BC Indigenous women put fear aside and become powerful leaders in fight for equality

Cherry Smiley at the footsteps of the Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa in June opposing the possible legalization of prostitution based on a decision for a case known as Bedford vs. Canada. Submitted photo.

As the young, Indigenous, women-led movement of Idle No More approaches its first anniversary on Dec.10, the Vancouver Observer profiles four indigenous women who are making a difference in BC. These four women are ignited by a passion for change because of what they experienced at home or in their communities.

When Cherry Smiley, 30, accepted Governor General’s Award in Commemoration of the Persons Case in Ottawa in October, she quoted an Indigenous poet and visual artist based in New York.  Smiley’s voice trembled, unaccustomed to the regal reception.  The award ceremony took place in a Victorian-decorated room at Rideau Hall, the residence of the Governor General, complete with a violinist playing.

 "As Gail Tremblay said, for an indigenous person, choosing not to vanish, not to feel inferior and not to hate oneself becomes an intensely political act.  I choose not to vanish, not to feel inferior, not to hate myself, and I am not afraid," Smiley said.

She was one of five women this year who received the award, which honours Canadian women who advance women’s equality.

Smiley, who is of Nlaka'pamux (Thompson) and Dine' (Navajo) descent, grew up seeing addictions and violence within her own family.

“I started having my own issues in university. As a teenager I was doing a lot of self-harm. I wasn’t able to understand my life and the life of women around me,” she said. But a women’s course in university changed that, even though it didn’t “have all the answers."

When she first moved to Vancouver in 2008, she worked with women fleeing violence with the Rape Relief Shelter. She met members of the Aboriginal Women’s Action Network through her work and would eventually speak at United Nations Commission on the Status of Women in 2011.

Last year, she launched a group called Indigenous Women Against the Sex Industry, which advocates for an end to prostitution – which Smiley mentioned to the UN in the video below:

“In my grandmother’s stories, I hear echoes of a time when prostitution did not exist. When women and girls were valued, loved and respected. I carry these stories in my heart, and in my mind, and in my blood. And I have no doubt a better world is possible,” Smiley reiterated in her acceptance speech at Rideau Hall. 

Smiley described her maternal grandmother as a powerhouse. She is now 92-years old. “She would always say 'keep your head up. And be proud of who you are,'” Smiley said.

As a child, Smiley made an unbroken promise to herself that she would never drink alcohol. “The negative consequence of alcohol as a colonial weapon was very, very apparent in my family. I didn’t want to ingest that devastation. It was frightening and scary at the same time. I was afraid of what it can do to me,” the scholarship-winning SFU Master of Fine Arts student said.

Sarah Hunt, a PhD candidate in Simon Fraser University’s geography department wants indigenous people to create a stronger link with culture to address violence against women.

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