The Politics of Defining Vulnerability: The Need to Shift from Viewing Indigenous Girls as Willful Statistics to Being Additionally Vulnerable

What constitutes vulnerability? The formal definition of a vulnerable child or youth used by most Canadian provinces points to factors such as age, disability and, more vaguely, the general risk of abuse or neglect. By this definition, the 14-year-old Indigenous girl who went missing in August 2020 from We’koqma’q First Nation in Nova Scotia was not considered vulnerable and an Amber Alert was not issued. This is despite the fact that the young Indigenous girl was travelling with an older white male who is now facing a charge of kidnapping. Thus, it is clear that the formal definition of vulnerability insufficiently captures all who require various forms of protection. 

The argument that will be put forward here is that racism and colonialism play a large role in the maintenance of this insufficient definition. To fully understand the meaning of vulnerability, and make policies and decisions that reflect it, there is a need to use an intersectional lens that takes Indigenous feminist thought into account. By bringing attention to how sexism, misogyny, racism, and colonialism impact Indigenous women, the need for a more complex definition of vulnerability will be clear.  

Deciding Who is Vulnerable and Who is Not

Before defining vulnerability, it may be useful to begin with the definition of ‘womanish.’ Alice Walker has defined this term, in opposition to girlish, as a young girl who is willful; who acts grown beyond her years and wants to know more than what other young people wish to know. This term is predominantly applied to young girls of colour. Mikki Kendall discusses how otherwise age appropriate actions – from wearing shorts to going through puberty – can be read as signs of promiscuity simply on the basis of race. In this sense, young girls are viewed as womanish simply by dressing and growing; they are willfully appearing sexually mature beyond their age. Being seen as willful in this way results in a label of ‘deviant’ which further minimizes the likelihood of being seen as vulnerable. A willful person, in practice, refers to an individual who engages in the world outside of constructed norms (i.e., the norm of female subordination). Acting outside of the norms is perceived as engaging in deviance. To be viewed as acting deviantly is to be viewed as being self-directed and, as a result, self-protected. 

Indigenous girls experience a similar trend: they are viewed as independent beyond what their age typically allows for. The lack of an Amber Alert in the recent case in Nova Scotia is not an isolated event, but rather a long-term trend in both Canada and the United States. A common argument made by police is that young Indigenous girls are capable of making their own decisions and are frequently labeled as runaways rather than missing children. As explained by Mary Eberts, Indigenous women are perceived as actively choosing to be involved in ‘high-risk lifestyles’, when in reality limited autonomy and a lack of good options results in this type of lifestyle being forced upon Indigenous women. Thus, the term ‘womanish’ applies here in the sense that Indigenous girls are viewed as actively choosing to engage in the world as adults.

The current definition of vulnerability is set up to focus on those who are viewed as not acting ‘willfully’ (read: young girls who are neither racialized nor Indigenous). Girls who are seen as acting willfully are regarded as disposable and as statistics to be counted, not individuals to be found. We have arrived at this position through the ongoing process of colonialism, guided by both patriarchy and racism. The most obvious example of this is the Indian Act. The Act has served to oppress both Indigenous men and women on the basis of race (i.e., through residential school policies). However, there are also highly gendered elements involved in the Indian Act. A relevant example here is how the first formal anti-prostitution law in Canada originated in the Indian Act as a way to punish the sexual autonomy (seen as sexual promiscuity) of Indigenous women. Even though the legality of prostitution now exists outside of the Indian Act, Indigenous women are disproportionately affected by the policing of prostitution for similar reasons. To move beyond this position, to a place that allows for Indigenous and racialized girls to be seen as capable of experiencing vulnerability, there is a need to make space for Indigenous feminist thought and practice.

