Feature Image: Tannis Nielsen
On August 13 of this year, the It Starts With Us partnership between No More Silence (NMS), The Native Youth Sexual Health Network, and Families of Sisters In Spirit held its fourth annual Violence No More event. For the first time the event was held outside of Toronto in what is now known as St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador (NL), the traditional territories of the Beothuk, Mi’kmaq, Inuit, Southern Inuit and Innu peoples— colonialism’s “ground zero” in North America. This historic meeting took place thanks to collaboration between NMS, the St. John’s Native Friendship Centre, and the Department of Gender Studies at Memorial University. Indigenous grassroots activists, community members, scholars and allies from across Canada, including many based locally in NL, joined family members of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, trans and Two-Spirit people (MMIWG2S) to share updates on and insights into our respective organizing on this issue, and to strategize about how to hold the Government accountable (especially to Indigenous families, communities and nations) during the Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Canada (the Inquiry).
Three years into our work on Ontario’s community-led database, our volunteers have collected 186 names in total, of which 117 have been researched and entered into the database. We have produced an interim draft report which is currently undergoing a peer review. Our work on community lists in other provinces and assisting families with tributes is ongoing and can be found at: http://www.itstartswithus-mmiw.com/
In the spirit of dialogue, and in alignment with the broad movement that is Idle No More, we would like to share publicly our thoughts about the Inquiry (how it should proceed; what possible difference it could make) as well as the important and invaluable grassroots efforts that brought about the Inquiry and that will persevere regardless. We are optimistic that the Inquiry process can become The People’s Inquiry.
First, the Inquiry presents an opportunity to acknowledge the decades of grassroots work done by Indigenous women, communities and nations, and their allies to place this issue squarely on the public radar. It was this dedicated labour that compelled the Trudeau Government to launch the Inquiry.
Moreover, we know that this grassroots work will endure. We see the Inquiry as only part of what must be done to end the genocide directed at Indigenous women, girls, trans and Two Spirit people across Turtle Island. Family members, loved ones and survivors must continue to tell their truths in their own formats, including by keeping records in parallel with the Inquiry if they so desire. In short, Indigenous women and their communities must continue to tell their own stories of MMIWG2S—and be heard.
Accordingly, our vision for the Inquiry centers the work done by Indigenous women, communities, and survivors. We call on the Commissioners to honour and build on this work, while treading carefully, respectfully and compassionately. We also believe that, rather than “reinvent the wheel,” the Inquiry should consolidate and update the information that we already have. The Legal Research Strategy Coalition has compiled reports and their recommendations can be found here: http://www.leaf.ca/legal-strategy-coalition-on-mmiw/. In this way, the Inquiry could produce an indisputable historical record about MMIWG2S, akin to that of the TRC on residential schools.
Second, given that the terms of reference have yet to be precisely defined, we have questions about—and hopes for—a genuine, reciprocal relationship between grassroots initiatives such as It Starts With Us and the Commissioners. Importantly, we urge the Commissioners to adhere to Indigenous-defined terms of engagement, including pre-inquiry insights into how this relationship should unfold.
Third, we believe that stories are potentially transformative. By providing the right kind of space and process in which Indigenous stories can be told and listened to, the Inquiry could serve as a way to educate non-Indigenous settler populations, and build understanding vis-à-vis their relationship with Indigenous peoples. In that vein, we call on the Commissioners to create an effective media strategy to engage the broader public with the Inquiry’s work.
Fourth, we highlight the compounded levels of marginalization faced by Indigenous sex workers, trans, Two Spirit, queer and gender fluid individuals, and others who are often left out of narratives about the Inquiry. These groups should be centered in grassroots initiatives for change and in the Inquiry’s work.
Fifth, while we appreciate how difficult the task of selecting commissioners must have been, we note a heavy weight given to expertise in law and the justice system in that selection process, and call on the Commissioners to seek the collaboration of individuals with research and activist experience in socio-political and cultural realms while undertaking the Inquiry. This holistic approach to the issue is needed to ensure that the Inquiry explores and clearly delineates systemic causes of violence against Indigenous women, girls, trans and Two Spirit people, and avoids a narrow focus on the justice system.
Likewise, we are aware of the enormous challenge of inclusivity—whose voices will be heard—and call on the Commissioners to avoid tokenizing families in an effort to meet that challenge. Here we reiterate our call for the Inquiry to make gender and sexual diversity central to its investigative scope.
Sixth, we demand that the Inquiry’s recommendations be legally binding, particularly when it comes to the comportment of provinces, municipalities and police at all jurisdictional levels. We also have serious concerns about referring families back to those very same authorities and institutions that failed in their due diligence when it came to many cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, trans and Two Spirit people.
Seventh, we call on the commission to ensure that supports are in place for families (chosen ones included) not only during, but after the Inquiry. Those of us who participated in the pre-inquiries saw that supports were sorely lacking for those re-traumatized by the process. Past experiences show us that when governments hold round tables or inquiries, grassroots groups are often left—with little to no resources—to deal with those individuals who have been triggered.
Eighth, we must look after the health and well-being of our helpers, including the Commissioners. In recognizing that there will be a call-out and search for support staff to collect testimony and to follow community protocols in the process, we call on the Commissioners to value the spiritual and psychological health of those they employ, more specifically, that they provide adequate leave and access to spiritual and counselling services for staff—and for themselves—as needed. Vicarious trauma and other triggers are the nature of the work, and important supports—noted above—may not be readily available in remote regions and post-inquiry.
In sum, we are optimistic that social change will happen, independent of the Inquiry. It is our hope that the Inquiry contributes to that change by honouring the work being done on the ground by Indigenous women, families, communities and nations, and the stories yet to be told.
Lindsay Batt, Memorial University Students’ Union
Carol Lynne D’Arcangelis, Memorial University
Audrey Huntley, No More Silence
Jeffrey McNeil-Seymour, Thompson Rivers University
Odelle Pike, Newfoundland Aboriginal Women’s Network; Bay St. George Cultural Circle
Amelia Reimer, St. John’s Native Friendship Centre
Megan Scribe, PhD Student, University of Toronto
Bridget Tolley, Families of Sisters In Spirit
Alex Wilson, University of Saskatchewan
Wanda Whitebird, No More Silence