Impacts of Digital Communications Technologies in relation to the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Crisis

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

On January 30 and 31 the Native Women’s Association of Canada, the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action, and the Canadian Journal of Women and the Law will host a symposium at uOttawa on murders and disappearances of Indigenous girls and women.  The event will bring together Indigenous women, allies and international human rights experts to strategize on how to move forward the National Inquiry on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, now that the federal government has committed itself to establishing that inquiry.  In this entry I discuss the impacts of digital communications technologies on this national crisis.

While violence against women (VAW) affects a broad spectrum of women and girls in Canada, indigenous women and girls are particularly vulnerable (Canadian Women’s Foundation, 2014), resulting in more than 1100 missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in Canada (RCMP, 2014). Systemic factors such as colonialism, misogyny, and racism have been identified as root causes of the missing and murdered indigenous women crisis.  Emerging research is focusing on the role technology plays in VAW (Fairbairn et al, 2013), including research showing how digital communications technologies are used to facilitate the trafficking of indigenous women and girls (Sethi, 2007). Without simplistically blaming technology, there is a need to explore the ways that digital communications technologies interact with other factors in the complex historical, sociocultural environment that incubates the national crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women.

In its 2015 report on missing and murdered indigenous women, CEDAW stressed the need for Canada to take all forms of violence against indigenous women seriously.  In addition to international standards and definitions of VAW that are broad enough to include acts perpetrated through technology (Fairbairn, 2015), there is increasing evidence of policy shifts toward specifically recognizing and addressing the role that technologies can and are playing (APC, 2015). These shifts have led to initiatives focused on cyber-violence and its differential impacts on women and girls from diverse communities (OCTEVAW, 2015; YWCA, 2015). More research is needed to understand the particular impacts of cyber-violence on indigenous women and girls, particularly in the following three areas.

A. Human trafficking – CEDAW (2015) recommended that Canada “pay special attention to the needs and situation of aboriginal women in prostitution” and to conduct studies to better understand and develop mechanisms to combat trafficking of aboriginal girls and women. Since the data about domestically trafficked persons is at best partial (due in no small part to the frequent characterization of the trafficking of indigenous women as an issue of sex work or prostitution (Sethi, 2007)), an understanding of the scope of the issue is sometimes gained through analysis of other statistics.  These include statistics showing that Aboriginal girls and women are over-represented in prostitution (Sethi, 2007; NWAC, 2015) and that 60% of sexually exploited youth are Aboriginal (Sethi, 2007). Developing a better understanding and a concrete action plan for addressing the ways in which indigenous girls and women are recruited into and kept in human trafficking will also require understanding the role of digital communications technology in those processes. 

Research shows that digital technologies, such as the internet, are used to facilitate human trafficking of young people in a variety of ways.  Traffickers use the internet to recruit indigenous girls, especially those in rural communities, often with promises of a job and the excitement of life in the city, but with the goal of isolating them from family and community, thus rendering them more vulnerable to being trafficked (Sethi, 2007; NWAC, 2015). Traffickers also use the internet, including social media platforms such as Craigslist and Facebook to “advertise” sexually trafficked youth (Thorn, 2015). Traffickers communicate with trafficked youth using mobile technologies and track their activities by checking these young people’s text histories and phone logs (Thorn, 2015).

Obviously, technology is but one factor interacting with a variety of root causes that render indigenous girls and women disproportionately vulnerable to human trafficking.  Sethi (2007) identifies the inter-generational impacts of colonization (including increased sexual abuse, violence, substance abuse and suicide rates), a lack of awareness and acknowledgment of sexual exploitation, poverty, isolation, racism, gangs, gaps in services and insufficient housing as root causes that must be addressed. In an increasingly technologically facilitated society, understanding the role that technology plays in relation to identified root causes of trafficking indigenous women and girls and of the crisis itself could play an important role in responding meaningfully. 

