Sovereignty, Culture, Rights: The Racial Politics of Gendered Violence in Canada

By Thobani, Sunera | Borderlands, May 2015 | Go to article overview

Sovereignty, Culture, Rights: The Racial Politics of Gendered Violence in Canada


Thobani, Sunera, Borderlands


Introduction

I begin this paper by recounting a number of official responses to recent cases of what is popularly defined as gendered violence in Canada in order to highlight the complexities of such violence within the settler colonial context. Following the disappearance of Tina Fontaine, an indigenous (Sagkeeng First Nation) teenager, in Winnipeg (August 2014), Prime Minister Stephen Harper dismissed calls for an Inquiry into the mounting deaths and disappearances of indigenous women across the country. (i) Such cases, the Prime Minister stated, are not a 'sociological phenomenon' but individual crimes that ought to be treated as such by the police. (ii) Insisting that Fontaine's disappearance '... is a crime, against innocent people, and it needs to be addressed as such', Harper went on to claim: 'We brought in laws across this country that I think are having more effect in terms of crimes of violence not just against aboriginal women, but women and persons more generally' (Boutiller 2014). The Prime Minister thus sought to delink the violence against indigenous women from the coloniality that shapes the Canadian politico-cultural landscape; he also deepened the official exoneration of the nation by further entrenching his earlier claim that 'Canada has no history of colonialism (O'Keefe 2009).

If indigenous women's deaths were to be treated officially as individual crimes, not so the violence against immigrant women. The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration introduced Bill S-7, the 'Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Practices Act', which had its first Senate reading in November, 2014. An amendment to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, the Bill would ban honour killings, polygamy, and forced and underage marriages, and make 'a free and enlightened consent to marriage' a legal requirement (Canadian Civil Liberties Association 2014). This legislatively defined 'free choice' of an enlightened gendered subject was defined as a 'Canadian' value as the government linked 'barbaric cultural practices' with immigrant and refugee communities.

During the same period, two women Members of Parliament--both white--made allegations of sexual misconduct against two of their male colleagues. The Liberal Party Leader, Justin Trudeau, immediately suspended the male MPs from the Liberal Caucus (Smith 2014). The women then accused Trudeau of acting too hastily, faulting him for not consulting with them prior to the suspensions (Harper 2014). This incident, following on the heels of another high profile sexual assault scandal at the CBC that resulted in the firing of a popular radio host, sparked off a frenzied national discussion about how the sexism in the legal system prevents women from speaking out against sexual assault.

The categories 'aboriginal', 'immigrant' and 'national'--crystallized historically within practices of Canadian sovereignty--point to the racial configurations that underpin state and nation formation. I have discussed elsewhere how the dispossession of indigenous peoples and the migrations of various non-indigenous populations were mutually constitutive processes that produced these communities as culturally, legally and politically incommensurable in a racially triangulated settler formation (Thobani 2007). Overdetermined by racial logics, this triangulation suppressed 'internal' heterogeneity and hierarchy within each configuration while inflating their 'external' relationality. New subject positions thus came into being, deployed in the violent relations of non/belonging institutionalized in a shifting matrix of rights and entitlements. As Europeans (initially British and French) were absorbed into nationality, state and nation became bound in their mutual reproduction of whiteness; cast as outsiders, immigrants were caught in the vagaries of a perpetually contested citizenship; and the governance of indigenous peoples vacillated between physical, cultural and legal extinction (Thobani 2007; Stasiulis and Jhappan 1995; Bolaria and Li 1985). …

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