We would like to thank the Philippine Women Centre of Ontario, the Asian Women Coalition Ending Prostitution and Indigenous Women Against the Sex Industry for putting on a fantastic panel discussion on Saturday, December 5, 2015 at the University of Toronto. Speakers from these three organizations spoke about the roots of oppression faced by women of colour in Canada, with particular attention to the temporary foreign worker program and its effect on Filipino women, the effects of residential schools and the Indian Act on Indigenous women, and the system of prostitution which disproportionately affects Asian and Indigenous women.
Canada’s temporary foreign worker program has brought large numbers of Filipino women into Canada to become caregivers in private households. Panelists explained that 84% of these women have a university education and 67% of them have children. Although these women are mostly educated professionals, they are performing low-skill work for low wages and are facing many barriers in upgrading their education or finding work in their fields. While performing caregiving work, women are often overworked, underpaid, subject to sexual violence and economic exploitation, and separated from their children, all of which have negative effects on their mental health. They are separated from their children for about 8–10 years, on average. Most of them continue with caregiving work or other “survival” work after the temporary foreign worker program has been completed, due to years of working outside their field and being unable to upgrade their education.
The Residential School system in Canada, which continued until 1996, separated Aboriginal children from their families and attempted to assimilate them into the white colonizer’s culture. In these Residential schools, white teachers taught patriarchal values to the children and instilled in them the belief that Aboriginal women and girls have no value. The Indian Act also reflected the beliefs of white male settlers and took status away from Indigenous women. The government of Canada is still failing to properly investigate the murders of Indigenous women, who are often dismissed as living a “high-risk” lifestyle. It is a high risk to be an Aboriginal woman in Canada, but this is not because of their own choices—it’s because of the systemic racism and sexism in Canada that continues to go largely unchallenged. Indigenous women are over-represented in prostitution in Canada, even though this is not a part of Aboriginal cultures. There is no word in any local Indigenous language for prostitution—this is a system introduced to this land by colonizers. It is in fact racist to claim that prostitution is the “oldest profession” in Canada, because this oppression did not exist here until colonization.
Revolutionary changes are needed to end the oppression of women in Canada. Women’s place in society needs to be changed—women need to be treated as equals in society rather than subordinate to men. New immigrants in Canada need to be treated as skilled workers, not as babysitters, and should not face barriers to obtaining meaningful employment in their fields. The temporary foreign workers program should be abolished and immigration laws changed to reflect the fact that immigrant women are skilled workers like everyone else. Many Filipina nannies are working for upper-class women so they can further their career goals. Even privileged women find that they are responsible for all the childcare due to attitudes about women’s place in society and their husbands not doing child care. A state-funded childcare program would ease the burden on all women and would eliminate the problem of upper-class women depending on the low-paid work of less privileged women in order to secure their place in the workforce.
Indigenous women deserve full safety and equality, and prostitution is incompatible with this goal. The organization Indigenous Women Against the Sex Industry supports the new prostitution law in Canada, which regrettably has not been enforced much so far, because it holds men accountable for their violence. Much more needs to be done by police officers to hold male abusers accountable for the rapes and murders they inflict on marginalized women. Unfortunately, police officers are often the johns and the abusers of Indigenous women, and they represent the colonizers. There is understandable skepticism that the white colonizers’ justice system will ever be any help; however, we need to keep working to hold men accountable in every way that we can. The cultural construct of masculinity needs to be redefined—men should not learn that ownership and control over women is their right, and that violence is a part of being a man. All Canadians need to understand that Indigenous women are valued and deserve safety and respect.
Members of Radical Feminists Unite attended this event and were very moved and energized by the excellent speakers who talked about getting to the root of women’s oppression and centering the needs of women of colour in our organizing. Women are not free until the most marginalized among us are free.