A Call to Action
Indigenous Allies Anticipate Change
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)