'This system hasn't killed me yet': A roundtable on gendered colonial violence

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For the past 25 years, Indigenous elders, women, family and community members in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, unceded xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaʔ (Tsleil-Waututh) territories, have marched to raise awareness about violence inflicted on the lives of women in this neighbourhood. This February 14, they will be joined by over a dozen other marches across Turtle Island, making this one of the most widespread and longest-running marches in recent Canadian history.

Nearly 1,200 Indigenous women have been murdered or gone missing in Canada over the past 30 years. According to researcher Maryanne Pearce, 24.8 per cent of all missing and murdered women in Canada are Indigenous women despite making up less than two per cent of the total population. Statistics are, of course, wholly inadequate when conveying the scope of violence. Gendered violence is embedded within settler-colonialism: in racist and heteropatriarchal laws such as the Indian Act, in policies of child apprehension which target Indigenous families, in the practices of locking up Indigenous women and youth at alarming rates, in the theft of Indigenous lands that disproportionately displaces and impoverishes Indigenous women, and in the genocidal attempts to annihilate Indigenous laws through the very bodies of Indigenous women, girls, trans and two-spirit people that embody and enact Indigenous sovereignty.

Tara Williamson, Anishinaabekwe/Nehayowak musician and college professor, notes: "The system and most Canadians don't give a shit about you, how strong and talented you are, how hard you've worked, or where you live. If you are an Indigenous woman, you are a prime target for colonial violence." 

Given the state and settler society's perpetuation and complicity in colonial gendered violence, Valentine's Day has become a powerful day to show love and "express compassion, community, and caring" for Indigenous women through Women's Memorial Marches. As Siku Allooloo, an Inuk/Taino from Denendeh, has written, "Love and respect are the currencies of our relationships… Love is our life force. It is the most healing, regenerative, empowering resource we have to draw upon. And, even more, it compels us to action."

Over the past two months, I had the deep honour of hosting a roundtable with four powerful and persistent Indigenous women leaders from across the country who have been taking loving action. Bridget Tolley, an Algonquin grandmother from the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation, is a cofounder of Families of Sisters in Spirit in Ottawa. Zhaawanongnoodin (Colleen Cardinal) is a Plains Cree woman from Saddle Lake First Nation who also organizes with the grassroots volunteer group Families of Sisters in Spirit. In addition, I spoke with Carol Martin, a Nisga'a and Gitxsan victim-services worker at the Downtown Eastside Women's Center and long-time member of Vancouver's February 14 Women's Memorial March Committee. Audrey Huntley, a documentary filmmaker, researcher and organizer with No More Silence in Toronto of mixed settler and Indigenous (Anishnawbe) ancestry, also joined the roundtable.

Below is Part 1 of the roundtable; Part 2 of the roundtable will be published on February 13 here.

All of you have dedicated almost a decade or longer to the issue of justice for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. What brought you to the work of memorializing and honouring the lives of stolen sisters? Given how emotionally intensive it is to intimately, let alone publically, grieve and organize for justice in situations of violent death, how do you keep going?

Colleen: Violence has always been a part of my life. Sexual and physical abuse began for me from being placed, along with my two older sisters, in a non-Indigenous household as part of the '60s Scoop. We fled that home and eventually found our parents but sadly a year later, on July 25, 1990, my eldest sister Gina (Charmaine Desa) was murdered in a downtown Edmonton park. I was 17 years old at the time.

The front page of the Edmonton Sun had a photograph of her body. It showed 4-5 detectives standing over her lifeless body and you could see her leg from under the cloth covering her. When you turned the page of the newspaper you could see a coroner taking a body bag out of the park on a stretcher with an image description of the park being "notorious for drug dealing and prostitution." These images stayed in my mind.

I saw similar images and messages repeated in the media every time they found a body of an Indigenous woman. Little attention was given to the killers of Indigenous women. Instead mainstream media described the woman as being "high risk," which to them meant she was street-involved and using drugs or alcohol. I did not consider my sister to be high-risk or deserving to be beaten to death; this is victim blaming.

From 1997-2005 there were bodies of Indigenous women constantly being found in fields, ditches, and hiking trails around Edmonton. As far as I know, there were no killers caught for most of the women killed during that period of time. One of those women found was my sister-in-law Lynn Minia Jackson. I was married to her brother, and she had lived with us for a brief time in 1991 and we briefly had contact with her again in 1997. When one woman in your family is murdered it is unimaginable; when two women are murdered it is alarming.

So I keep doing this work because it has impacted my life. My interest is in creating awareness not only about missing and murdered Indigenous women but also the deeply entrenched systemic racism that is built within Canada's government policies and media. These institutions continue to deliberately lie about the violence that Indigenous people have experienced and continue to experience even though they are complicit in the violence.

I can trace the violence against Indigenous women right back to forcing Indigenous people onto tracts of land, appropriating their resources, and assuming control of their lives, education, and health. This all impacted women in my family: the violence my biological mother experienced in Blue Quills Residential School, the trauma of having my sisters and I removed from her, the violence we experienced in our adoptive home, and the murder of my sister Gina (Charmaine Desa) at the age of 20. Maybe Gina (Charmaine Desa) would have been a teacher or veterinarian, I don't know, but I know she wanted a better life for herself and her children. She dreamed about a life free from violence and we often talked about raising our children without the violence that we ourselves experienced. And so I am dedicating my life to making sure my sister's death was not in vain and that people understand the historical context of violence against Indigenous women in Canada.

