Jan. 29, 2020

Unpacking intersectionality and sexual violence in a complicated country

Two UCalgary experts share difficult truths about intersecting identities during Diversity Days
Selection from CBC’s database of unsolved cases of Indigenous Women and Girls (https://www.cbc.ca/mi

Twenty-year-old Amber Tuccaro from Mikisew Cree First Nation was last seen on Aug. 18, 2010, in Nisku, Alta. Two years later, horseback riders found her remains in the same area. In 2012, the police released a recording of a phone conversation Amber had with an unidentified male, hoping it would help identify a suspect. A few women came forward claiming to know the man's identity, all identifying the same person, but RCMP say he is not a person of interest. In March 2014, Amber’s mother filed a complaint against the Leduc RCMP saying they downplayed her disappearance, including taking her off the missing persons list after one month, despite no one seeing her.

Amber’s story is just one of over 300 that have recently been documented in CBC’s database of unsolved cases missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada from the 1950s onward (screenshot pictured above). Sixty of them are from here in Alberta. Cases like Amber’s tell a very real story about the complex cultural impact of intersectionality — a topic that is sure to be discussed at length during Diversity Days, running this week at UCalgary.

The compounding effect of intersectionality

Coined by civil rights activist Kimberlé Crenshaw back in the 1980s, intersectionality is the theory of how overlapping or intersecting social identities, particularly minority identities, relate to systems and structures of oppression, domination, or discrimination.

And it is widely known that those who are affected by intersectionality face an increased risk of experiencing violence. The eye-opening results of the Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, released in June 2019, tells us that the rate of homicide for Indigenous women is almost seven times higher than other women. And while there has been a decrease in female homicides in Canada over the past 35 years, there has been a 24 per cent increase in Indigenous female homicides.

Sexual violence is about power and control. 
- Carla Bertsch

“Our culture has hierarchies that pit people against each other, privileging some while devaluing others, making us believe that some people are more or less worthy than others," says Carla Bertsch, UCalgary’s sexual violence support advocate. "For example, a white woman faces more risk than a white male to come into contact with sexual violence. But if we look at women of colour or, specifically, Indigenous women, they experience even higher rates of sexual violence and homicide. The same is true for trans women — there is a compounding effect of identities.”

Stories like Amber’s are all too familiar to Keeta Gladue, the Indigenous student adviser and team lead at UCalgary’s Writing Symbols Lodge. In her work with students and on campus, she encounters discrimination that comes with intersectionality on a regular basis.

Gladue explains that our identities are not self-contained. They are relationships between people and history, people and communities, people and institutions. “When society paints bull’s eyes on the backs of people’s identities, it isn't that someone is physically more prone to discrimination,” she says. “It's not a physiological weakness — it's a cultural one. Society chooses where and how they place attention on people and their identities.”

“We need to work to understand how a moment today was created through a history before us and be able to bring that into our understanding today,” echoes Bertsch.

If we can’t see a problem, we can’t fix a problem

Here on campus, we have work to do. The inequity that comes from intersectionality requires a commitment to from all of us to understand what equality within systems and institutional structures needs to look like.

“When an Indigenous woman asks a professor for something, versus a white woman, versus a white male — how, because of intersectionality, is the same request being heard, and in turn, supported?” poses Bertsch. “I think it is really important to highlight that it’s not just an increased vulnerability to risk and violence, but also decreased access to support and services required to heal and thrive. We can see the compounding effects of intersectionality in a variety of ways when folks occupy different and multiple identities.”

For Gladue, our institution must be willing to bear witness to often-painful realities and to make space to listen and learn. “The university is open to all people, but it's not ready for all people,” she says. “I believe that there are so many students, staff and faculty working towards an institution where anyone can walk through the door, but particularly in trauma, and specifically with sexualized violence, it’s very complicated and it takes a great deal of resources. I don't just mean money, I mean knowledge; I mean people who can understand policies and create good structures. It takes time, and infrastructure, and ceremony.”

To tackle some of the difficult realities of Canada’s missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, as well as the widespread discrimination that comes with intersectionality both on and off campus, Gladue will be co-presenting a talk this Thursday called Canada, its Complicated — part of Diversity Days, running Jan. 28 to 30. She, and international student adviser Garrett Beatty will unpack some of the myths of multiculturalism, acceptance and unity in our country. The event is free and open to all.

UCalgary’s Sexual Violence Policy aims to lead the institution in taking a stand against gender-based violence in all its forms. The sexual violence support team advocates for victim rights, accommodations and referrals, and can connect you to resources, counselling and reporting options. If you think you have experienced sexual violence, or know someone who has, visit the Sexual Violence Support website. You can also arrange a consultation with the university’s sexual violence support team by confidential email