Northern women’s marches connect to global fight for human rights

The Women’s March on Washington was strategically organized on the day after the inauguration of President Donald Trump as a direct response against the hate-inciting, divisive, and discriminatory messages and policy proposals witnessed during the presidential campaign [1]. Between promising to cut abortion access, using language that advocates sexual assault, and making statements that many believe to be racist and sexist along the presidential campaign odyssey, human rights have become the forefront of contemporary political discourse alongside the election of the new president.

The more than 4.8 million people of all genders around the world who marched on January 21, 2017 in solidarity with the Women’s March on Washington were joined by satellite marches in two of the three Northern territorial capitals. Despite temperatures in Whitehorse reaching -37C and -25C in Yellowknife, hundreds came out to demonstrate their support for the movement south of the border. These Northern marches were not only part of a global backlash against the rise of the extreme-right in America, but were also intended to bring attention to the unique gender issues that affect the North. Experts speculate that the 2017 Women’s March may be the largest global protest in history. With over 670 organized marches worldwide, a marcher from the Yukon described the importance of the solidarity acts as “a demonstration to the folks down south that are resisting these human rights abuses every day…that they are not alone.”

Northerners and Canadians may question the significance of the small marches in the isolated Northern cities. Even though Whitehorse and Yellowknife were not able to boast the thousands of numbers that came out to march in Canada’s southern cities, the presence of action was intended to demonstrate to a global audience both the existence of shared gendered experiences in the North, and that Northern communities are not silent or apathetic in response to them.

The Canadian North faces significant gender issues exacerbated by colonial histories, lack of political attention, and lack of funding.

As the marchers brought to light, the Canadian North faces significant gender issues exacerbated by colonial histories, lack of political attention, and lack of funding. A recent Statistics Canada report showed that the three Northern territories have the highest reported incidents of family violence across the country, with Nunavut at 10 times the national average. Between geographic isolation and limited victim resources, the prevalence of violence towards women and girls in Northern communities is striking. “Any time gendered violence takes a step towards normalization, women in the North stand to suffer,” commented one of the organizers for the Yellowknife March. “I marched because I think this was a moment in history where I want myself and my community to be represented. I wanted to take an active role in how the rebellion looked from a Northern perspective, which is why our march included speakers from local organizations promoting intersectional feminism.”

In Whitehorse, march organizer and executive director of Yukon women’s group Les EssentiElles Élaine Michaud brought attention to the fact that missing and murdered Indigenous women continue to be a prevalent issue in the Yukon. “In addition to geographically specific gender issues, Yukon women also face widespread systemic discrimination such as pay gaps and access to abortion,” she added.

Leading Yukon transgender rights activist Chase Blodgett was one of four speakers at the Whitehorse march. He described his lived experience in the Yukon and how his entire day is planned out according to the basic ability to access a washroom. With multiple territorial and federal human rights complaints pending, Blodgett brought attention to the injustices that still exist in the Yukon. “In the case of human rights violations, condoning it for even another day is a heinous act,” he said.

With global connectivity at a historic high, many fear the rise to power by the extreme right in the United States lends itself to inspire others to act on the promotion of these ideologies. While these ideas have consistently existed in the global North, what were once fringe opinions have become centre-stage in contemporary politics. Issues surrounding human rights like marriage equality, abortion access, and freedom of religion, which many perceive to have been largely settled through legislation, are again being challenged. These conversations happening south of the border on social and mainstream media are echoed in Canada, bringing to light the unsettled human rights issues in the North. In her speech at the Whitehorse march, Yukon’s first Indigenous Crown Prosecutor reminded the crowd of how recent the voting rights for Indigenous women and people exist in Canada. As someone whose family went from “residential school to law school,” Atkinson’s words emphasized the importance of fiercely protecting human rights at home.

The Northern marches served as an example that while the communities may be geographically isolated, they are not exempt from gender inequalities shared worldwide. With discriminatory and divisive rhetoric on the rise in both international and local political areas, one of the Yellowknife organizers emphasized that “communication is [now] so much more important…We face pressure to be complacent recipients of a political system (not just Canadian, but all politics), and the mere act of showing up to a protest is taking back some of that power.”◉

Author’s note: Several of the persons interviewed for this piece requested that their name be withheld from comment in fear of both personal safety and professional impact.

[1] https://www.facebook.com/events/1877082902523272/

Photo credit: Élaine Michaud

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