B. Impact of online pornography & child abuse imagery – Some research suggests that the widespread dissemination of “hard-core, body-punishing sex in which women are demeaned and debased” facilitated by the internet needs to be understood as a legitimator of VAW (Dines cited in NWAC, 2015).  As a prime source of information for young people, messaging on the internet can shape young people’s expectations of themselves and others, including in relation to the conflation of sex and violence. It may also facilitate desensitization and increased interest in depictions of escalating levels of violence, including child sexual abuse (Bailey, 2007). Moreover, online inculcation of youth with mainstream representations of thin, white, heterosexualized femininity can negatively affect girls’ and young women’s self esteem and sense of belonging (Steeves, 2015). Research also suggests that these same representations can also form a basis for peer-to-peer harassment online (Bailey, 2015), the consequences of which are discussed in part C below.

C. Online hate and harassment – CEDAW (2015) identified stereotyping as one of the root causes of the missing and murdered indigenous women crisis in part because stereotypes of indigenous women that depict them as “prostitutes, transients or runaways … [living] high risk lifestyles” undermine public and law enforcement willingness to treat these cases seriously. For this reason, they recommend that Canada take measures to address racism and sexism “with a view to eliminating negative stereotypes against aboriginal women” (CEDAW, 2015). Racist and misogynist stereotypes familiar in offline spaces are also reflected in online spaces, sometimes with greater vitriol that some attribute to the apparent anonymity of online spaces, as well as the “mob mentality” they can facilitate (Bailey, 2010). Moreover, sexually violent online attacks, such as rape threats, are disproportionately targeted at women (Fairbairn, 2015), and indigenous persons in Canada and internationally are targeted with extreme and hateful stereotyping and threats can lead to withdrawal from online participation and, in extreme cases, to suicide (Carson et al, 2015; Chapin, 2015). These kinds of attacks can work to undermine the self-esteem and self worth of indigenous girls and women, contributing to an environment that enhances vulnerability to trafficking and exploitation (NWAC, 2015).

In addition to interacting with other socio-cultural and historical forces in ways that expose indigenous women and girls to vulnerabilities recognized as root causes of the missing and murdered indigenous women crisis in Canada, digital technologies can also be used as tools for addressing the crisis and root causes underlying it, as well as to enhance public access to the impending inquiry.

To that end, questions that the inquiry might consider include:

(1) how are digital communications technologies being used to facilitate sexual trafficking of indigenous girls and women, to disseminate violent pornography, and to distribute online hate and harassment aimed at indigenous women and girls?

(2) how are internet service providers responding to these uses of their platforms?

(3) what further steps can be taken to diminish use of digital communications technologies for these purposes?

(4) how can digital communications technologies be harnessed for purposes of raising public awareness, education, and privacy-respectful investigation?

(5) how can the impending inquiry make use of digital communications technologies to expand access to its goals, processes and results, while respecting the dignity and integrity of families and victims, including the maintenance of the level of privacy and confidentiality they may desire in relation to their stories?

Friday, January 22, 2016

January 27th
-Lunch & Learn Workshops
13:00 - 16:00 — FTX 147

Three workshops will be held to facilitate active, engaging, and critical dialogue on mental health and the gaps in th
e current mental health campaign discourse. These workshops will be free, drop-in, and light food will be provided. Access needs available upon request.

Workshop #1: Disability and Racial Justice
- Roselyne Dougé-Charles is a fourth year student who is deeply interested in critical race theories. Disability has often been described as a form of ethnic minority or race. This workshop will refute this idea and explain the ways that race and disability may intersect but are not alike.

Workshop #2: LGBTQ Youth Mental Health
- Zac Johnstone, a third year student and the Dare to Dream Coordinator at the Ontario Centre of Excellence for Child and Youth Mental Health, is facilitating a workshop that will
focus on building positive mental health outcomes for LGBTQ+ youth. This workshop will aim to provide a closer look at the many barriers LGBTQ+ youth face, and how those barriers might be overcome through an anti-oppressive lens.

