Sexual assault has always been a prevalent crisis in Canada, and one that has received increasing attention in recent decades. A subdivision of sexual assault that remains obscured, however, despite its relevance in Canadian politics even before Confederation, is the sexual assault of Indigenous women by white men as an expression of gendered and racialized power. Scholar Manuela Lavinas argues that in many colonized societies, the intersectionality of sexism and racism converge to build hierarchal and mutually reinforcing systems of domination (Lavinas, 2018, p.30), and rape has, throughout history, been used as a political weapon to reinforce gendered and racialized paradigms of power. In this blog, I will examine the manner in which rape is politicized into a weapon for gendered and racialized dominance and consider how it is used in Canada as a system of domination upon Indigenous women. 

In her book Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape (1975), Susan Brownmiller explains that a man’s structural capacity to rape and a woman’s corresponding structural vulnerability develops an inevitable power imbalance between the two that automatically advantages the man and disadvantages the woman (p.14). She describes rape not only as a male prerogative, but as man’s most basic weapon against woman, the principal agent of his will and her fear. In fact, she attributes prehistoric man’s discovery that his genitalia could be politicized into a weapon to the creation of the male ideology of rape. His forcible entry into her body, in spite of her physical protestations and struggle, is the vehicle for his victorious conquest over her being, the triumph of his manhood, and the ultimate expression of the superior strength he craves to possess (Brownmiller, 1975, p.13). In the perspective that rape can be politicized into a weapon for gendered dominance, Brownmiller concludes that rape is nothing more or less than a process of social control by which men keep women in a state of intimidation, fear and inferiority (Brownmiller, 1975, p.15). 

Similarly, rape is often politicized into a weapon for cultural and racial dominance. In warfare, it is used as an exertion of dominance, superiority, and ownership that instills fear and racialized ideas of inferiority in the captured, making it easier for conquerors to conquer over them. As previously mentioned, the intersectionality of sexism and racism converge to build hierarchical and mutually reinforcing systems of domination (Lavinas, 2018, p.30), and such intersectionality was and continues to be constantly exploited in imperialism and colonization. The rape and capture of females by force was one of the ready fruits of warfare (Lavinas, 2018, p.18): women, in the war context, were viewed as legitimate booty, and their bodies acted as an extended prize to war victory (Lavinas, 2018, p.33). Captured slave women were lawfully employed as sex servants, field hands, concubines, and breeders of future slaves (Lavinas, 2018, p.21). In the colonial context, the rape of the defeated troop’s women acted not only as an additional triumph in the manhood of the winning troop and an additional loss for the conquered, but as a racialized expression of authority among the defeated.

In the Canadian context of colonialism, the gendered and racialized use of rape as a political tool for domination was utilized in the conquest of Indigenous peoples. The rape of Indigenous women by white men, in particular, was a casual by-product of the move westward and The Great Frontier (Brownmiller, 1975, p.140). Their rape was not deemed important; it was understood under the warfare “trophy” discourse and was excused by a dehumanized perspective on Indigeneity. Massacres were often accompanied with rape and sexual mutilation (Smith, 2018, p.18). The rape and massacre of an enclave of the Aripava Apaches in April of 1871 is merely one example:

Each of the braves was shot down and scalped by the wild volunteers, who out with their knives and cutting two parallel gashes down their backs would strip the skin from the quivering flesh to make razor straps of. Two of the best looking of the squaws were lying in such a position, and from the appearance of the genital organs and of their wounds, there can be no doubt that they were first ravished and then shot dead. Nearly all of the dead were mutilated. (Smith, 2018, p. 18)

The rape and murder of the Indigenous woman by the white man is the rawest expression of anti-woman and anti-Indigeneity hatred. 

Modern-day Canada carries forward the legacies of the colonial project’s gendered and racialized use of rape. In Canada, there is an epidemic of sexual assault on Indigenous women that continues to conflate with the traditional exclusion of Indigenous peoples from the state (Lavinas, 2018, p.30). Unemployment and poverty are common among Indigenous communities and, as a byproduct of economic disadvantage, Native women and girls are disproportionately represented among prostitutes, many of which are linked to recruitment, homelessness, and rape (Deer, 2015, p.225). According to the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC), between 2000 and 2008 alone, 153 cases of murdered Aboriginal women and girls were confirmed, and the cases represent approximately 10% of all female homicides in Canada, a significantly disproportionate percentage of the overall national crime rate against women (Anderson, 2016. p.87). Neither individual cases nor the larger systemic problems and historical legacies which contribute to the vulnerability of these women have been adequately investigated or reported by the media, police authorities, or government. Indigenous women continue to suffer a misrecognition in the legal system that transpires into an infringement upon their right to refuge and protection under the law. 

In this blog, I explored the manner in which rape is politicized into a weapon for dominance in the contexts of gender and race. More specifically, I considered the ways in which the colonial project in Canada exploited the intersectionality between the two in order to create a mutually reinforcing system of domination upon Aboriginal women that continues to affect Indigenous communities. In Canada, there is a danger in being Indigenous and female, and falsity in our promise to equal benefit and protection under the law (Lindberg et al., 2012, p.99). Who may one turn to for protection when the law is the perpetrator?

Please visit www.asaferplace.ca for a space to anonymously enter experiences of domestic violence, emotional manipulation, sexual abuse, racism, or any injustice and receive support from individuals with psychology backgrounds.

References

Anderson, G.S. (2016). Stitching through Silence: Walking With Our Sisters, Honoring the 

Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women in Canada. TEXTILE, 14:11, 84-97. DOI: 10.1080/14759756.2016.1142765

Brownmiller, S. (1975). Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape. New York City, New York: Simon and Schuster.

Deer, S. (2015). The Beginning and End of Rape. Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.

Lavinas, M. (2018). Vernacular Sovereignties: Indigenous Women Challenging World Politics. Tucson, Arizona: University of Arizona Press.

Lindberg, T., Campeau, P., & Campbell, M. (2012). Indigenous Women and Sexual Assault in Canada. In E. A. Sheehy (Ed.), Sexual Assault in Canada: Law, Legal Practice and Women’s Activism. (pp. 95-99). Ottowa, Canada: University of Ottowa Press.