Not just another statistic

Indigenous women lead self defence classes across the country

May 6th 2020
Shana Pasapa (center) and other instructors at Power Our Women lead self-defence, situational awareness and other health and fitness training across the country, in response to the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women crisis. Photo by Jamie Woytiuk

Five women have gone missing in Lisa Kenoras’ community in the past five years.

Kenoras, a 25-year-old woman from the Secwepemc Nation, said that she could have easily become “one more missing Indigenous woman” while working in man-camps across Alberta and British Columbia or during a long-term abusive relationship.

Kenoras was raised in a community of 6,000 people on unceded Secwepemc land in the Shuswap-North Okanagan region of B.C. Five women, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, have gone missing in her community in the past five years. They include Caitlin Potts; Ashley Simpson; Nicole Bell; Deanna Wertz; and Traci Genereaux, an 18-year-old whose remains were found by police in 2017.

“I feel like there were many instances where my ancestors were protecting me,” Kenoras said in an interview after the workshop at Open Space art gallery in Victoria on Febuary 17th. “I could have been that missing woman — I would have been just another missing woman in a camp, or just another young Indigenous girl beat up by her boyfriend.”

Instead, she decided to fight back.

Kenoras attended a self-defence workshop in Lkwungen territories, in Victoria in February. The workshop was led by Shana Pasapa, a jiu-jitsu purple belt from the White Bear Nation in southeastern Saskatchewan. Pasapa teaches practical self-defense and situational awareness to Indigenous women and girls through Power Our Women (POW), a group she founded to address the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIWG) crisis.

After attending the workshop, Kenoras felt empowered to share her story, something she had never done before.

“My dad and my grandmother went to residential school, and that played a big part in my childhood and the way I was raised. I left home when I was 16 and ended up in a five-year abusive relationship,” Kenoras said.

After escaping her abusive relationship, she worked as a hairdresser and then as a dishwasher in man camps across Alberta and B.C., where she said she regularly experienced harassment.

“In those man camps, I was isolated. I was the only young Indigenous female in a lot of places. I would have men follow me, trying to offer me alcohol and drugs or follow me to the gym,” she said.

“The man camps just fed into my trauma.”

Kenoras’ experiences speak to the high rates of violence Indigenous women experience in Canada. Indigenous women and girls are 12 times more likely to go missing or be murdered than any other women in Canada. The issue was recognized as a genocide by a national inquiry last year.

A 2016 report from Amnesty International found the influx of predominantly male temporary workers staying in man camps while building pipelines or other industrial projects lead to higher rates of violence against Indigenous women. The same findings were included in the national inquiry’s report.

“You’re targeted if you’re Indigenous, you’re targeted if you’re female and you’re targeted if you’re both. That’s the plain truth,” Kenoras said, saying she could have easily been another statistic. “I shouldn’t have been here. There are many women like me that don’t make it to a place where they can tell their story.”

Kenoras, now studying at the University of Victoria, found strength in reconnecting to her culture and advocating for missing Indigenous women. After the POW workshop, she reflected on how the skills she attained could have helped her avoid the harmful situations she experienced as a young woman.

“If I grew up with this, maybe some things wouldn’t have happened. Maybe it would have helped train my mind and made me more aware of my reality. Maybe I wouldn’t have stayed in the five-year abusive relationship I was in,” she said.

A pathway to prevention and healing

Shana Pasapa started Power Our Women in 2016 to address her growing concern about the MMIWG crisis. She wanted to share her knowledge with Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit community members, to better equip them for avoiding or escaping situations that result in violence. She and her team have reached more than 5,000 women across Canada, including isolated communities in northern Manitoba.

“I know that there have been many inquiries done, reports and meetings and sessions and opportunities for families to speak, but I know a lot of them are still struggling,” Pasapa said in a phone interview on Feb. 18. “I know they’re still trying to search for their loved ones.”

Pasapa initially learned self-defence to stay healthy and protect herself and her two sons after experiencing racism, she said, echoing similar experiences that Kenoras faced.

“There were a lot of things going on, like people following me. There was a lot of racism and discrimination. Random vehicles driving by and yelling ‘f***ing Indian’ or ‘squaw,’ or things like that were everyday occurrences,” Pasapa said. “My mom pushed me to learn some physical self-defence. I’m honouring everything that she’s taught me so far through Power Our Women.”