Workshop #3: Issues of Trauma and Navigating the Legal system
- Lieutenant Colonel and Honourable Randy Callan specializes in operational law, administrative law,and military justice. His presentation covers trauma issues and takes a closer look at cases of PTSD and how they are handled in the legal system, with respect to witnesses and the accused.

-Art Therapy
13:00 - 16:00 — UCU terminus and UCU Agora

Expressive therapy that uses the creative process of making art to improve a persons physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing. The process involved can help resolve issues as well as develop and manage behaviour, feelings, and manage stress. 

-Mental Health 101
18:00 - 20:00 — 116 Alex Trebek Johnson Hall (English) and UCU 215 (French)

Want to be able to better recognize when you or someone you know may need psychological help and how to get it? Come and attend this brief interactive workshop held by Initiative 1in5 for some tips and tricks! A light snack will be provided.

January 28th
-Mental Health Action Forum
11:00 - 14:00 — UCU Agora

This Forum gives students the opportunity to meet with key stakeholders of the University of Ottawa - working together to provide input, assess and share ideas and feedback around the current mental health resources on campus. In an ongoing effort to be a proactive and responsive community, the Forum will contribute to plans to work more collaboratively across the University of Ottawa around mental health and wellbeing, and to further develop policies, programs, services and informational resources at the University of Ottawa.Come to provide your voice, input and to ask questions – either for the full forum or for whatever time you can spare

-Let’s Talk About Bell Let’s Talk
18:00 - 20:00 — UCU Alumni Auditorium

This free panel brings together active student leaders, organizers, and mental health advocates who will speak to their lived experiences, including issues of stigma on campus and in our various communities. The panel will then discuss Bell Let's talk, which will allow for critical, open, dialogue on the successes and drawbacks of hashtag activism and the facilitation of these types of fundraising initiatives. PWYC donations encouraged. Access needs available upon request.

An introduction to the panelists:

Alex Neufeldt
- Alex Neufeldt is a 2nd year student at the University of Ottawa studying political science and economics. She works as a french tutor and a model. When she's not working or studying, she loves creating fashion sketches, watching or performing in musical theatre productions, skiing, and reading about political theory. As an anorexia survivor, Alex is committed to raising awareness of eating disorders, as well as advocating for improved access to treatment for people with eating disorders

- Elsa is a queer brown femme who is living with depression. When she is not fighting for life she likes to spend time making music and dancing with her friends. She is recognized within the community for her work as a musician, promoter, community organizer, and friend.

- Recently graduated, Christine is a feminist, support worker, artist, and an activist who has spent a large portion of her time advocating for her rights to accommodations as per the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal. She identifies as having post traumatic stress disorder and borderline personally disorder, she is also a survivor of incest and childhood sexual abuse. Christine believes in challenging labels and stereotypes about those with similar issues by direct confrontation with those labels and stereotypes in public settings. Christine is a big fan of coping through art and humour and tries to address the issues mentioned above with those coping strategies in mind.

Dustin Garron
-     Dustin is a third year Communication student here at the University of Ottawa. Named One of Canada’s Future Leaders by Maclean’s Magazine in 2013, Garron has been speaking on youth mental health and mental illness for the last five years. He was appointed to the Mental Health Commission of Canada in 2013 and was part of the National Faces of Mental Illness Campaign in the same year. To date he has shared his story with Depression, General Anxiety Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder with over 20,000 students.

January 29th
-Services Fair
13:00 - 16:00 — UCU Concourse

An opportunity for students to browse around and gain knowledge about the mental health resources offered to them in the Ottawa community.

-Charity Gala
18:00 - 23:00 — 112 Tabaret Hall

The Students Against Stigma Gala will be a charity event where all proceeds raised will go towards Wabano, YSB, and sponsoring students who wish to partake in courses like ASIST training and SafeTalk, which are normally expensive on a student budget.

