A Call to Ac­tion

In­dige­nous Al­lies An­tic­i­pate Change

Herizons - - Arts & Culture Columns - By Lianne Leddy

Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau has sig­nalled that In­dige­nous peo­ple can ex­pect sig­nif­i­cant changes from his new Lib­eral gov­ern­ment. First, by ap­point­ing Kwak­waka’wakw lawyer and politi­cian Jody Wil­son-Ray­bould as the first In­dige­nous min­is­ter of jus­tice and at­tor­ney gen­eral, Trudeau made a clear de­par­ture from the gov­ern­ment of for­mer prime min­is­ter Stephen Harper, which of­ten took an ad­ver­sar­ial ap­proach to In­dige­nous claims. Stephen Harper, Aboriginal Af­fairs and North­ern De­vel­op­ment spent more on lit­i­ga­tion than any other fed­eral depart­ment in 2013.

Se­condly, by chang­ing the ti­tle of the port­fo­lio from Aboriginal Af­fairs to In­dige­nous Af­fairs, Trudeau has kept in step with the pre­ferred lan­guage of In­dige­nous peo­ples. And, by form­ing a gen­der-par­ity cabi­net “be­cause it’s 2015,” the prime min­is­ter has fur­ther po­si­tioned him­self as a mod­ern and ac­count­able prime min­is­ter who in­tends to be on the right side of his­tory.

Soon we will see what Trudeau is will­ing to ac­com­plish by work­ing with In­dige­nous peo­ples as al­lies. Of par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est will be the is­sue of miss­ing and mur­dered In­dige­nous women and the im­ple­men­ta­tion of the Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Com­mis­sion’s 94 calls to ac­tion.

When he was prime min­is­ter, Harper was quoted as say­ing of miss­ing and mur­dered In­dige­nous women, “We should not view this as so­ci­o­log­i­cal phe­nom­e­non. We should view it as crime.” Im­me­di­ately, he dis­counted the long his­tory of colo­nial and sex­ual violence against In­dige­nous women and dis­missed the idea that these crimes are part of a larger so­cial pat­tern that should not be ig­nored.

The RCMP’s po­si­tion mir­rored that of Harper when the force re­leased a re­port in 2014 that was rife with vic­tim-blam­ing and that cau­tioned against risky be­hav­iour on the part of In­dige­nous women. The re­port, Miss­ing and Mur­dered Aboriginal Women: A Na­tional Over­view, char­ac­ter­ized In­dige­nous men and In­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties as per­pe­tra­tors of violence.

Un­for­tu­nately, the RCMP be­came the only source of in­for­ma­tion on miss­ing and mur­dered In­dige­nous women after the Harper gov­ern­ment cut the Sis­ters in Spirit cam­paign in 2010. Sis­ters in Spirit, part the Na­tive Women’s As­so­ci­a­tion of Canada, had kept a data­base of miss­ing and mur­dered In­dige­nous women. An­other blow came when the Na­tional Aboriginal Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion was closed in 2012. Not­ing that in­dige­nous peo­ples in Canada are at the bot­tom of most health in­di­ca­tors, The Cana­dian Med­i­cal

As­so­ci­a­tion Jour­nal re­ported in 2012 that cuts were made to at least 10 In­dige­nous or­ga­ni­za­tions and pro­grams. Many of these ini­tia­tives were re­placed with poli­cies that were in­tended to ad­dress a nar­row def­i­ni­tion of crime.

Since that time, In­dige­nous women and their com­mu­ni­ties have con­tin­ued to bear the brunt of these cuts, as well as of mis­guided poli­cies and prac­tices. In Au­gust 2014, 15-year-old Tina Fon­taine’s body was re­cov­ered from Win­nipeg’s Red River. In the days lead­ing up to her dis­ap­pear­ance, she had come into con­tact with sev­eral pro­vin­cial and mu­nic­i­pal au­thor­i­ties. Calls for ac­tion height­ened again in the spring of 2015 after the man charged in the death of Cindy Gladue, a Cree woman who died in an Ed­mon­ton ho­tel room from in­juries as a re­sult of an 11-cen­time­tre vagi­nal wound, avoided con­vic­tion. The tis­sues of Gladue’s vagina were in­tro­duced by the prov­ince’s chief med­i­cal ex­am­iner as ev­i­dence in the trial, prompt­ing many to con­demn the act as a vul­gar and dis­re­spect­ful at­tempt to re­duce her life to the body part that many as­so­ciate with her in­volve­ment in pros­ti­tu­tion.

