The MMIWG report chronicles exploitation without really defining it
These stories are complex. I was not prostituted at 17, but there were elements of exploitation
When the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) released its final report Monday, much of the discussion focused on the report's conclusion: that the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls amounts to "genocide."
That was the word on which media and commentary focused: Is the word appropriate? Will the prime minister say it? How will it change how Canadians view the issue?
But there is another word, often repeated in the report, that is equally deserving of attention: "exploitation."
The report refers to exploitation in a number of contexts. It mentions it as a type of discrimination in its summary of overlapping oppression and identity markers. It refers to exploitation in the context of natural resource extraction, to describe the Doctrine of Discovery which holds that European nations discovered Indigenous lands and thus, gained special rights over the lands, destroying large nations of people.
It also refers to the exploitation of children, as well as exploitation of homeless people.
However, the real troubling part is when it refers to the inter-jurisdictional neglect in human trafficking cases. The report pointed to a UN definition of human trafficking that refers to "exploitation of prostitution of others" but does not define exploitation itself, a circular definition.
Nowhere in the report is a definition of "exploitation" actually provided. Without it, I fear it will compound the struggle of bringing justice to survivors and victims. After all, how do we know how to help, if we can't accurately define the problem?
I define exploitation as the loss of control or power over one's experiences and choices through unwanted or unwelcomed interventions, state or otherwise. This definition puts the onus on the exploiter, including governments, as opposed to the victims.
I rarely talk or write about my own experience being exploited as a young Indigenous woman — or girl, as some would say. At 17, I found myself living away from home, and I respect my family for respecting my own choices to leave home. As young people, we all do things that we believe are in our own best interests at the time; I believe my parents would have much rather have had me at home but I made certain decisions, and I believed I needed to be away. I do not have any regrets. The only regret I have is not sharing this story earlier.
During this time, in my late teens, I was trying to navigate my life, living with a newly acquired brain injury at 15 years following a car accident, trying to manage a minimum wage job alongside full-time school, and discovering male attraction. What I thought was love, was most definitely not.
What pushed me into the circumstances I found myself in — a "relationship" with a much older white man — was not lack of choices; I had plenty of choices: I could eventually go home. Or, I could eventually leave town. Or, I could continue to work a minimum wage job and struggle with my schooling, and likely be forever trapped in a web of bureaucracy that demeans people living in poverty. But, then, I would not be where I am today: a lawyer, and with over seven years of experience writing on the issue of exploitation of Indigenous women and girls in the context of Canadian, and international law and convention.
Canadian law would view my experiences as exploitative; I agree, but we must continue to allow space for honest conversations about what causes exploitation, who takes advantage of this exploitation and who benefits.
While the report does a great justice for all affected by calling out how certain kinds of violence contributed to certain kinds of exploitation (namely in the case of Tina Fontaine), I believe that the National Inquiry missed its opportunity to provide some clarity for organizations and institutions to understand how exploitation looks for Indigenous communities and how Indigenous communities are affected by exploitation.
The RCMP views certain familial relationships as exploitative. Such narratives create environments for exploitation to occur by ignoring how some Indigenous women may rely on family members for safety. My own father drove me to work at the local strip club, knowing that I would try to hitchhike to work, living more than 40 minutes away from work especially as taxi cabs would not come to my reserve. My dad cared about me coming home, and didn't want me going missing or being found murdered; he was not my trafficker.
From the report, it is clear that the conversation about Indigenous women in the sex trade or Indigenous women and girls experiencing exploitation isn't as complex or nuanced as it should be. For example, the report frames this conversation as either one of exploitation, or as one of choice. But as someone with experience in the sex trade, I know that the choices people make every single day (including those who are not in the sex trade) are complex and are impacted by a range of factors. It is never just, "I will sell sex today" or "I suddenly found myself being exploited."
The report assumes that everything that is Indigenous is affected, from Indigenous lands to Indigenous resources. But it also fails to outline how exploitation can manifest if left unaddressed, much like how the report leaves the term itself unaddressed. It calls for others to respect the agency of Indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA people, but doesn't detail how that should happen.
There are people like me who see their stories only partially represented in this report: I was not prostituted at 17, but there were elements of exploitation; I did not officially enter the sex trade until I was 18.
These issues are complex, and we only start addressing them by acknowledging what causes exploitation, who takes advantage of this exploitation, and who benefits — and it is most certainly not girls like myself at 17-years-old.
If not for girls like I once was, then do it for your own daughters: create the space and honour all stories, even if they are not simple, or if they do not align with your own values or beliefs. We are still here and we are still valuable, too.
This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read our FAQ.