Ever the moral hinterland, the U.S. state of Texas has recently been in the news for an exceptionally despicable practice: charging victims of sexual violence up-front payments for their own rape kits, which pack a financial wallop of up to $1800.
No one has conducted an official poll on the matter, but I’m fairly confident that the first reaction of most sound-minded Canadians to this news is one of disgust, perhaps even outrage, at the existence of such blatant state-sanctioned gender injustice—especially in such relative proximity to our own progressively thinking northern hub. And, while this may be a stretch, I’ll bet the next response is a smug “only in America,” twinge of moral superiority. This is Canada, after all, hotbed of progressive politics and European socialism lite; there’s a reason why U.S. travelers abroad pretend to belong to our half of North America.
Unfortunately, the truth is less than cut-and-dry. Sure, we don’t charge rape victims for their disclosure, but when it comes to the nationwide epidemic of sexual violence against Native girls and women, we are willing to turn a cold shoulder. Which is worse?
According to studies conducted by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada in both 1996 and 2001, Native women with Status are five times more likely to die as a result of violence than any other Canadian woman. In addition, 75% of Native girls under the age of 18 have been sexually abused. Yet, the ongoing scourge of violence against Canadian women of Native descent remains a virtually silent struggle.
Despite the disproportionate incidence of violence against Native women in Canada, “[cases are] grossly underrepresented in our mainstream media,” says Robyn Bourgeois, a PhD candidate at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education who teaches a course on Gender and Violence at the University of Toronto.
Bourgeois cites the highly publicized disappearance and murder of Victoria “Tori” Stafford as a current example of the preferential treatment of non-Native violence by mainstream media outlets. Bourgeois explains that on the same day that Tori disappeared, Regina police renewed their efforts to locate Tara Lyn Poorman, a Native girl who had already been missing for four months. “In this case, neither the original disappearance, nor the renewed search efforts, garnered [much] media attention,” says Bourgeois.
Bourgeois points out that while dominant cases such as that of Vancouver’s missing women do bring such brutalities into the mainstream, coverage is skewed. In that particular case, the emphasis was placed on the women’s involvement with addictions and prostitution rather than their Aboriginality, failing to make connections to the larger national scope of violence against Native women. In less lurid cases such as that of Tara Lyn Poorman, a straight-A student and regular volunteer at a Regina drop-in centre, coverage is either grossly limited or entirely non-existent.
This poses the question: what exactly does violence against Native Canadian women have to do with Texas rape kits?
The act of charging the victims of rape—who are primarily women—to pay for their own rape kits implies that these individuals are somehow responsible for—and therefore deserving of—the violence perpetrated against them. Similarly, in opting to dismiss the epidemic of violence against Native women, we are quietly enabling the process. We say, through our silence, that these women deserve to be abducted and abused because they are implicitly less-than.
With regard to the Lone Star State’s rape kit record, someone seriously ought to mess with Texas. But, we shouldn’t be let off the hook so easily either.