The Right Honourable Justin Trudeau
Prime Minister of Canada
Office of the Prime Minister
80 Wellington Street
Ottawa, ON K1A 0A2
The Honourable Jody Wilson-Raybould, Minister of Justice and Attorney General
The Honourable Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs
The Honourable Stéphane Dion, Minister of Foreign Affairs
Ms. Deborah Chatsis, Canadian Ambassador to Guatemala
Ms. Mylène Paradis, Deputy Director – Central America, Global Affairs Canada
November 25, 2015
Dear Mr. Trudeau,
RE: International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women — the Canadian government must take action to respect, protect and fulfill the human rights of women, both in Canada and abroad.
We are writing on behalf of the Maritimes-Guatemala Breaking the Silence Network (BTS) and its supporters. BTS is a voluntary network of people in the Maritimes who began to organize in 1989 to support the efforts of Guatemalans struggling for political, social, and economic justice. We recognize that injustice is connected to structural inequalities both within and between countries, and we are committed to supporting structural transformation both in Guatemala and in Canada.
On November 25, 1960, three sisters were murdered in the Dominican Republic at the hands of secret police. The Mirabal sisters were civil rights activists working to denounce the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo, who later ordered their assassination. Since 1981, November 25 has been marked as a day of action against gender-based violence by Latin American feminists. This date was later adopted by the UN as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, which has been commemorated worldwide since 1999. November 25 also marks the beginning of the 16 Days of Action against Gender-Based Violence, leading up to International Human Rights Day on December 10th. Around the world, this is a time to galvanize action to end violence against women and girls. In Canada, we also mark the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women on December 6th, the anniversary of the 1989 Montreal Massacre at l’Ecole Polytechnique, where 14 women were murdered and 14 others were injured.
These international days of action and reflection call attention to the different forms of violence affecting women, and to the ways in which they are interrelated. From “domestic” violence experienced in the so-called private sphere to violence against women in schools and workplaces, to gendered and sexual violence employed by states as tools of repression and torture, women experience violence in the context of wartime and peace. We are reminded that while different types of violence have their own specificities and contexts, they are all linked and are perpetuated by systems that justify, make light of, turn a blind eye to or otherwise contribute to normalizing this violence.
In 1981, Canada was one of the first countries to sign and ratify the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, also known as CEDAW. Now, almost 35 years later, a CEDAW expert committee has found Canada to have committed a “grave violation” of indigenous women’s rights by failing to thoroughly investigate and address the high levels of violence they experience. In March of this year, the committee released a report highlighting the failures of the Canadian state to adequately protect indigenous women, investigate violence, hold offenders to account, and support and provide redress for victims. The committee also noted that the violence experienced by indigenous women in Canada is rooted in the deep socio-economic inequalities and discrimination their communities face. CEDAW made 38 recommendations for action, including the establishment of an independent national inquiry and the development of a national action plan to address all forms of violence against indigenous women.
To date, these recommendations remain unfulfilled. As you are well aware, as of May 2014, 1,181 Indigenous women were either missing or murdered in Canada between 1980 and 2012; of those 1,017 were murdered, and some 164 investigations for missing Indigenous women date back to 1952. Meanwhile, between 2000 and 2010, 5,200 women were killed in Guatemala, a country with a population of 14 million. Guatemala is one of the most dangerous countries in the Americas to be a woman, to the point where the term “femicide” was coined to characterize the intentional murder of women simply because they are women. The broader, political term “feminicide” is used to recognize the role of the state, law enforcement and judicial structures in perpetrating violence against women at a structural level through the normalization of gender-based violence, the failure to provide justice for survivors, and the failure to adequately ensure the safety and protection of women citizens. Although the political, social, and economic context is admittedly very different, women’s struggles in Canada and in Guatemala share many similarities. Here at home and around the world, many women are struggling to survive under difficult circumstances.
In some cases, Canadian foreign policy has played a detrimental role on the lives of Indigenous women abroad. Aggressive diplomatic support for Canadian mining companies operating overseas by both the Conservative and Liberal parties have been noted and the impacts on Indigenous women have been felt. According to UN Women, “Studies have shown that women are often the first to bear the negative impact of extraction, as they lose the land they work on and still have to find ways to provide for their families. The influx of migrant workers and cash makes them more vulnerable to sexual violence while pollution means they often have to travel further distances to collect water, which can expose them to danger.” In countries like Guatemala, Canadian mining companies have been repeatedly accused of perpetrating serious human rights violations including the rape of indigenous women. In one particular case, 11 indigenous Maya Q’eqchi’ women were gang raped in the community of Lote Ocho during a violent forced land eviction near a nickel mine in 2007. A Canadian company, Hudbay Minerals, has been charged with legal negligence and carelessness in this case, which will be heard in an Ontario court.
Guatemalan academic and peace activist Luz Mendez has compared land seizures and sexual violence against Indigenous women at the hands of Canadian mining companies today to the violence against Indigenous women that was perpetrated during her country’s violent internal armed conflict. In particular, Mendez examines the Sepur Zarco sexual slavery case that is being brought before Guatemalan courts. Rape in both contexts, she says, constituted “a tool to put an end to the peasant struggle for land…to dispossess lands as part of the deepening of the extractive model.” Breaking the Silence has been working with Guatemalan partner organizations to support both the Lote Ocho gang rape case and the Sepur Zarco sexual slavery case. We believe that all Indigenous women, who have been attacked due to systemically perpetuated violence, deserve justice. We value their lives, their contributions to family and community, and their knowledge and experience and stand in solidarity with their work to defend the land that gives life.
Addressing former Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2014, you stated that: “The Prime Minister must take urgent action … starting with a full, public, transparent inquiry mandated to determine the causes of the nearly 1,200 missing and murdered indigenous women and girls.” As we mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, we call upon the Liberal government to act immediately on missing and murdered aboriginal women as promised repeatedly during the electoral campaign, and as spelled out in Policy Resolution 110, A Resolution for Action for the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.
We call on the Canadian government to act, in partnership and coordination with affected families and Indigenous grassroots organizations, to respect, protect and fulfill the human rights of women, both in Canada and abroad. We also call on the Canadian government to respect the rights of Indigenous women who oppose mining and other resource exploitation in their territories and to support diplomatic efforts to ensure this right is upheld. We strongly encourage Canadian Ambassador to Guatemala, Deborah Chatsis, to show support for the Sepur Zarco sexual slavery case by attending the upcoming criminal hearings slated to begin in January 2016 in Guatemala and the struggle of the 11 women of Lote Ocho who were gang raped in 2007 and whose civil case in Canada is ongoing.
All women have the right to live in dignity, free from violence, and with adequate housing and support. Today, we want to remind you that women’s rights are human rights, and we are calling on you to do better.
Maritimes-Guatemala Breaking the Silence Solidarity Network