Student Price: $15
Community Price: $30

Dress code: Semi-formal, formal

Gala Itinerary:

6PM: Doors open
6:30PM: Buffet Dinner Served
8PM: Speaker - Chris Mihney
8:30PM: Performance
8:45PM: Dessert Served
9:00PM: Speaker: Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health

9:30PM: Raffle Winners announced

Imminent Release of the First Nations Child Welfare Human Rights Decision

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Jeff Hewitt *

Charles Dickens originally released A Tale of Two Cities in a weekly journal costing two pence. It was doled out as a serial from April to November 1859. After he himself was subjected to brutal child labour in a factory, Dickens offers unflattering portrayals of aristocrats, illustrating the vast socio-economic gap between the haves and have-nots. There is a strong social justice theme. Sowing and reaping is a reoccurring metaphor.

The novel is a warning.

There is a Canadian story being written right now about First Nations children, which is also about sowing and reaping. It too is a warning and illustrates the vast socio-economic gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians. In this story, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal is set to release the next chapter within days.

Until amendments in 2008 to the Canadian Human Rights Act took effect in 2010, Aboriginal Peoples in Canada did not carry the same breadth of human rights all Canadians enjoy. Since 2010, the number of complaints filed by Aboriginal Peoples has risen dramatically. One such complaint, laced with Dickensian woe, is widely viewed as precedent setting. Dr. Cindy Blackstock and the Assembly of First Nations filed a complaint alleging discrimination against Canada for underfunding First Nation child-welfare services for children on-reserves.

The seeds of this story were sown when Aboriginal children were stolen from their families and placed in residential schools in order to be ‘civilized’ – because stealing other peoples’ children is the epitome of civility. Students were denied a family environment to model love and kindness resulting in many Aboriginal families still dealing with the multi-generational effects. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s final report tells us that at residential schools, studies were too often secondary to violence, unpaid labour and brutal living conditions under the rule of a well-resourced state. Sound familiar?

To appease the stirring masses, Canada offered an apology to residential school students in 2008 – apparently the sort where you cross your fingers behind your back so it doesn’t really count. Simultaneously, the state continues to take vast numbers of First Nation children from reserves and place them in an under-funded child welfare program.

And now comes the reaping. Given the evidence of the complaint, the Tribunal should find discrimination. As such, attention should be paid to creating systemic remedies for a systemic problem. There is a lot to be done here that could potentially narrow the socio-economic gap. Consider Aboriginal child welfare laws, such as those presented to the Tribunal by Elder Robert Joseph. Such laws should be accessed in structuring remedies that centrally place Aboriginal Peoples as the solution, not the problem. The Tribunal should advance the federal government’s commitment to renew a nation-to-nation relationship with Aboriginal Peoples by ordering time-sensitive, Kelowna-style roundtable negotiations. These negotiations should include Elders, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal child-welfare experts, representatives from impacted Aboriginal families and key government decision-makers prepared to commit real resources. The objective would be to create culturally relevant child welfare programs that heal the ongoing hurt and restore healthy Aboriginal families, thereby reducing the flow of Aboriginal children into child welfare in the first instance.

Canada has not been kind to Aboriginal Peoples but this legacy does not have to continue. Indeed, it cannot. Sydney Carton was a cynical lawyer in A Tale of Two Cities, who ultimately overcame his thorny troubles and became a selfless hero. Like Sydney, perhaps the Tribunal may confront Canada’s past of using Canadian law against Aboriginal Peoples by showcasing the potential equalizing power of human rights. In so doing, the Tribunal might transform this story from one of warning to another of Dickens’ themes: redemption.

For today though, we are left to wonder. Will the Tribunal find discrimination? Will the remedies set a strong precedent worthy of Canada’s human rights record? Will the decision be worth two pence? We shall soon see. 

*Jeffery Hewitt is mixed-blood Cree, in-house legal counsel for Rama First Nation and a Visiting Scholar at Osgoode Hall Law School, whose LLM thesis examined remedies in relation to Indigenous Peoples and human rights in Canada.

