpaid work on women.

For indigenous women, the Indian Act and other colonial policies that destroyed kinship systems and gender roles in families and communities compound the situation. They remind us of the deeply gendered ways that colonialism is experienced and the fact that child welfare systems are part of this legacy and should not go unnoticed.

By virtue of how the model is set up, the IAP continues the colonial path of destruction — not only by devaluing women’s work, but also in the way it promotes compensation of individuals instead of communities. The compensation of individuals is unlike most reconciliation models worldwide. Additionally, many individuals and even schools are not compensable because they fall through the cracks.

As one of the women in the study stated, “We were teachers and the residential school took that away from us. We lost all that power, you know. We had more power before, and they took that away from us.” The compensation model does not bring back power — it retains it.

Many survivors will continue to experience the intergenerational impacts of Indian residential schools. Emphasizing compensation models that take into account the many ways that discriminatory factors such as race, sex and class can combine to create inequality and exclusion is one way to build policies and programs that more truly reflect a spirit of reconciliation and healing. With only four per cent of compensation claims unresolved, it may be too late for the IAP, but not for other policies still forthcoming.

Reflecting on actions of the state and the church that destroyed indigenous parenting is particularly timely in light of movements to change child welfare and compensate ’60s Scoop survivors. So, too, is knowing that policy development requires a gender and intersectional lens and summoning up the courage to act on this knowledge.

Cindy Hanson is an associate professor in Adult Education at the University of Regina and president of the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women.