Last week, Angela Gladue, an Indigenous powwow dancer from the music group A Tribe Called Red, was denied taxi service while being chased by a strange man in Winnipeg’s downtown.
Terrified and fearing for her life, Gladue had taken refuge in the taxi and asked the driver to go immediately, explaining her urgency. Instead, the driver demanded that Gladue pay upfront before he drove anywhere. Shocked, Gladue got into another taxi, only to be confronted with the same demand: to pay in advance of the service.
I don’t know the full context of this situation. I don’t know how many times these cab drivers had been ripped off by customers that day. I do know what downtown Winnipeg is like, particularly at night, so I can imagine these cab drivers must deal with some frightening situations and unpleasant clientele.
And yet, two taxi drivers in the same night being unwilling to put a woman’s safety first suggests a racialized pattern to me.
I am a woman. I know what it is to feel unsafe, especially by myself at night. But as a white woman, I have never, ever been refused taxi service. I have never, ever been requested to pay upfront. I have never, ever experienced the trauma of being denied safety because of the pigmentation of my skin.
This is only one of a litany of examples reminding us that we have a pervasive, systemic problem of racism here in Canada—and that it’s primarily Indigenous women who are bearing the brunt of this tragic reality.
The question is: what are we going to do about it?
Women, Peace, and Security here at home
A week ago, I had the honour of sitting in on a roundtable discussion on the Private Member’s Motion M163, which calls for a Canadian Ambassador for Women, Peace, and Security. Led by MP Borys Wrzesnewskyj with the participation of 26 grassroots organizations invested in peace, gender, and development, we explored what this motion would mean for Canada domestically and internationally.
Certainly, this motion would reinforce Canada’s longstanding history of practicing global citizenship through peacekeeping, promoting human rights, and humanitarianism. And surely, we need to stand up for women’s rights around the world.
To support Rohingya women who have been deserted by their husbands and are facing harassment and attack after fleeing persecution in their home country.
To protect female refugees from Syria who are facing physical assault, exploitation, and harassment.
To care for the Yzidi women who were abused as sex slaves by ISIS.
To intervene in the violence and poverty Venezuelan women are experiencing during their country’s economic crisis.
And yet, the problems facing Canadian women call for advocacy, too.
In the wake of the incident involving Angela Gladue, it’s evident that we have much more work to do to address the ways systemic, institutionalized racism in Canada is compromising Indigenous women’s right to safety.
We know our Indigenous sisters in Canada disproportionately experience violence, over-incarceration, ill health, sexual exploitation, poverty, barriers to safety, and a lack of economic benefits. We know we need to do more to address the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls crisis and gender-based violence. We know we need to mitigate the vulnerability of women (especially Indigenous, immigrant, and refugee women) to human trafficking. To rebuild the systems that have repeatedly failed girls like Tina Fontaine and a host of other Indigenous females. To seek gender equality at all levels.
So how are we working to advance Women, Peace, and Security—especially for Indigenous women—here at home?
Overall, I think M163 stands for good things. While I’m not sure that promoting gender parity in peacekeeping missions (which seems to be a focal point of the motion) should be the ultimate priority, I do think this is a strategy worth pursuing—especially if it lives up to its own declaration to not only acknowledge Canadian issues, but to act on them.
My concern with policy that declares to be both good for a nation and good for the world is that there will always be the temptation to focus on the latter. There’s an allure to seeking solutions for problems facing other countries: we get the glory of being the foreign “hero” while still getting to hold the issue at arm’s length because we know we’re ultimately not responsible. Grappling with the problems in our own nation is uncomfortable because it starts with accepting how we've contributed to the marginalization and mistreatment of our own citizens.
After all, it wasn’t until 2008 that the Canadian Government issued a formal apology to Indigenous groups for its attempts to assimilate First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children through residential schools—well over a century after the first residential school was opened. Yes, better late than never, but this delayed apology speaks to how hard it is to admit fault for how we’ve failed a group of our own people.
We don’t need more policy that’s appealing on paper but doesn’t meaningfully translate into practice. We can’t credibly claim to be a nation that represents peace and justice if we don’t pursue those values within our own borders.
We need to have the integrity to look inward. To be honest about how we’re failing our Indigenous sisters in Canada. To follow the calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Committee's findings. To pursue the Sustainable Development Goals here in Canada. To stand for Women, Peace, and Security here at home.
Let’s not be so inwardly focused that we become apathetic to the crises facing our neighbours in other countries. But let’s not get so caught up in other country’s problems that we forget about the ones in ours, too.
Secure your own mask before assisting others?
If you’ve read my book, you know how passionate I am about seeking to balance the world’s needs with our personal needs. Because we cannot fill someone else’s well if our own well has run dry. We cannot exclusively invest in the wellbeing of others while ignoring our own needs.
I tried the martyrdom path for years (spoiler: it didn’t work out). In my vocation within the justice sphere, I’ve thrown myself into working on the problems facing other people so I wouldn’t have to confront my own. In my personal life, I’ve rejected my own needs, boundaries, and limits to have more energy to help the people I love. I’ve self-sacrificed to the point where there was no self left to sacrifice. As it turns out, I need to have the vulnerability to admit my own struggles, to come to terms with my own flaws in order to authentically, sustainably, effectively help others. And when I’m facing a crisis or trauma, those are the times when I need to secure my own mask first before assisting others.
If all we do is invest in others, that’s self-destruction. If all we do is invest in ourselves, that’s self-indulgence. In order to thrive as wholehearted, healthy human beings and members of a broader community, we need to do both.
The same principle applies to our domestic and international affairs. My hope is that the Canadian Ambassador of Women, Peace, and Security will be adept in finding that balance between responding to both domestic and international needs. I don’t think it has to be an either / or dilemma. I think it’s both / and.