Cross-Post: Ottawa Police Should Adopt the ‘Philadelphia Model’ to Give Sexual Assault Victims Justice

Thursday, January 7, 2016

This post first appeared on Feminist Current.


Elizabeth Sheehy
University of Ottawa Faculty of Law 

The Ottawa Police Service’s recently announced decision to charge the man who allegedly raped, strangled, punched, and spat upon Mélodie Morin on the University of Ottawa campus last fall may reassure the public that police are responding effectively to sexual violence in our city. Should we rest easy?

In November 2015, Ottawa police told this young student that they would not be laying charges because they spoke to the alleged perpetrator and he told them it was a “misunderstanding.” After Morin went to the media and her friends started a petition to demand re-investigation, police stated publicly that they had not closed the investigation and would be continuing to investigate her report.

The man was reportedly represented by counsel through the continuing investigation that followed. We are told that he then left the country, seemingly without legal restraint. Thereafter police decided to lay charges of sexual assault against him. They warn that he will be arrested if he returns to Canada.

Despite Morin’s evident relief that her efforts produced at least some justice, her experience ought to tell us that we have a serious problem here. Rarely will women who have experienced sexual assault be able to fight the police when they decide not to pursue a sexual assault report. Further, most women cannot marshal the resources to do so successfully.

Nor should they have to. No woman reporting this crime should have to pay the kind of price Morin paid to see a proper investigation. She gave up her right to anonymity and privacy and put her name and face in the media. Doubtless she is paying a price for her public exposure — one that we should wish on no woman. Morin also lost her fall semester in her first year of university. Very few women can withstand the “second rape” — what our justice system puts them through.

We should be deeply concerned about the standard used by Ottawa police to make their initial determination that charges would not be filed. If an alleged perpetrator’s claim that the woman’s reported experience was a “misunderstanding”  is the police yardstick for whether a crime has been committed then almost none will be charged. They all offer some version of “misunderstanding”  — “She consented,” “She didn’t fight,” “I thought she consented.”

The fact that it took this long for police to reach a conclusion is also worrisome. She reported on September 25; they declined to lay charges more than a month later on November 7; they then took two additional months to determine that charges were in fact warranted. Those months allowed this man to leave the jurisdiction and left her in fear and limbo all that time. The fact that they have laid charges rings rather hollow — he is not here to answer to them.

The window provided into the state of policing sexual assault by this case tells us that major structural changes are needed if our police are to respond professionally to women’s reports. If this is what happens when a young, white university student reports allegations as serious as these, then imagine what happens when the woman is working class, disabled, homeless, or Indigenous. Or when she is reporting her husband, her boyfriend or her boss.

Nothing short of adoption of what advocates call the “Philadelphia model” — a model that requires activists from the violence against women movement to review police decisions on these files on an ongoing basis and to work in equal partnership with police to correct such egregious errors — can fix the problem we have here.

This model was adopted by Philadelphia 14 years ago in an effort to clean up a scandalous police record of sweeping women’s sexual assault reports under the rug. It has received the ongoing endorsement of both frontline women’s groups and Philadelphia police and has been credited with countless corrected investigations, an increased charge rate, interventions for serial predators, and enhanced confidence on the part of women to report sexual violence.

Ottawa women deserve no less. The problem of policing violence against women in our community is as deep and as resistant to change. Failures like the one in Morin’s case endanger us all, and Ottawa police cannot assure us that this is not commonplace. Here’s hoping Minister Naqvi will listen and respond at the provincial level with a model for policing violence against women that ensures transparency and accountability. 

Elizabeth Sheehy, LL.B., LL.M., LL.D. (Honoris causa), FRSC, is Vice Dean Research and Shirley Greenberg Chair for Women and the Legal Profession at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law. Her research record includes her most recent books: the edited collection Sexual Assault in Canada: Law, Legal Practice and Women’s Activism (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2012)and Defending Battered Women on Trial: Lessons from the Transcripts (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2014).