She grew up watching her brother and stepfather prepare for mixed-martial-arts fights, so it wasn’t a culture shock when she first entered the gym. In the beginning, she was intimidated by the male-dominated atmosphere, but she had great coaches who made her feel like she belonged, she said.

She trained in mixed martial arts, Muay Thai and jiu-jitsu. She earned her jiu-jitsu purple belt and competed at a high level before teaching self-defence to other Indigenous women.

Pasapa’s workshops are grounded in the reality that Indigenous women in Canada face much higher risks of violence and sexual assault. She also incorporates cultural teachings, including body-awareness knowledge passed on to her from her uncle, a hunter. Living off the land and learning how to watch the animals in order to provide for the community requires heightened body awareness, knowledge that is useful for self-defence, she said.

“People relate self-defence to that movie-type, choreographed martial-arts style and that’s not what I want self-defence to be. My definition is: body awareness, preparedness and listening to your inner gut,” Pasapa said.

“When I teach my classes, I want them to be effective and something that, if I was in that situation, I could actually use.”

The workshops are designed to help women escape realistic scenarios, such as an attacker grabbing their arm or pinning them against a wall. Lisa Kenoras felt that the workshops were helpful, but difficult.

31 year-old Shana Pasapa, founder and CEO of Power Our Women, says she strives to live each day in honour of her spirit and her voice so that she may fulfill her purpose to help people see the power they already have inside them. Photo by Jamie Woytiuk
Power Our Women offer self-defence, bully management, situational awareness, confidence building, fitness and nutrition training and workshops across Canada. Photo by Jamie Woytiuk

​​​“When I was in some of the positions, I was triggered, but at the same time, it was healing. It was healing for me to be able to relive that but in a way that I felt protected, knowing that the person who was helping me train was there out of love, to help me,” Kenoras said.

“The mentality that comes with this training is sharp — you’re there, you’re present, you’re aware. It opened my eyes and made me really inspired to know that there are strong Indigenous matriarchs that want to see other women rise,” Kenoras said.

“Seeing role models like that — women I wish I saw when I was a little girl, knowing that I want to be in that spot — seeing that leadership in front of me was huge.”

The February POW workshop created a safe space for Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit community members to share their survival stories and learn how to avoid or escape harmful situations. Several participants said they have felt more unsafe in recent months because of how Indigenous land-defence efforts in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en have been portrayed in the media.

“This workshop today came at a perfect time because some of us are feeling really unsafe based on what the media has put out there. They’re portraying us as violent Indigenous people who incited violence and encourage violence when that’s not what we did at all. In fact, I witnessed the opposite, I witnessed an elder matriarch get pushed and shoved by a politician,” said Tsisto, a woman from the Kanien’kehá’ka (Mohawk) Nation, describing when she and other Indigenous youth occupied the Victoria legislature in February to support the efforts of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs.

To protect her safety, Tsisto asked that we not print her second name.

“We’re scared that our pictures are all over the place and people will recognize us and want to harm us or verbally abuse us. To come here today and learn how to protect ourselves is so important and really coincides well with the events that have been occurring not just in Victoria, but across Canada,” she said.

Pasapa is currently developing a teacher training program to bring self-defence skills to more women and girls. While her workshops are designed for women, Pasapa said there needs to be more awareness about the high numbers of missing and murdered Indigenous men.

“I can’t speak to having a woman go missing in my family, but I can speak to having seven murdered men in my family, and that’s just in the last two generations,” Pasapa said. “My two brothers were killed in the same year and my grandfather was killed before my mom was even born. These were the men that were around to protect their family.”

She also works with remote communities to develop crisis-response plans in areas where children or women are at higher risk of being abducted. Many highways and main roads pass through parks and daycare centres in Indigenous communities, she said. While visiting for a POW workshop, she makes sure to ask community leaders if the children know what to do if a stranger approaches them.

“I like to make them think about the worst possible situation because that’s what you’ve got to do. Then they can start making emergency-preparedness plans or community-protection plans,” she said.

Pasapa always reminds Indigenous communities they are resilient, and encourages women and girls to connect with their inner strength, she said.

“I like to tell people that their strength and resilience is already rooted in their community — that they come from a great line of powerful women and powerful men and it’s rooted here already,” she said.

Is there a way to provide some financial support to this excellent, and sadly essential, program?