My daughter is at risk because she's Aboriginal and female

Aboriginal mom Dawn Harvard faces the harsh truth that she can’t promise to keep her 10-year-old daughter safe.

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The Native Women’s Association of Canada launched the Faceless Dolls Project in 2012 to represent the “strong and beautiful Aboriginal women who have become ‘faceless’ victims of crime.” The hundreds of dolls created through the project became a travelling art exhibit in memory of Canada’s missing and murdered Aboriginal girls and women.

I often wonder how it’s possible that the child who never listens when I’m calling her again and again is the same little darling who demonstrates surprising hearing capabilities the moment adults are talking about something I’d rather she not overhear. As parents, we’ve all been faced with tough questions about horrible events. We reassure our kids, telling them that they’re safe from whatever bad thing has happened. But what if you can’t? 

As usual, last summer we had too much to do and not enough time in which to do it. I had promised my girls (ages 17, 10 and five) that we would do something fun together, but I’d also committed to a meeting in Charlottetown. In a ridiculous attempt to “have it all,” I packed my three daughters and my oldest’s BFF into the car for a road trip.

While most moms were in a back-to-school shopping frenzy, I was happily multi-tasking my way across four provinces, squeezing in teleconferences between dining on crepes in Quebec City and whale-watching in New Brunswick. Just as I was beginning to believe that, yes, I was a good parent after all, my professional and parental roles collided.

The issue of missing and murdered Aboriginal women (also referred to as missing and murdered Indigenous women, which led to the #MMIW hashtag on social media) had been in the news since May, when the RCMP released its review of the handling of cases. As vice-president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, I was fielding calls from reporters all summer long.

One day, as I explained to yet another journalist that the nearly 1,200 missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls in Canada attests to the existence of a very real human rights crisis within our borders, my 10-year-old was suddenly all ears. “Our mothers, sisters and daughters are not simply missing, like a wallet or set of keys,” I told the reporter. “They are being stolen from our families and our communities.” It’s no surprise that after hearing this, my daughter asked what I was talking about.

As an Indigenous feminist parent who believes that knowledge is power, I felt it was important she know the truth so that she can protect herself. I told her that our women are more likely to be victims of violence, more likely to disappear and more likely to be murdered than non-Aboriginal women.

But I hadn’t considered the greater implications of telling her this. After a moment to ponder, she looked up and said, “Mommy, we’re Native, right?” and needing no real confirmation of that fact, she went on to add, “and I’m a girl…” Like a blinding flash, I saw the question dawning in her mind: “Does that mean I’m in danger, Mommy?” 

It was the scariest moment of my life.

I desperately wanted to reassure her, to tell her, “No, of course I will take care of you—Mommy will protect you.” But I realized it wasn’t that simple. Here in Canada, I can’t promise that. 

The average age of girls recruited into the sex trade in Canada is 13 or 14, and a severely disproportionate number of these girls are Aboriginal. That means for every 15-year-old or 16-year-old girl, there are also 12-year-olds, 11-year-olds and even 10-year-olds. In fact, Aboriginal girls as young as eight are being recruited in parks and on their way home from school. This is the reality of what’s happening right here in our country.

The sex trafficking of Aboriginal girls in Canada isn’t limited to girls who are already faced with poverty, violence and other traumas—in fact, an increasing number come from stable homes and are either in school or have a job. This crisis has become so concerning that it’s attracting the attention of international human rights agencies.

On a general level, the devaluation of Aboriginal girls and women, the impacts of systemic racism and the lingering effects of the residential school system have also contributed to the high rate of Aboriginal girls and women who have been murdered or remain missing.

Decades of silence on this issue have allowed it to continue. While the media has begun to draw attention to the problem, parents—both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal—must start the difficult conversations about racism, discrimination and historic oppression if we are to break the ongoing cycles of sexual and physical violence. 

The hard truth is that simply being Aboriginal and female in Canada means she is “at risk.” So I muddled through. While I thought the preschool conversations about penises and vaginas were tough, imagine trying to figure out how to explain the dangers of sex trafficking to someone who barely understands the concept of sex.

I’m sure many parents would argue that the issue of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and sex trafficking isn’t something I needed to address with a 10-year-old. But if 13 is the average age that girls are recruited for sex trafficking, even I can do the math. 

A version of this article appeared in our April 2015 issue with the headline, “Am I in danger, Mommy?”, p. 42.

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