Cross-Post: Femicide is Predictable and Preventable but We need to Name the Problem

This post previously appeared on Feminist Current.

by Professor Elizabeth Sheehy
University of Ottawa Faculty of Law

“They both went over the railing,” CTV reported on December 20th, describing the deaths of Robert Giblin, 43, and Precious Charbonneau, 33, days before Christmas.

No they didn’t.

Giblin first stabbed his pregnant partner seven times. Then he threw her 21 flights to the ground, ensuring her death. After that, like many men who cannot — will not — live without her, Giblin committed suicide.

Other news reports said she “was stabbed several times before being thrown off the balcony,” that she fell or “plunged” from the balcony, that “stab wounds were found on her body,” tagging the story as “highrise deaths.”

Giblin was the agent of Charbonneau’s death, as well as his own. News media fail us all when they use the passive tense and erase the human agent to tell us about such terrible events: nothing here to see folks — no one to blame, no body to kick. Let’s all move on, as quickly as possible.

The news media have given us the easy story — a soldier with PTSD (or maybe not, according to his military friends) who has inexplicably slaughtered his new bride with whom he was deeply in love, sharing “love messages” on Facebook and posting photos of their “cuddling.” With input from his family and friends and military experts speculating about how PTSD might have affected him, we are told repeatedly that he was a lovely, gentle man whose death has left all who loved him shocked and deeply bereft. He may indeed have had those qualities, and the family’s loss is surely tremendous.

Yet the analysis in news media is focused almost exclusively on how we fail our soldiers, with promises of new resources forthcoming for their support. Nothing about how we fail our women. Especially our racialized women. And nothing about this woman — who was she? Where did she work? How did she come to be married to this man? Where is her family, her people? No photos of them at the wedding. Not even a mention of them. No follow up on the comments made by neighbours in interviews who spoke about his frequent screaming at the building’s female superintendent and yelling at Charbonneau. No exploration of witness statements that described her as quiet and very shy.

No digging by news media into the research that tells us his partner’s pregnancy is frequently the trigger for a man to begin assaulting his partner. Nor the data about the escalation of male violence in the holiday season. No questions either: was she leaving him? Was there a real or imagined rival? We know that the vast majority of intimate femicides are committed by men motivated by sexual jealousy or the prospect of separation. What role did her race play in the power dynamics of this relationship? Their age difference is recognized as a risk factor for intimate femicide. So, too, is coercive control— did he engage in this behavior? Social isolation is also a significant warning sign: Was she as isolated as the threadbare reporting would suggest?

But most importantly, not a single report describes Giblin’s acts as domestic violence. Only one story interviewed an advocate for battered women, and even then did not provide this most critical analytic frame for Giblin’s crime. And this was clearly and classically a “domestic violence” homicide — intimate femicide to be specific. Murder followed by suicide is almost exclusively committed by men against their female partners, as is “overkill”, where multiple homicidal acts are committed against the victim.

Perpetrators of domestic violence count on their victims’ silence, and they count on the silence of the rest of us. News media have a critical role to play in ensuring that the victims of intimate femicide do not disappear from view — as has Charbonneau in most media accounts. News media must also accurately convey these terrible events, not allowing us to avert our eyes and block our ears, and must alert us to the risk factors that predict lethal violence.

Intimate femicide is predictable and, therefore, preventable. But only if we all refuse to let silence reign.

ELIZABETH SHEEHY, LL.B., LL.M., LL.D. (Honoris causa), FRSC, is Vice Dean Research and Shirley Greenberg Chair for Women and the Legal Profession at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law. Her research record includes her most recent books: the edited collection Sexual Assault in Canada: Law, Legal Practice and Women’s Activism (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2012) (Available on Open Access) and Defending Battered Women on Trial: Lessons from the Transcripts (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2014).

Designed by Rachel Gold.