Will Canadian rights tribunal result in justice for Mary Pitawanakwat?

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Mary Pitawanakwat is a fighter who has kept her eyes on the prize. In July, the Ojibway single mother of two marks the eighth anniversary of her race-and-sex-discrimination case against Canada’s Secretary of State Department.

Pitawanakwat worked as a social development officer at the Regina, Saskatchewan office for six-and-a-half years. She was fired in 1986, one year after she filed a formal discrimination complaint.

Her charges have focused international attention on bigotry within the very agency that is charged with administering Canada’s affirmative action and multicultural programs for women, indigenous people, and racial and ethnic minorities. The case has also exposed the pro-management bias of the Canadian Human Rights Commission, which is charged with investigating discrimination in the civil service and the federal justice department.

Pitawanakwat’s battle began in 1984 when she first complained of harassment from supervisors, including sexual fondling, to the CHRC. Seven years of official stonewalling and legal obstructionism followed. In April 1991, a federal court ruled against the government and upheld a recommendation that a Human Rights Tribunal review the case. But the court also threw out Pitawanakwat’s sexual harassment charges on a technicality, forcing her to refile them separately.

The three-member human rights tribunal convened in October 1991 to rule on Pitawanakwat’s demands for back pay, damages, and reinstatement, but has not said when it will decide.

During the hearings at the end of 1991, many of Pitawanakwat’s coworkers testified on her behalf, describing how supervisors called Aboriginal clients “savages,” “lazy,” “too demanding,” and a “nuisance.” Pitawanakwat herself was referred to openly as a “goddamned Indian.”

Racism at the top. In January, Regional Director Andre Nogue, a key witness for the government and one of Pitawanakwat’s supervisors, testified that he never explored her complaints. When pressed to define the word savage, he said it meant “Indian.” Nogue is responsible for allocating human rights funds for Aboriginal programs within the Department of Secretary of State.

More recently, Acting Regional Director Denis Gauthier admitted making jokes at work about being scalped by Aboriginals — and covering his groin with a briefcase to indicate even worse fates. Gauthier is responsible for developing work plans, supervising staff, and, like Nogue, distributing funds for antiracism programs in Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia.

“The reason they are fighting me so brutally,” said Pitawanakwat, “is that their careers are based on unfounded merit. Their positions require a knowledge of human rights concerns which is completely lacking.”

Turnover among indigenous people in the civil service is high, yet the Human Rights Commission investigates few complaints. For this reason Pitawanakwat’s legal action has become an important rallying point for feminists, Aboriginals, and civil service workers across Canada.

Racism and sexism in the defense committee. But Pitawanakwat’s case also shows the pervasiveness of racism and sexism — even among those who have banded together to fight those isms.

Pitawanakwat administered $2.5 million as a social development officer, yet she was not trusted or consulted on financial matters by some core organizers on her own defense committee. When Pitawanakwat demanded an equal voice, they told her she was uncooperative and hostile.

On the eve of her tribunal, members of St. Peter’s Parish Social Justice Committee, who were defense mainstays, dropped the fight when confronted with their arrogance towards Pitawanakwat.

Rather than acknowledge their mistakes, they blamed Pitawanakwat for the problem she was trying to correct. And they redbaited those who supported Pitawanakwat, like Radical Women Organizer Adrienne Weller from Portland, Oregon, accusing them of disruption! For weeks following their defection, the ex-committee members continued to open mail addressed to the defense committee. They mailed away thousands of dollars in donations. Acts of treachery like these place them in the same camp as Secretary of State.

The rapid degeneration of these former “supporters” is a lucid illustration of what happens to white liberals who refuse to accept the leadership of women of color. To mouth the slogan, and even to mean it, is one thing. But, because we are far from immune from the society we live in, putting this grand idea into practice always involves uncovering debilitating personal attitudes, changing, and moving forward.

Pitawanakwat undaunted and determined. Pitawanakwat herself has continued to forge ahead, reorganizing the defense effort on a higher level based on true solidarity and broadening support. In January she spoke at a forum hosted by the New York City branches of Radical Women and the Freedom Socialist Party and at a National Organization for Women conference, also in the U.S. The defense committee plans to take Pitawanakwat’s cause to the United Nations Committee on Human Rights.

How you can help: Donations can be sent to the Mary Pitawanakwat Defense Committee, P.O. Box 33042, Regina, Sask., Canada S4T 7X2. Letters urging Prime Minister Brian Mulroney to support Pitawanakwat’s struggle for redress can be sent to House of Commons, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada KIA OA6.

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