Then, in the fall, it was re­ported that In­dige­nous women in Val d’Or, Que­bec had been sys­tem­i­cally as­saulted and abused by Sureté du Que­bec po­lice of­fi­cers, eight of whom have since been sus­pended. These are but a few ex­am­ples of

In­dige­nous women and girls whose deaths and mis­treat­ment did not sim­ply con­sti­tute crimes alone, but show how these acts are em­bed­ded in ev­ery as­pect of Cana­dian so­ci­ety. Not a so­ci­o­log­i­cal phe­nom­e­non my foot.

On De­cem­ber 8, Wil­son-Ray­bould, along with In­dige­nous Af­fairs Min­is­ter Carolyn Ben­nett and Sta­tus of Women Min­is­ter Patty Ha­jdu, an­nounced the launch of the first phase of the na­tional pub­lic in­quiry into miss­ing and mur­dered In­dige­nous women. This phase in­cludes con­sul­ta­tions with fam­i­lies in the Ottawa re­gion and else­where, as well as with In­dige­nous or­ga­ni­za­tions. Pre­sum­ably, it will also in­clude out­reach to other re­gions, both on-re­serve and in ur­ban cen­tres, in order to ad­e­quately con­sult with a range of com­mu­ni­ties, re­gions and In­dige­nous na­tions.

The in­quiry is set to spend $40 mil­lion over two years, and the im­por­tance of work­ing with In­dige­nous fam­i­lies, or­ga­ni­za­tions and govern­ments to cre­ate a process that meets the needs of In­dige­nous peo­ples has been ac­knowl­edged.

In­dige­nous women are look­ing for as­sur­ance that the in­quiry it­self will not be the an­swer. The in­quiry must be the means, not the end, of ad­dress­ing gen­der-based violence against In­dige­nous women.

It will also be im­por­tant that the process, as well as the poli­cies or ac­tions that re­sult from the in­quiry, take In­dige­nous men into ac­count and rep­re­sent them not only as per­pe­tra­tors of violence. Tus­carora grad­u­ate stu­dent and jour­nal­ist Jen Mt. Pleas­ant has compiled a data­base of miss­ing and mur­dered In­dige­nous men, demon­strat­ing that this

dis­cus­sion can­not ig­nore gen­der and mas­culin­ity. In­dige­nous men and women have ex­pe­ri­enced colo­nial­ism dif­fer­ently, and, while it is cru­cial to talk about both is­sues, this does not re­place the need for an in­quiry into mur­dered and miss­ing In­dige­nous women. In­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties, both ur­ban and on-re­serve, need so­lu­tions that em­power us, honour our tra­di­tional roles and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, and con­trib­ute to com­mu­nity well­be­ing as a whole.

The miss­ing and mur­dered In­dige­nous women’s in­quiry was one of the 94 calls to ac­tion of the Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Com­mis­sion. The com­mis­sion’s clos­ing event on June 3 saw hun­dreds of peo­ple crowded into the Ottawa Delta ho­tel foyer, on the stairs and gath­ered through­out the pub­lic ar­eas of the ho­tel, cry­ing, cheer­ing and com­fort­ing each other. The stand­ing-room-only event was a demon­stra­tion of the true spirit of com­mu­nity re­silience.

In­dige­nous peo­ples will be look­ing to gov­ern­ment to har­ness the en­ergy of the com­mis­sion’s re­port and to ful­fill the com­mis­sion’s de­sire to rec­on­cile our his­tory and present-day colo­nial re­al­ity through mean­ing­ful ac­tion.

The gov­ern­ment’s ac­tions should not only ad­dress the high num­ber of mur­dered and miss­ing In­dige­nous women but also en­sure that the Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Com­mis­sion’s find­ings and calls to ac­tion do not go the way of those of the Royal Com­mis­sion on Aboriginal Peo­ples. In the in­ter­ven­ing 20 years, few of its rec­om­men­da­tions have been im­ple­mented, and in the mean­time our com­mu­ni­ties con­tinue to face gaps in ed­u­ca­tion, child wel­fare, hous­ing and health and well-be­ing. In the same time pe­riod, a whole new gen­er­a­tion of In­dige­nous youth has come of age.

In­dige­nous peo­ples will be look­ing to the Trudeau gov­ern­ment to act quickly. For the new gen­er­a­tion of In­dige­nous peo­ple, change can­not come too soon.

Lianne C. Leddy is Anishi­naabe kwe and an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of In­dige­nous stud­ies at Wil­frid Lau­rier Univer­sity’s Brant­ford cam­pus. She writes about In­dige­nous en­vi­ron­men­tal and gen­der is­sues.

The in­volve­ment of fam­i­lies of mur­dered and miss­ing In­dige­nous women is ex­pected to help en­sure that the process for the in­quiry is re­spect­ful and thor­ough. (Photo: CP)

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