The Chief’s Advice

On EDGE | Opinion

Earlier this month I attended a semi-swank gala for the YK Film Festival in the Champagne Room, on the second floor of the 50/50 mini-mall downtown. I had a glass of wine, a couple bites of smoked fish, bounced around a documentary idea with a local filmmaker, mingled with musicians, a painter and politician… then, around 11 p.m., I left.

Outside on the sidewalk, I stopped to talk with three men having a smoke, all friends of mine attending the gala. Another fellow, swearing loudly, broke out of his circle of friends at the intersection and walked up to us demanding a cigarette. I have never seen eyes like his, unblinking saucers of white with seemingly pupil-less, all-black centres and a high-gloss glaze so shiny the streetlights reflected in them. His breathing was a wild huff, his gait girded up by adrenaline and rage over having been denied a drink at a nearby bar. But this was no drunk. This was a man nightmarishly high on a hallucinatory cocktail of substances, of which alcohol may have been a bit-player.

My friends seemed almost nonplussed by his arrival, one handing over a cigarette, another a light, and then they all chimed in refusals when he demanded a second cigarette… Let’s not get greedy now. I, on the other hand, wanted him to leave. He made me uncomfortable. His desperation, his vulnerability, his unpredictability. I felt guilty for wishing him gone, having just come, once again, from a gathering that underlined my many privileged blessings in life. I also really wanted to help him. But how? Not by giving him money for a drink, or another cancer stick. Maybe I could grab some food from the party? Should I grab enough for his friends too? But it wasn’t my food to give. I felt helpless in the face of this man drowning in his own toxicity. It was time to go home, but to get to my van I’d have to walk past him and through his gang.

Earlier that day, at the Sisters in Spirit vigil honouring missing and murdered aboriginal women, Dene National Chief Bill Erasmus told the crowd that aboriginal girls, for their own safety, should not be on the streets alone at night and that better parenting would help prevent violence against them. His words incensed Sandra Lockhart, an aboriginal women’s rights activist whom I hold in high regard. Hearing her embattled, but triumphant, life story has left me trembling in the past. She needs to be listened to.

Lockhart told the CBC she felt revictimized by Erasmus’ remarks, that he had reduced the long history of systemic racism and violence against aboriginal women in Canadian society to victim-blaming and poor parenting.

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While Erasmus was speaking in the context of young aboriginal females, most women have at some time in their lives felt on guard, at night, alone, on a downtown street. I felt that way on the Friday night of the gala.

I wanted to be fearless, but I would have to wend my way through the cluster of visibly high people at the intersection, as well as their raging friend, and walk two more blocks to my van parked in an alley. I was seriously weighing my options.

If I were attacked, or robbed, would that be my fault? I know downtown can be unsafe, that crack cocaine and gangs are a reality in Yellowknife. Why would I put myself into this situation? Maybe I should have just foregone the gala and stayed safely at home? This was also one of Erasmus’ points. “Sometimes the choice might be not to go out,” he told the Yellowknifer.

But then I would not have had the chance discussion about making a film on a topic I’m completely passionate about. I would not have caught up with the painter, or the out-of-town musician. While I am a middle-aged white woman who can never know the additional layers of sexism and racism that weigh upon aboriginal women, I do remember a time when girls were told they could not take industrial arts in middle school or play hockey… or be writers. My great-grandmother’s and my grandmother’s place was in the home, my mother barely made it out as a secretary. Are women to sacrifice the hard-earned feminist gains made over the last 50 years that freed us from the confines of the house, only to advise our daughters to hole up there again in order to stay safe from marauding men? Wait, what about that spate of home invasions in Yellowknife a couple of years ago, where women awoke to find a man in their bedroom? You see where this is going…

Staying home is not the solution. A photo of a woman wearing a placard that made its way through Facebook last week proclaimed: Don’t tell girls not to get raped, tell boys to behave.

Had Erasmus prefaced his comments by saying all young boys need to be raised to respect and honour women as equals, and encouraged to speak out against sexist remarks, and to discourage sexist acts (like vandalizing female candidates’ campaign signs), and misogynistic “jokes,” and that all institutions in Canada — including his own Assembly of First Nations, under which he is a regional chief — need to open their doors to, and heed the voices of, aboriginal women who have suffered racism, sexism and discrimination so real change can be affected… maybe his words would not have been so incendiary.

But he skipped all that and went right to the emergency measures. Something a parent might say. I have three tall, athletic, white sons, and I have given them all the same advice to not walk alone at night in Yellowknife. Safety in numbers. It’s a band-aid solution to a societal problem.

For the first time in my life, I asked one of my male friends that Friday night to escort me to my van. I was tired. I took the expedient option. I’m not proud of that decision. I wished I hadn’t. I wish I had Sandra Lockhart’s steadfast courage to take back the night. I’d even marched to take back the night a week earlier. I’m a fraud.

I struggle everyday with what I can do to help make our streets safer, and by that, I mean keep the disenfranchised, the homeless, the addicted, the abused, the violent and the recently jailed, safe too. It takes a community to raise a child, but our obligations to one another don’t stop once that child has grown. If someone has to fund their addiction by robbing, let’s help them with their addiction. Let’s be empathetic and kind and support safe houses and injection centres and provide counseling and health supports towards healing.

Above all, let’s push all levels of government for Housing First, an initiative which gets a roof over everyone’s heads, then supports all their other needs with a team of people over months, sometimes years. It has real, proven success. But it takes time.

In the meantime, resist the temptation to live in fear, but whenever possible, try not to walk alone late at night — regardless of what you look like.



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