Defining vulnerability in an inclusionary way will require moving beyond the constructed myths that tag racialized and Indigenous young girls as willfully engaging in risky behavior. A more complete and accurate definition of vulnerability would allow for a better understanding of how interlocking systems of oppression operate along the lines articulated by Robyn Bourgeois, borrowing from Kimberlé Crenshaw. This understanding examines how colonialism, racism, and patriarchy operate through state-based decisions and violence to maintain hierarchical relations. For instance, it is important to recognize how the legal system holds biases and operates based on stereotypes that devalue certain lives to the advantage of other lives – the police and courts fail to protect Indigenous women and girls while excusing, and making excuses for, those who perpetuate violence.

Putting the New Definition into Practice 

Embedded in a settler society, Indigenous groups seemingly have two main routes to achieve change: the state route and the resurgence route. The state route involves reforming the Canadian legal system that has, to date, actively worked against the protection of Indigenous women and girls. In order for this to be a successful approach, three core elements are needed. First, Indigenous women and girls with lived experience must be taken as having expert knowledge: their voices must influence policy decisions and directions. Second, the history of the state’s role in perpetuating violence must be critically assessed and addressed. Third, colonial domination must be eliminated by revising the role of the Canadian nation-state. The state must shift from being complicit in violence to eliminating violence. So far, this approach has had minor success. The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Inquiry succeeded in forcing the state to recognize the visible scale of the problem. However, actions following the release of the final report have been minimal

In terms of implementing a new definition of vulnerability, this approach would not only necessitate immediate action on the implementation of the recommendations made in the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Inquiry Final Report, but also immediate action by the provinces to alter the indicators of vulnerability when it comes to issuing an Amber Alert. These policies should, in recognition of the disproportionate number of Indigenous women and girls who experience violence, extend beyond the current variables of age and disability to include race and Indigenous status.

Another approach, in contrast to the first, is that of resurgence. With resurgence, the Canadian state is not involved. In line with Audre Lorde’s much cited line, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” there would be a turn inward to focus on everyday practices that can disrupt the institutionalized colonial ways of seeing and acting. Gina Starblanket explains that resurgence involves the revival of pre-colonial acts and practices. Whereas the state approach is focused on the achievement and reinforcement of rights and recognition, the resurgence approach is focused on total reformation of societal practices on the ground in everyday life; it is bottom-up change rather than top-down. It is argued that the settler state requires violence, operating through legal systems, to maintain sovereign authority and will therefore continue to be unwilling to act.

The resurgence route would actively avoid giving greater power to state bodies, such as the police, given their active participation in colonial violence. Starblanket argues that a feminist perspective is essential to ensuring that resurgence does not recreate gendered inequalities. In practice then what a new meaning of vulnerability would call for is the (re)establishment of norms that value and actively protect women and girls.

We Cannot Wait for Change, We Must Act Now

Neither route is straightforward, both require the difficult task of challenging engrained patriarchal norms. There is an urgent need for action though given that the lives of Indigenous girls depend on this change. It should not simply be up to Indigenous women and girls to fight for this change alone. Feminists from all backgrounds can engage in active allyship to help alleviate the weight of this burden. We must educate ourselves on the history of colonial patriarchy and follow up on this education by asking Indigenous women and girls how we can help. Differences are not insurmountable barriers and homogeneity is not needed for a successful women’s movement. Women from various positions can come together, learn to listen, and learn to understand different ways of seeing and experiencing life. From here it will be possible to build a movement that tackles the concerns of all women—including Indigenous women.

The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author, and do not reflect the views of Conversationally Speaking Magazine and it’s founders.

Lori Oliver
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Lori Oliver is a doctoral student in the Department of Political Studies at Queen’s University and a SSHRC Joseph-Armand Bombardier Doctoral Scholar. Her research interests include gendered welfare state politics, poverty, housing/homelessness policies, and intersectional inequalities. Lori previously worked on community-based research projects with ACORN Canada, Adsum for Women & Children, and the IWK Health Centre. Her current PhD research is critically assessing gaps in social safety nets and homelessness initiatives that contribute to increasing levels of family homelessness.

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