Prostitution of Indigenous Women: Sex Inequality and the Colonization of Canada's First Nations Women

The recent history of Canada is the history of the colonization of Aboriginal peoples. We use the terms Aboriginal, Indigenous, First Nations, and Native throughout this paper to refer to nations of people who have lived in Canada continuously for thousands of years. Colonization is a process that includes geographic incursion, sociocultural dislocation, the establishment of external political control and economic dispossession, the provision of low-level social services, and ultimately, the creation of ideological formulations around race and skin color which position the colonizers at a higher evolutionary level than the colonized (Frideres, 1983).

The transformation of Aboriginal people from the state of good health that had impressed travellers from Europe to one of ill health, for which Aboriginal people were (and still are) often held responsible, grew worse as sources of food and clothing from the land declined and traditional economies collapsed. It grew worse still as once-mobile peoples were confined to small plots of land where resources and opportunities for natural sanitation were limited. It worsened yet again as long-standing norms, values, social systems, and spiritual practices were undermined or outlawed. (Canada, RCAP, 1996, p 113)

Theft of land and destruction of traditional ways of life left many First Nations people in extreme poverty that has lasted for generations. For example, among First Nations women raising children by themselves in urban Winnipeg, Regina and Saskatoon, 80 to 90% were living below poverty level (Statistics Canada 1991 Census, RCAP 1996 p. 171). This level of poverty in any patriarchal culture is associated with a high rate of prostitution.

Estimates of the First Nations population of Canada at the time of first contact with Europeans range from 220,000 to two million, with a conservative figure of 500,000 currently accepted by Canada’s Royal Commission on Aboriginal Health (RCAP, 1996, p 116). Estimates of contemporary First Nations populations vary. The official 1996 Canadian Census of the First Nations population in Vancouver is 1.7%, whereas the estimate from the 1998/1999 Capture/Recapture data cites 7% of Vancouver/Richmond’s people as First Nations (Vancouver/Richmond Health Board, 1999).

Canada’s Royal Commission Report describes the current state of Aboriginal housing as an “acute threat to health” (1996, p 372) (2). The Royal Commission report documented the perilous state of First Nations housing: 84% of Aboriginal households on reserves did not have sufficient income to cover housing (RCAP, 1996, p 180). Housing instability increases reserve-to-urban migration, leaving young women extremely vulnerable to prostitution, in that homelessness has been established as a primary risk factor for prostitution. Today, when women in prostitution are asked what they need in order to escape prostitution, housing is first on their list of needs (Farley et al, 2003). (Authors)

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Fourth World Journal