Exploring the dehumanization, victimization, criminalization, and over-incarceration of Indigenous women in Canada

May 05, 2021
“In coming to understand the impact of the dehumanization and disposability of Indigenous women, we became even more determined to ensure we didn’t contribute to the silencing of Indigenous peoples.” - Michaela McGuire & Danielle Murdoch

Michaela M. McGuire (Jaad Gudgihljiwah), of the G̲aag'yals K̲iiG̲awaay, citizen of the Haida Nation, and PhD student in the School of Criminologyand Lecturer Danielle J. Murdoch, have recently co-published a journal article in Punishment & Society: (In)-justice: An exploration of the dehumanization, victimization, criminalization, and over-incarceration of Indigenous women in Canada.

Using a decolonial framework in their research, McGuire and Murdoch center the voices and experiences of Indigenous women in their article.

McGuire says the article is “deeply personal,” and that as a Haida/Ojibwe/Irish/British (Indigenous) woman herself she “represents a cross-section of humanity that is continually ignored, dehumanized, abused, and imprisoned.” As they describe in the interview below, this made it all the more important to amplify the lived realities, stories, and voices of Indigenous women from the very start of the process. 

As their article’s introduction explains, colonial harm has disproportionately affected Indigenous women since first contact, perpetuating their ongoing victimization, criminalization, and over-incarceration in settler-colonial states, including Canada, New Zealand, and Australia.

Looking at how societal indifference and racism towards Indigenous women have persisted in Canada, McGuire and Murdoch look at how Indigenous women have come to be overrepresented in Canada’s federal correctional system. (Indigenous women are the fastest-growing prison population in Canada, they note.)

Specifically, the authors examine how Indigenous women have been constructed as “less than human” and how the intersections of systemic racism and discrimination have led to their over-incarceration in Canadian federal prisons. McGuire and Murdoch also pointedly critique Canada’s federal correctional services for their failure in meeting the needs of Indigenous women, and how they instead end up reinforcing negative stereotypes and continue to cause colonial harm.

Following through with a decolonial approach within academia is not always easy, as McGuire and Murdoch describe below, but they encourage other researchers to engage in this important work. “We encourage research that can help dismantle oppressive systems, recenter the voices of Indigenous women, and provide policy direction that aims to dismantle the impacts of genocidal carcerality.”

Read more about the importance of McGuire and Murdoch’s research and their experience writing the publication:

How did you begin thinking about this publication’s topic?

Michaela McGuire: We started discussing this topic when I was Danielle’s teaching assistant for Criminology 241: Introduction to Corrections. I gave a guest lecture in Danielle’s class on the problems with a pan-Indigenous approach to corrections and the need for sovereign Indigenous Nation based solutions. Then, I started thinking about a directed readings (DR) topic and asked Danielle if she would be open to supervising my DR. During the same semester I also guest lectured for Danielle’s Criminology 213: Women and Justice class on Indigenous women’s over-incarceration and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG). My DR paper contained the early ideas that over the course of a year would morph into our co-authored publication connecting colonialism, dehumanization, MMIWG, and Indigenous women’s over-incarceration.

Can you offer reflections on the process of writing and publishing this piece?

Michaela McGuire: I read multiple reports (Amnesty International, 2008; National Inquiry, 2019; Rhoad/Human Rights Watch, 2013) that contained the stories of Indigenous women and girls in preparation for my directed readings paper. Reading and reflecting on those stories, as a Haida/Ojibwe/Settler (Indigenous) female academic, I felt (and feel) a tremendous sense of responsibility to Indigenous women and their families. That process also compounded my existing anxieties about being an Indigenous woman in this country. I became determined to push myself to speak out and do more, and not let fear guide my work. I was inspired by the work of the female Indigenous academics that I look up to, including the late Patricia Monture, Pamela Palmater, Leanne Simpson, Wenona Hall, Lisa Monchalin, Tamara Starblanket, and Bonita Lawrence.

Danielle Murdoch: Michaela’s DR paper was so powerful. As I read it, I realized she needed to think about publishing some of the main ideas she presented in the paper.

Michaela McGuire & Danielle Murdoch: At the conclusion of the semester, we spent a few months working together to strengthen the paper – A process that solidified our continued working relationship. Over time, we ended up adding more corrections-specific content, and content that explained our decolonial framework while also expanding upon and centering Woolford and Gacek’s (2016) genocidal carcerality as a theoretical framework for examining Indigenous women’s over-incarceration. 

Getting this critical piece published was not easy, but we believe in this work and the process reminded both of us about the importance of stepping back, connecting with others to process and address challenging feedback, and not giving up. At one point I (Michaela) wrote Danielle an email and told her that I was “banging my head against the walls of academia.” We pushed back against western epistemological practices because knowingly or unknowingly some academic work on Indigenous peoples perpetuates the silencing and subsequently the dehumanization and disposability of Indigenous women in this country. With the encouragement of School of Criminology Lecturer Sheri Fabian, Professor Ted Palys, and Boise State University Professor Laura King, we pressed forward.

We found ourselves pushing back during the publication process. Justifying the decolonial approach to our critical commentary and ensuring the stories of families of MMIWG, incarcerated or formerly incarcerated women, and Michaela’s, were intricately woven throughout our article as support for our arguments.

Currently, we’re working together on the research project stemming from Danielle’s participation in the Disrupting Colonialism through Teaching Integrated Seminar Series.

Why is this publication important to you both?

Michaela McGuire: From my perspective, Indigenous women are not victims. We have been and continue to be targets for violence from both the state and its citizens. Indigenous women and girls have been subject to continued dehumanization and disposability by the state and portrayed as the sexualized racialized other. This dehumanization subsequently perpetuates stereotypes, racism, societal indifference and ultimately condones violence and control.

For me, this piece isn’t just an article that we published, it is deeply personal. When I read the National Inquiry (2019) my heart hurt. My heart hurt because those women could have been me, my friends, or my family. Indigenous women are not simply victims, we are not just statistics, we are loved, and we deserve better. We deserve to not live in fear and to have our voices heard and our stories told.

Michaela McGuire & Danielle Murdoch: We will not stop pushing to include the voices of Indigenous women who have been subject to genocidal carcerality (Woolford & Gacek, 2016), state control/confinement through imposed justice systems, or state condoned violence. We have a responsibility to do more and to continue to speak, write, and advocate because we have this platform.

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