(Crystal Smith speaks to media outside the Vancouver courts Thursday. Photo: Amber Bernard/APTN)
Indigenous women are sounding the alarm on what they say is unjust and disproportionate state violence against those working to protect water and defend Indigenous lands.
On Thursday, several women held a news conference outside the provincial courthouse in Vancouver ahead of a hearing for Tia Chicome, who was arrested last March during a protest near Kinder Morgan’s marine terminal in Burnaby.
Before her hearing, Chicome, a member of the Xiximec Nahua nation and a U.S. war veteran, told media and others gathered outside the court she feels the RCMP has a bias against Indigenous women.
“There’s been a big difference in the way we have been treated compared to the white women that have been arrested” while protesting the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, she said.
Chicome said her March 31 arrest occurred after she acted to protect others from a driver of a truck she says threatened people’s safety at a blockade of the marine terminal site.
“The truck started increasing its speed up the hill aiming for the bodies of these water protectors, these land defenders, and I started running towards the truck because I thought I was going to witness somebody getting seriously injured, or possibly [killed].
“So I saw the truck run into the bodies of these people, and I made an intervention — and for that intervention, I was arrested. The truck driver was never even questioned. The truck driver didn’t even get a ticket.”
Chicome, who faces charges of assault and mischief, had her case set over to Aug. 30.
Crystal Smith, a young Indigenous mother who also faces charges related to protests against the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, said Thursday she and her mother were targeted by police in March and that she was “violently arrested” in front of her children.
Watch Crystal Smith at the Vancouver courts Thursday
“I had bruises on my wrists. I had bruises on my upper body from the force that they used on me. And it was my children that witnessed this,” she recalled, explaining her family had gone to Burnaby to visit the Tsleil-Waututh watch house, but that Smith became involved in the protest when she saw others blocking a truck towing a bulldozer.
She alleged she was not violating Kinder Morgan’s injunction at the time of her arrest, and that police deliberately arrested her mother first, who was filming their response to the water protectors.
“It is here that we see the difference between Indigenous bodies and non-Indigenous bodies,” she said. “It is here that we see the difference of attitude that the RCMP has and it’s a reflection of the attitude Canada has.”
Indigenous women historically targeted in colonization efforts: Palmater
(A female land protector is arrested during an early morning raid of a camp across from the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project in Labrador. Photo courtesy: TheIndependent.ca)
While Indigenous peoples comprise roughly four per cent of Canada’s population, according to Statistics Canada data released last month they represent 27 per cent of all incarcerated people in the country.
According to a report released by Canada’s Correctional Investigator last year Indigenous women represent a staggering 37 per cent of all women behind bars, and 50 per cent of all female maximum-security inmates.
Mi’kmaw lawyer and academic Pam Palmater says the targeting of Indigenous women by authorities and the state is a longstanding issue in Canada historically rooted in strategic colonization efforts, and that the criminalization of women water protectors on the front lines against pipelines and other unwanted resource development is a continuation of that legacy.
“From the very, very beginning the Canadian state has tried to separate women from the land,” she told APTN Thursday.
“The safety and health of women’s bodies has always been tied to the land so closely that that’s why the state has particularly targeted Indigenous women — to separate them from that because it helps disintegrate their nations.”
Palmater said the Canadian state has “long known that one of the most effective ways to realize a genocide, to break up a nation, to gain access to lands and resources, is to…target the women because they’re the ones that give birth to the children, they’re the ones that are carrying on the culture and language and legacy.
But also because Indigenous women have always played historically very strategic and important roles in their nations.
“So by targeting Indigenous women and just completely removing them from their core power structure from within their nations is also an equally effective way of disrupting those nations, dismantling those nations, causing chaos and confusion.”
Province won’t interfere with arrests of water protectors: Minister
On Wednesday B.C.’s Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, Scott Fraser told APTN the province respects Indigenous peoples’ right to protest the Trans Mountain pipeline and other unwanted projects like the Site C dam in the Peace River Valley.
“Each nation has a right to take a position on an issue that’s happening on the land, especially in their territories,” he said.
But he said he won’t speak critically of police forces’ arrests of Indigenous people.
“We’re not going to tell the police what to do and how to do their job,” he said.
“Police operate at arm’s length from government, they’re independent of government, and we don’t interfere with police operational decisions. That’s not the role of government.”
Palmater disagrees and says the province should be critical of police forces that are selective in their interpretations of the law.
She said in criminalizing land defenders and water protectors the RCMP continue to prioritize corporate interests over the rights of Indigenous peoples protected in Section 35 of Canada’s constitution.
“If they go in and arrest land defenders and the province of B.C. considers that that’s not a proper enforcement of the law given the many other competing laws that protect Aboriginal treaty rights, then the province should intervene,” she said.
“We shouldn’t treat the RCMP like they’re their own government where there’s a judge, jury and executioner on Aboriginal treaty rights.
“There’s got to be some collective governance of First Nations, provincial and federal [governments], and broader discussions with all levels of law enforcement to say, hey, there’s multiple competing laws here.
“It’s much better to work out a process than [have] everyone sit back and say, well it’s not on me — we’ll just see what the RCMP does.”
Palmater said Indigenous women’s perseverance and leadership in the face of continued criminalization shouldn’t be lost in the conversation.
“Even though Indigenous women have always been targeted, both in the law directly and indirectly, they continue to stand up for the land and for their children despite knowing what’s coming.
“They know they’re going to be criminalized. They know they’re going to be painted as some form of criminal,” she said.
“And knowing they’re still the ones out there trying to defend our territories, that’s a very significant and very powerful message for the rest of the Indigenous people in this country — that despite how much they’re targeted and criminalized: we’re still out there protecting our bodies and protecting our lands for the benefit of our nations.”
In a calm but stern tone outside the Vancouver courthouse, her children by her side, Smith said Canada is “waging a war” in which Indigenous women “are being arrested for trespassing on their own land.
“Where is the reconciliation here? Where is the reconciliation? I do not see it. I do not feel it. And it is not present in my life or my children’s life.”