Standing up for Free Expression: Dawn Lavell-Harvard, NWAC

Friday, June 19, 2015
NWAC’s Faceless Doll Project is a travelling art exhibit with a collection of faceless felt dolls created by Canadians in memory of the missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls in Canada. "Each statistic tells a story.”
In a series of Q&As, CJFE is celebrating the amazing people across the country working to defend your rights. Dawn Lavell-Harvard, Interim President of the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC), is involved in critical projects to give voices to the marginalized, protect your rights and help keep free expression in the spotlight.
What is NWAC, and what is your role there? How long have you been involved? The Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC) has been a crucial national voice and advocate around issues of violence against Aboriginal women for over 40 years. Our goal is to enhance, promote and foster the social, economic, cultural and political well-being of First Nations and Métis women in Canada. NWAC is an aggregate of 13 provincial Native women's organizations from across Canada working at the local level with the grassroots women. We collectively recognize, respect, promote, defend and enhance our Native ancestral laws, spiritual beliefs, language and traditions. It feels like I have been personally involved with advocacy and activism since birth—my mother was one of the original leaders of the movement who took her fight to end discrimination against First Nations women all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada in 1973. I became an advocate early on, starting on the Board of the Ontario Native Women’s Association (ONWA) in 1996, only to be elected president by 2004 while still a youth member. As a result of my role at the provincial level, I assumed a leadership role with NWAC in 2004.
Can you describe NWAC’s current initiatives to give a larger voice to Aboriginal women? NWAC has been advocating for the safety and empowerment of our women since the beginning. Our work in raising the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women has become formalized since 2004 through vigils, events, conferences and speaking engagements, and more recently through public service announcements. We lobbied and secured funding from the Government of Canada from 2005 to 2010 to raise public education and awareness and to develop a research database of all the women and their life stories. From 2010 to 2014, we continued the work under the Evidence to Action project, and we are now implementing the next stage, called Project PEACE. This three-year project will build on the foundation of all our previous work, focusing on violence prevention and safety, and to address the role of men and boys in eliminating violence. Through regional focus groups and a national survey, we are measuring the experiences and perceptions of safety and violence for our people. As part of this project we have developed "You Are Not Alone: A Toolkit for Aboriginal Women Escaping Domestic Violence.”
What do you think is the biggest threat to freedom of expression for Aboriginal women in Canada? Bill C-51. The new anti-terror bill poses a grave threat to freedom of speech for those who dare to voice a dissenting opinion. Given the longstanding history of broken treaties, as well as generations of oppression, abuse and violation of First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples at the hands of successive governments here in Canada, our struggle to survive has often required nothing less than civil disobedience. The very process of advocating for our rights as distinct, autonomous nations within the Canadian state has long been considered insurgency, a fact supported by the 1927 legislation prohibiting First Nations people from raising money or securing the services of a lawyer for the pursuit of land claims. Efforts to protect our lands from exploitation would by definition be a threat to the economic stability of a nation dependent upon the resource wealth of our territories. As one of the most marginalized and vulnerable populations in Canadian society, high rates of violence and missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls means we have to speak out, protest, and march in the streets if we want any hope for a better future—or any hope for a future at all.
New reports have highlighted Canada’s obligation to prevent and failure to address violence against Aboriginal women. What kind of effects will this have on discussions and actions to address the issues? These reports shine a light on the shameful treatment of Aboriginal women in Canada, exposing evidence of this tragedy to both domestic and international audiences; as a result, more people than ever are speaking out on this. Unfortunately, even though both of these reports indicated that the lack of action to protect our women constitutes a grave human rights violation, the response of the current government indicates a shocking lack of concern for human life. While Prime Minister Harper tweets about his concern for the most vulnerable women and children around the world, when asked specifically for his response to the increasing call for a national inquiry on the tragedy of missing and murdered Aboriginal women, he stated, “it isn’t really high on our radar.” This continued dismissal of the concerns of Indigenous peoples and international human rights protocol is indicative of the need for a change in government.
A National Roundtable between government and Aboriginal leaders on the issue of missing and murdered Aboriginal women took place on February 27, 2015. What will we see coming out of this? It was hoped that the indication of unity between all the provinces and territories would induce the federal government to acknowledge the urgent need to address the ongoing tragedy. Unfortunately, I was disappointed and frustrated, but not truly surprised, by the lack of genuine commitment displayed by the federal government at the roundtable—which may explain why I was not more outraged. We gave them a chance to do the right thing, but we knew it was a long shot. However, hope was sustained by the continued commitments from the premiers to not only continue to push for a national inquiry, but also to use the Aboriginal Affairs Working Group to develop a coordinated, complex and comprehensive action plan to protect our women and girls and address the shocking levels of violence against Aboriginal women across the nation. Given how slow the wheels of government typically turn, the commitment to a process that would see the announcement of a genuine action plan by next year, indicates that the provincial governments are well aware of the seriousness of this situation.
What can Canadians do to help give a greater voice to Aboriginal women? The most important thing you can do is educate yourself. The silence on this issue is what allows it to continue. Start a petition at your union meeting, church group or school, write a letter to your MP, MPP or the local municipality. Tweet, blog, march and protest (if you are not too afraid of Bill C-51), and then tweet, blog and protest some more—this crisis will not be resolved by a one-time effort. We require sustained and consistent effort if we want to change things.


An abridged version of this interview was first published in the 2014-15 Review of Free Expression in Canada.

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.