I used to work for a First Nation organization. This organization was a coordinating and advocacy body for the 133 First Nation communities in Ontario. There were many parts of this job that were awesome—I got to travel to other First Nations, hear the experiences of Indigenous Peoples across Turtle Island and see the passion they have for their communities. But there were some parts of the job that were less awesome—this usually had to do with one of two things: the wretched relationship between First Nations and external governments, and the general lack of awareness that Ontarians and Canadians have about who First Nations are and what our relationship is supposed to be like.
A quick and overly simplistic answer to this question is that First Nations are the Original Peoples of Turtle Island and that the relationship my people have with non-indigenous peoples is supposed to be based on mutual respect, friendship and peace and confirmed through the Two Row Wampum Treaty. Obviously there is way more to it and maybe one day, I will try to explain some of the things I’ve learned (and am still learning) about Treaties and the treaty relationship but for now I’m just going to focus on one issue I care about and am trying to learn more about: Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.
I’ve been worried about this issue for a while but even more so since I had my daughter. Right now, there is a call for an inquiry into the high instances of violence and murder of Indigenous women. “Indigenous woman and girls in the Canadian state have been murdered or gone missing at a rate of four times higher that the representation of Indigenous women in the Canadian population which is 4.3%”. (Inter American Commission on Human Rights Missing and Murdered Women in British Columbia, Canada: 2015). The Sisters in Spirit initiative explains that while there are 582 known cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women, the number is much higher—recent estimates suggest that nearly 1200 Indigenous women and girls have been murdered or gone missing in the last three decades. These are devastating statistics and they can’t continue.
I definitely support the call for an inquiry. I think an inquiry could be a very valuable process of healing and a path towards justice. I also realize it is highly unlikely that it will happen or that once it has happened—sufficient action will be taken on the resulting recommendations. This sounds super jaded, but in my experience working for the First Nation organization I mentioned earlier, this is what I usually saw happen:
- First Nations work very hard for something to become a priority (for example: education or MMIWG)
- The government unilaterally creates a process by which they will engage (for example: The Panel on First Nations Education or the recent MMIWG roundtable)
- First Nations realize that the government’s intentions to investigate are not sincere or that they have predetermined the outcome they are willing to support—if any (for example: asking for feedback on a specific legislative or policy option regardless of what comes out of the discussion)
- The government will write a final report with recommendations favouring the predetermined outcome (First Nations who did participate will have been deemed to have been consulted)
- Those recommendations will become either a piece of legislation, or a new/updated policy or program
- The prescribed recommendations will be applied to all First Nation communities whether they consented or not, and without consideration to their respective Treaty rights (and right to Free, Prior & Informed Consent)
- Resources will continue to be inadequate to implement the recommendations
- This is typically when First Nations write press releases or letters to the government explaining how and why the process was flawed to begin with
- I’ve never worked for government, so I cannot say if they love this or not, but it seems like it makes them very happy to be able to say it wasn’t their fault that no one liked the actions they took and it was simply further proof that First Nations can’t get along
First Nation leadership have a lot of support (and critics too). Some of those supports (and critics) come in the form of Indigenous lawyers or policy analysts who remind the leadership that the government does not have the authority to create policy/legislation over Indigenous Peoples. Often, leadership will push for a meeting on more equal terms (nation-to-nation) that will implement the treaties and resource protection and sharing discussions that many believe (myself included) will help to bring balance and peace back into a relationship fraught with mistrust, abuse, theft and shaming.
The government does not want to do this because it means that they would have to acknowledge they’ve been in violation of Treaties for hundreds of years. But by not acknowledging the treaty relationship, the settler state allows colonialism to continue to set the tone of the relationship between Indigenous Peoples and non-indigenous people. And this is disastrous because colonialism, by its very nature, perpetuates the mistreatment of Indigenous women and girls.
I don’t believe, and I think that the Prime Minister has made this very clear—that the government intends to do anything about this issue any time soon, beyond the roundtable—(which sounded like it didn’t go very well at all). But that doesn’t mean I don’t think that something should be done. I worry all the time that my daughter will grow up and that people will treat her badly because the system allows it. I want to do something about. So what can I do?
I feel very lucky because I think I can do many things:
- I can support efforts in my family and community to reaffirm women’s roles as leaders, teachers, givers of life, keepers of knowledge, stories and traditions and others I have not listed here
- I can support the women in my life who are mothers, aunties, sisters, cousins, grandmothers, leaders, and who care for children and families
- I can make sure my daughter knows her clan, her nation, her creation stories, and her languages. These are her inherent rights
- I can learn songs and sing them with her
- I can help my daughter understand why we care so much about water and land and teach her how we show our appreciation and gratitude through offerings and ceremony
- I can teach her about our existing roles and support her in realizing the new roles that women may take on in the future, as our experience here on Turtle Island changes and evolves
- I can support our community agencies that are underfunded but provide safety and shelter for women and families
- I can write blogs and stories
- I can share things I’ve read about colonialism and be open to respectful, caring dialogue with others who want to learn
- I can create writing and art for education and public awareness purposes
- I can support others who are using their skills and abilities to raise awareness about these issues and their many layers through books, art and film
There are a lot of things I probably didn’t list here—I’m still learning too, really. But they are things I know can make a difference and they are the type of recommendations that I always see come up at the conclusion of other studies, including inquires like Ipperwash and commissions like RCAP. Why not just start them now?
There is a lot of media competing for our time and attention, and not everyone has the time to read (and of course—not everyone likes to read). But there is no doubt in my mind that awareness, compassionate discussion and action is needed to help us bring an end to this violence. And that leads me to this very cool Kickstarter that Devery Jacobs has launched to tell the story “Stolen”, which will take a look into, “a typical Native girl’s life before becoming one of the 1200+ Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in Canada”.
MMIWG is such an enormous issue. No one will be able to crack it alone. And it’s hard to know where to get involved in any issue—at least it is for me. Gaining more awareness is what has always helped me figure out how and where I can be apart of the change. Because I’m a writer—most of my efforts go into writing stories and books and blogs (I touch on this issue in my short story collection). But movies are awesome too, and that is why I’m happy to support this Kickstarter. Hopefully, I will be able to show it in one of my future Indigenous Studies classes.
For those of you who are interested, here is a small sample of the things I’ve watched or have read that helped me to understand this issue. There are so many more resources, so many more people working on this issue that I wish I could list them all. Maybe I will try in the future. Until then, here you go:
Sisters in Spirit website: http://www.nwac.ca/sisters-spirit
Andrea Smith and American Indian Genocide (video of a lecture): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Neg-Rlbi764
Inter American Commission on Human Rights - Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in Canada: http://www.oas.org/en/iachr/reports/pdfs/Indigenous-Women-BC-Canada-en.pdf
The video of Andrea Smith is informative. I saw it a few years ago. It really gets to the linkages between colonialism and violence against Indigenous women. That being said, there are other important issues around Andrea's work concerning voice and appropriation that I would feel remiss if I did not mention. This article by Pam Palmater is just a really great read that came out today. I read the Sisters in Spirit report two years ago when I was working on my short story collection. This was a research initiative by the Native Women’s Association of Canada. There are a lot more resources on their website though. This last study was fairly recent, it focuses mainly on British Columbia but there are implications for the rest of Turtle Island, I think.
If there are other things you think I should read, please feel free to let me know. Anyways, happy international women's day to all the women in my life, indigenous and non-indigenous, in my community and around the world for being you and doing what you do! I hope this year is amazing for you and I wish you and your loved ones health, happiness and safety.