Leah Gazan (photo by Rebeca Kuropatwa)
Human traffickers target those who are most vulnerable – women and children, and people from impoverished and marginalized cultures and communities. Anti-trafficking organizations estimate that between 12 and 30 million people are held in forced labor (including sexual servitude) and that two to four million people are trafficked across borders each year.
On March 12, Manitoba marked its second Human Trafficking Awareness Day. To observe the day, National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) of Canada, Winnipeg section, held the event United We Care, An Evening in Support of the We Care Campaign for Education about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
The program took place at Graffiti Art Programming and included an art exhibit, as well as an address from Leah Gazan, an advocate for MMIW issues in Manitoba and the rest of Canada. Indigenous artist Jessica Canard created a painting during the event that was auctioned off at the end of the night.
Gazan introduced herself as a member of the bear clan. “The bear clan has roles and responsibilities,” she said. “One is to be a protector. My mother was a child welfare survivor, a Lakota woman, a street kid. She overcame great obstacles, obtained a master’s degree, and changed legislation.
“My father was a Holocaust survivor from Holland and, like my mother and in spite of historical trauma he experienced, he went on to receive two master’s degrees, a teaching degree, raise a family and spend his life trying for social justice with a special focus on fighting for children.”
Gazan said her parents taught her that change is possible, “with the goal of realizing a good world for all peoples, animal life, plant life, our women and our girls. We are all sacred. We all have to take responsibility for the collective well-being of all creation.”
The We Care campaign came from a conversation between Gazan and artist and singer Raine Hamilton. Upset about what was happening to indigenous women and girls in Canada, Hamilton wanted to do something. Gazan encouraged her, saying, “If you want to do something, Raine, you do something, and I will support you.”
In 2013, James Anaya, former special rapporteur on indigenous issues for the United Nations, called the state of violence and the number of murdered and missing indigenous women in Canada a national crisis. According to the RCMP’s 2014 National Operational Review on Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women, “Police-recorded incidents of aboriginal female homicides and unresolved missing aboriginal females in this review total 1,181 – 164 missing and 1,017 homicide victims.” There were 225 unsolved cases: 105 missing for more than 30 days as of Nov. 4, 2013, “whose cause of disappearance was categorized at the time as ‘unknown’ or ‘foul play suspected’ and 120 unsolved homicides between 1980 and 2012.”
“We represent 4.3 percent of the Canadian population, yet we represented 16 percent of all reported homicides,” said Gazan. “Indigenous women and girls are not safe in this country and this is related to a number of factors, including high rates of poverty among indigenous women.”
According to the UN and the platform action committee in Manitoba, Gazan said, “The current rate for poverty for indigenous women living off reserve is at 42.7 percent. That is twice the rate for non-indigenous women and exceeds rates of indigenous men, with an average income of $13,300. That’s $6,060 lower than non-indigenous women and approximately $5,000 lower than indigenous men.”
Gazan stressed, “This is not an indigenous issue. This is an issue for all Canadians who want to protect the fundamental rights of all persons. It will take all of us in solidarity to address these issues.
“One cannot begin to understand the complexity of this issue without the focus on the colonization of indigenous women,” she continued. “Prior to colonization, our women and, in particular, our grandmothers were the main decision makers within our nations. Women were seen as powerful. This was very much related to our ability to bring life into the world.
“Through the eyes of colonialists, indigenous women were seen as property of men, much like women in Europe at that time. The exclusion of indigenous women in decision making eventually led to the cultural, social and economical dispossession of indigenous women that was eventually stipulated in policies that were enforced in the Indian Act.
“In 2006, the International Indigenous Women’s Forum noted that the systemic violation of their collective rights as indigenous people is the single greatest risk factor for gender-based violence, including violence perpetrated within their communities.”
The situation can be changed, however, “and that’s exactly what the purpose of the We Care campaign is,” said Gazan. “It’s to educate and engage fellow Canadians so that we can change that story … so we can end what has resulted in unacceptable levels of violence that’s perpetrated against indigenous women and girls in this country.
“It’s a place where we can come together to demonstrate and send a clear message that we will not stop until indigenous women and girls are afforded the same rights and safety as are afforded to other Canadians.”
The group hopes that this campaign will become one of the main issues in the upcoming federal election.
“We need Canadians to join with us in unity, to say that we care,” said Gazan. “It seems so overwhelming that people don’t know what to do because it’s so bad, but I don’t think it’s because people don’t care. I believe people care.
“What if we start to join together to recreate a new story that results in a safer city, province and country for indigenous women and girls as an act of humanity?”
NCJW across Canada and its international body, the International Council of Jewish Women, has established advocacy against human trafficking as a priority issue. All proceeds from the March program’s ticket sales and the auction went to the We Care campaign.
To participate, snap a photo of yourself holding a sign that says #WeCare and #MMIW, then post it on Twitter and Facebook, showing it’s an issue that matters to you. More information is available at facebook.com/wecaremmiw.
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.