On the same day Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney signed an international Proclamation to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination, his government fired Ojibway Mary Pitawanakwat from the Secretary of State office in Regina, Saskatchewan, in retaliation for her protests against racial and sexual harassment on the job.
That was in 1986. Pitawanakwat first brought her discrimination charges to the Canadian Human Rights Commission in 1984. Now, after she has spent seven years circumventing legal stonewalling and hurdles, her charges are finally scheduled to be heard by a human rights tribunal in October.
Others might have given up, but Pitawanakwat, a single mother of two, is a fighter. When friends jokingly tell her she has a “bad attitude,” she smiles broadly and retorts, “Thank you!” Mary is also a tireless organizer and speaker who doesn’t scare and who leavens her anger at the stupidity of a thoroughly racist and sexist bureaucracy with an ironic sense of humor.
These qualities and a strong defense committee have kept her going in what has become a marathon battle to regain her job as a social development officer administering programs to Aboriginal people. That Pitawanakwat is fighting the federal department responsible for organizing a national anti-racism campaign makes the outcome of her case of critical significance for everyone concerned with the alarming rise of racism across North America.
Government denials, diversions and delays. After more than six years with the government agency, Pitawanakwat was given the boot for “poor job performance” following her complaint about being subjected to rampant discrimination. After refusing to take on the case until lengthy appeals forced them to do so, the Human Rights Commission conducted an investigation in 1988 and 1989.
Its inquiry confirmed many of the incidents cited by Pitawanakwat.
The examiner found, for example, that one official had referred to indigenous people served by the agency as “savages” and that other officials joked about being “scalped” and characterized Aboriginal people as “lazy.”
An official who admitted to touching Pitawanakwat’s buttocks claimed he had done so “trying to make her feel better”! And the inquiry turned up office memos making jokes and puns on the words “rape,” “screw,” and “shaft.”
The commission’s investigator concluded that the ignorance of Aboriginal culture demonstrated by Pitawanakwat’s supervisors “was severe enough to create a poisoned work environment for Mary.”
After issuing its report in August 1989, it took another four months for the commission to recommend that Pitawanakwat’s case be reviewed by yet another body, a human rights tribunal. In response, the government asked a federal court judge to bar Pitawanakwat, the human rights tribunal, and the Human Rights Commission from carrying her case forward.
In April 1991, the court ruled against the government, ordering a tribunal to be held October 7 in Regina on the instances of racist persecution. However, the court threw out the sexual harassment charges on a technicality, forcing Pitawanakwat to refile them separately.
Woman warrior in forefront of Aboriginal upsurge. In a nation rocked by the growing rebellion of indigenous people, Pitawanakwat’s case has garnered increasing support from labor, women’s rights organizations, and Aboriginal groups.
With her defense committee’s help, Pitawanakwat has won the backing of the Saskatchewan Government Employees’ Union, University of Regina Women’s Center Collective, Saskatchewan Coalition Against Racism, Native Women’s Association of Canada, Quebec Native Women’s Association, Public Service Alliance (Pitawanakwat’s union), and National Action Committee on the Status of Women.
In June of this year, Pitawanakwat spoke on her case in San Francisco at the Bay Area headquarters of the Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women. Solidarity statements were delivered by representatives of FSP and RW, the International Treaty Council, and the Irish Republican Socialist Party.
Pitawanakwat’s case is one front in the resurgent mobilization by Aboriginal Canadians for first-class citizenship, land, and sovereignty, a fight marked recently by armed confrontations at the Mount Currie Indian Reserve in British Columbia and last summer’s standoff between Mohawks and the provincial police at Oka, Quebec.
During a recent visit to Seattle, Pitawanakwat said, “I think the struggle that was uncovered by the crisis with the Kanehsatake people [at Oka] is going to have a lasting and permanent effect for the upcoming generation. I think the struggle is going to be even more intense because [indigenous] people won’t take the second-rate status we’ve lived with for centuries.”
Pitawanakwat’s battle for justice has exposed the Human Rights Commission as “a filtering system to discourage people from pursuing cases,” she said. “It gives us the illusion of having our rights protected.”
The protracted fight has taken a toll. While battling a recurrence of breast cancer which required a mastectomy in December 1990, Pitawanakwat is raising two children, Brock, IS, and Robyn, 13. Yet she continues her effort to win redress, she said, “as a way to work toward a discrimination-free society for my children and to protect my right to work.”
Mary Pitawanakwat’s defiance and persistence in the face of judicial stalling, government threats, and physical illness are an inspiration to other indigenous people and all civil rights warriors.
Finding allies is gratifying, she said. “Significant numbers of non-Aboriginal people are supportive because they see justice for us tied in with a more egalitarian society for all people.”
Supporters can protest the Canadian government’s attempts to subvert Pitawanakwat’s human rights complaint and can demand her immediate reinstatement with back pay by writing to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney at the House of Commons, Ottawa, Ontario, KIA OA6. Copies of letters and donations to Pitawanakwat’s defense fund should be sent to the Mary Pitawanakwat Defense Committee, St. Peter’s Parish, 100 Argyle Street, Regina, Saskatchewan, S4P 4C3.