Indigenous women from across Mi'kma'ki fighting back against men sharing their images without consent

·7 min read

SYDNEY – Indigenous women across Mi’kma'ki are demanding justice after intimate photos were found on a pornographic website.

Andrea Paul, chief of Pictou Landing First Nation, came across Facebook posts by a woman who had discovered nude photos of herself being shared without her consent. The Cape Breton Post is not naming the woman to protect her privacy.

The young woman posted that images of other women from First Nations in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick were also included on an international website under the heading “Mi’kmaq Chix.”

She wrote that the photos of herself on the site were taken when she was 14 and shared with an intimate partner.

Her posts received hundreds of messages of support. Facebook has banned her from the site for 30 days for posting content that does not meet its community standards, a decision that she is appealing.

APTN has removed her name from an article, saying it was because the woman received death threats after the story went public on Friday.

Paul says the posts kept her awake that night and the next morning she made a Facebook post expressing her anger and promising to act.

“It just made me so angry that they could do that to our women and they don’t realize how much danger they’re putting these women in. It terrifies me to know that they’re putting these women at risk,” she says.

She was immediately contacted by women that were discovering that their private images were being shared on the site.

“These women that I’ve heard from had no idea that they were put on these sites and I can’t imagine what that must have felt like for them.”

Paul says she has received screenshots and information from a lot of women and has been working closely with the RCMP who she says are investigating the complaints.

An RCMP spokesperson confirmed that there are five open investigations in Nova Scotia related to these photos, and said the RCMP takes cybercrimes such as online child sexual exploitation and non-consensual distribution of images very seriously. He would not say if either the photos or the website have been taken down.

Paul says she got a lot of the information she has shared with the RCMP from a mother and daughter that contacted her from their home community in Unama’ki.

They agreed to speak with the Cape Breton Post but asked to remain anonymous as they fear for their safety.

The daughter, who is in her late 20s, says she doesn’t have any photos on the website herself but she has viewed the site and saw photos of her friends and people in her community.

She says in addition to photos, she saw comments identifying the women by full name and location and saw people requesting photos of women by name or by community.

Some people are offering money for intimate pictures of individuals and are using instant messaging apps such as Kik and Discord outside of the website for trading images “like baseball cards,” she says.

“A lot of the girls I know that are on there, they’re really embarrassed and are angry.”

Like Paul, she has shared information with the RCMP and filed two separate complaints, one for the website and one for the apps being used to share images.

She says the officer she spoke with advised her to tell her friends never to share intimate photos with anyone, a comment that left her feeling frustrated and angry.

“We don’t need a lecture. It’s not our fault that these men put these photos on these websites without our consent,” she says.

Her mother’s thoughts went straight to the safety of the women.

“As a mom, my instant reaction was the 231 calls (for justice) for missing and murdered Indigenous women because they’re putting our Indigenous women at risk without their knowledge really,” she says.

The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) released its final report in 2019, after three years of consultation and research, calling on governments, institutions, and police to take action to address the high rates of violence against Indigenous women.

According to the Government of Canada’s website, a number of steps have been taken and a national action plan is being developed.

The Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability found that of the 160 women murdered in Canada in 2020, one in five were Indigenous. Almost 90 percent of the perpetrators were male, and the majority of them were current or former partners of the victim.

Nova Scotia had the third-highest rate of women being killed by men.

These are the sort of statistics that worry Chief Paul. She has not gone on to the website herself but says that’s been a tough decision because she wants to know who in her community needs to be protected.

“All of it is really scaring me in terms of, are these girls being stalked, are they being watched, and I didn’t want to really alarm people on social media, what I want to do is bring attention to it.”

Paul has a lot of empathy for the women that are feeling vulnerable and exposed or even getting death threats for speaking out.

After Northern Pulp failed to meet the January 2020 deadline in the Boat Harbour Act, resulting in the loss of hundreds of jobs, she says a lot of anger was directed at her and her community, which had been fighting for the company to meet provincial environmental regulations. She says the threats she received changed her life.

“Things got really bad. It was the first time that I ever feared for my life, the first time I felt that kind of fear and I’ll tell you, it’s caused me to be a different person and so I really feel bad for these girls and I commend them for their voice but I know with their voices comes all of that,” she says.

Paul says she will continue to fight for consequences for the men that shared the images without permission and has been in contact with Lorraine Whitman, president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada.

Whitman says her organization "has contacted the RCMP in Ottawa and members of that force have indicated that they will be contacting Chief Paul this week. This is a crisis and this is why we need a National Action Plan to prevent violence against Indigenous women."

"This is not harmless pornography. This is the way that women are groomed for sex trafficking. It is why that crime is taking place with such alarming frequency and it is how perpetrators identify victims. It is a gateway (for) the purchase and sale of Indigenous women and it must be stopped,” she says.

Chief Paul says the RCMP told her the “Mi’kmaq Chix” area of the pornography website has been taken down but she worries about the images continuing to circulate and wants to see those at fault brought to justice.

“People ask, why would these women share these photos? It’s because they’re in love and they feel safe but now they have anxiety, that level of fearfulness and worrying because somebody broke that trust. And that’s what we’re told, that’s how it’s dealt with, that the victim is at fault but that’s not right. We shouldn’t be silenced.”

The RCMP encourages all victims to file a report with their local police. Victims of online child sexual exploitation may also report to Cybertip.ca, which is Canada’s national tipline for reporting online child sexual exploitation.

Ardelle Reynolds, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Cape Breton Post