Misrepresentations of Indigenous women in the media perpetuate dehumanizing stereotypes. It needs to stop.
Great turn out Vancouver! Photo taken by Zack Embree.
Yesterday, I attended the annual February 14th Strawberry Ceremony and Missing and Murdered Women’s Vigil in Toronto. Like every other year, I stood out in the cold with supporters, listening to family members of the missing and the murdered.
This year, like other years, tears streamed down my face while the words of loss echoed, bouncing off the walls of police headquarters, where we were gathered. This year, like every other year, their words rattled around violently inside me until they took root in my heart. This year, like every other year, I smudged and sent up my prayers for the families who lost someone and prayed for all Indigenous peoples to rise against the violence.
This year was different in a few ways though. There were more of us this year. I am different this year too, I’m angrier. As each year goes by, I get angrier. Six years ago when I first began attending the vigils, I felt as though I was helping… as the years went by, I began to see that I must do more. That is what I am doing these days, exploring the ways I can support my people to rise against the violence and to heal.
After the vigil and strawberry ceremony, we marched to 519 Church Street. People passing by were asking why we were marching. One man asked why we were marching and joined us. I was elated – we need more of that. I think that was the first time I smiled all day.
When we got to 519 Church Street, we listened to the two spirit drum. I was so happy to see two spirit people being free in that space to be themselves. They should feel that free anywhere and everywhere. Traditionally two spirit people are special in our Indigenous cultures but all too often the colonized mindset in our communities results in exclusion or violence. I submit that exclusion is in itself a kind of violence. Sociologically speaking, we know that exclusion results in all kinds of social harms including suicide. Decolonizing means purifying ourselves from homophobia, sexism, racism and classism. Any of the negative “isms” that you can think of are not our traditional ways, we are meant to accept and support each other. The truth is, we will never be decolonized until we embrace two spirited people fully as the integral parts of our nations that they always were, are and always will be. As I listened to the two spirit drum and looked around the room, I thought to myself, “This is what resurgence looks like, this is what resurgence feels like.” I really believe two spirited people are leading us back to our Indigeneity, to our strength.
I recently had the honour of being a panelist on Mohawk journalist and activist Irkar Beljaar’s radio show ‘Native Solidarity News.’ You can find his show on CKUT 90.3 FM from 6pm-7pm Tuesday evenings. He has spent many years side by side with our Indigenous sisters in our fight for justice and an end to violence against Indigenous women.
Please support his work because he is doing it for all of us. Check out his work and spread the word! Miigwetch!
Let’s be real. Canada will never have a truthful inquiry into missing and murdered women. I really think we should save our breath and stop asking. However, that doesn’t mean that I think that we should give up. What we need is a different approach. What we need is for Indigenous people to conduct the inquiry and promote it on the international level. Likely, in terms of funding, it’s going to be the grassroots who gets this done. It’s going to take a lot of heart, work, volunteer hours and our own money. OR we could work WITH Canada equally on an inquiry, or leave it up to a third party. But we cannot and must not allow Canada to conduct an inquiry alone.
I owe you a better explanation of what I mean. So let’s begin by asking the right question. Why won’t Canada ever have a truthful inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women? The reasons are (in no particular order):
Reason # 1 – It costs money. If an inquiry were to be done, the federal government would look for every possible way to cut costs thereby undermining the inquiry’s mandate to begin with.
Reason # 2 – The Canadian nation-state would be implicated as the root of the problem. Indigenous women are simultaneously over criminalized and under protected by law enforcement. Colonialism, racism, sexism and classism are why there are so many missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada. Essentially, Canada would be investigating itself for horrendous human rights violations.
Indigenous women are the most marginalized group in the country because….
1) Colonialism. Our nationhood is not respected (or even understood) and our lands are coveted and violated by industry and occupation. Indigenous people are viewed as “in the way” of progress – that attitude contributes toward dehumanization.
2) Racism. As Andrea Smith says, Indigenous bodies are viewed as inherently rapeable because they are not viewed as pure (white), and so they cannot be violated. Raping or murdering an Indigenous woman is not viewed as a crime in the same way it would be viewed for a white woman.
Murdered Indigenous women who are sex workers, homeless or addicts are viewed as worthless. Every single Indigenous woman is a human being regardless of what she does for a living or the way that she lives her life. Of course, not all Indigenous women are sex workers, homeless or addicts but those stereotypes exist and so the effects of the dehumanization of those groups are extended to all Indigenous women. This should be an added motivation for Indigenous feminists and communities to be inclusive when discussing the rights for all. Everyone matters.
3) Patriarchy. Women’s voices, especially racialized women’s voices are not being heard or represented in the mainstream because men still have too much power and influence. The silence allows it to continue. To be clear, even Indigenous men are killing Indigenous women. This is because Canadian society has made it clear that Indigenous women are not being assigned the same value as other women in Canada. This lateral violence in our communities must stop. It is not our way. Patriarchy is not our way. In acts of decolonization, we must as Indigenous women take our place as leaders in our communities.
4) Classism. Women who are poor are more vulnerable and more likely to disappear without a trace but also – the police do NOT care about the poor. Just look at the victims of the Pickton case for example – the RCMP was negligent because Pickton preyed on poor women. If Pickton preyed on affluent white women, instead of poor racialized women, everyone in Canada would know about how horrific his crimes were.
Other Points to take into Consideration
An examination of the relationship between the current Federal administration and First Nations people is important here. Do you you think the current Federal administration would view a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women as advantageous to them politically or economically advantageous for Canada? No. Do you think that they would agree to do anything that would not benefit them politically? No. A greater examination of the relationship between the Canadian nation-state and Indigenous peoples is needed here.
I submit that not only does Canada not view an inquiry as advantageous to Canada but the Canadian nation-state actually benefits from a depleted Indigenous population. With less Indigenous resistance to industrial projects, Canadians (or more correctly, oil companies) will be able to reap the economic benefits from resource developments without opposition. Also, the Federal government will have less expenses in the Aboriginal Affairs Department and the Provincial governments can continue benefitting from natural resource development completely unfettered.
If Indigenous peoples were to become either majorly depopulated or surrender their nationhood and right to the land – the crown would seek to inherit trillions of dollars worth of land and resources. Much of the land mass people refer to as ‘Canada’ is stolen land. The Canadian nation-state exists because of institutionalized and structural racism, dispossession of Indigenous territories, forced relocations, genocidal scalping laws, forced sexual sterilization, residential schools, the sixties scoop and many other crimes against our people. It breaks my heart to say but Canadians benefit economically from the deaths of Indigenous peoples and the dismantling of Indigenous nations.
We ALL need to remember that treaties with First Nations are the foundation of Canada – not confederation, not the patriation of the constitution – but treaties. Canada only exists because of the treaties. The treaties state that we are to SHARE the land and not interfere with each other. We are supposed to be friends.
As Indigenous peoples, we have a right to our land, economies, self-determination, languages and cultures. We have the right to exist – and yet the federal government keeps passing legislation threatening our nations. So, no – I have no faith in Canada conducting an honest inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women. If an inquiry is done, it will be done without examining the systemic causes of the deaths of our women.
Why the attack on Indigenous women? As the Cheyenne Proverb says, “A nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground. Then it is done, no matter how brave its warriors nor how strong their weapons.”