Bridget: I never thought I would be political and fighting for missing and murdered women. I got involved for accountability and justice when my mother was killed in 2001 on the reserve by a Quebec police cruiser. It took me over a year just to get a copy of the police report. The Sûreté du Québec never admitted anything. Since the beginning, even the autopsy report was inaccurate. They said that we had identified the body, but that was not true because we were never allowed to even see the body. And then we found out that the lead investigating officer was actually the brother of the police officer who was driving the car that hit my mother! This is such an obvious conflict of interest and I believe it is one big cover-up. I want an independent investigation into my mother's killing but in 2010, the province of Quebec refused me.

To try and get justice for my mother I got involved with the Native Women's Association of Canada Sisters in Spirit campaign. I wanted to do something for my mother, whose anniversary was on October 5. October 4 marked the anniversary of release of the first big Amnesty International Stolen Sisters report, which came out in 2004. So we picked October 4 as the date and the first Sisters in Spirit vigil was held on Parliament Hill in 2006. Since then, this annual vigil has spread everywhere and brought lots of awareness; last year there were over 200 vigils.

And then in 2010, Harper cut funding and the Native Women's Association of Canada was told that they could no longer organize the Sisters In Spirit campaign. They could not even use the name "Sisters in Spirit." That felt like we were being made invisible and disappeared again. The government might be able to take away funding but they do not have the authority to take our name, our sisters from us. So we became Families of Sisters in Spirit to make sure everyone knew and the government knew that we were here and not going anywhere.

It has been so hard and it's been so long. We live on donations and we use those donations to support families with food and gas money and to print out and put up posters. When I first started there was no Internet so I had to do all my work from phone. My phone bill was $500 a month. We try to support all the families as much as possible because we know what it's like to lose a loved one. In 2013, my own daughter and her friend went missing for one week. It was the hardest week of my life. I never thought I would be searching for my own daughter, but it happened to me. I was lucky, I was able to get the word out fast, I had lots of support, and my daughter and her friend came home safe. But if people didn't know me then maybe I wouldn't have had the same response. So I try to help other family members bring back their family members as fast as possible.

The reason I keep doing this is justice for my mom. And I do not want the same thing to happen to anyone else. I want justice for all the families. And it's the other families that keep me going too.

Audrey: I found myself living in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside when I returned to Turtle Island after living and organizing in European social justice movements for many years. It was a bit of a culture shock at first as I had been away for 18 years. I was really grateful to be welcomed so warmly into the community. At that time missing women posters were everywhere so I got involved with organizing the women's memorial march.

Ceremony is what allows me to keep doing this work. Doing the work in the absence of ceremony is dangerous, I think, and can be really damaging. I see those damaging dynamics in the lateral violence that occurs around this issue among organizers. It is painful work and a lot of trauma re-enactment can occur if folks do not have supports in place and are not practicing good self-care. No More Silence is lucky to have the guidance of Elder Wanda Whitebird; her sense of humour and kindness keeps us grounded.

Carol: This work was not my intention but I started working in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, and this is the direction it took me to. Working with women in the Downtown Eastside is like a reflection of my own life and my own struggles. I can relate to what women here are going through; especially the ongoing systemic racism and genocide that exists against Indigenous women. We are almost non-existent in this system.

My personal life and my work go hand in hand; without the two being connected I would not be able to do the work I do. Emotionally, spiritually and physically this work wears me down. It educates me, triggers me, moves me, exhausts me right down to my spirit and soul but still I move forward and it makes me stronger. Sometimes in moments of quiet, I find it difficult and I feel hopeless and cannot see above the horizon, but then the voices of the women who have died or who have gone missing carry loudly in my mind. It is their stories, their tears, their struggle, and it is with this memory that I continue to speak. It is for their lives that I do this work and it is them who I remember. And for me -- if this system hasn't killed me yet then it has made me stronger.


What do you believe are the root causes of the violence of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls across Turtle Island? How is this colonial gendered violence reproduced by the government as well as within society in the responses, or lack thereof, to this crisis?

Audrey: Violence against Indigenous women that enabled land theft and displacement of the Indigenous population is an inherent part of the settler-colonial project. That's how Canada was built and continues to exist. Indigenous communities, in particular Indigenous women and children who are the centres of those communities, stand in the way of ongoing colonization of land and resources. Racism is the fuel that feeds the fire and it is at the heart of the societal indifference that is so hard for our community, and in particular for the family members of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, to bear. 

While the last year has finally brought unprecedented media and public attention to the issue, the violence has not stopped and, in fact, may be increasing. This makes sense given the extractivist and austerity-focused agenda of the Harper government and the impacts that violence on the land has on Indigenous women particularly, and our community and society as a whole.

Carol: I believe that racism and genocide is at the root of the ongoing epidemic of missing and murdered women and girls. Society knows that the killing of one's soul little by little, day after day, will make us more vulnerable, therefore putting our lives at a higher risk. Racism tears down our insides so that no matter what we achieve we will never be up to their standards. Racism oppresses Indigenous women and girls, but it also binds the oppressors into telling lies until they themselves become prisoners of those lies. The oppressors cannot face the truth of human equality because it reveals the horror of the injustices they have committed.

As far as state and societal response to the violence against Indigenous women and girls -- it is rooted in racism. Racism springs from the lie that certain human beings are less than fully human. It is a self-centred falsehood that corrupts our minds into believing we have a right to treat Indigenous women and girls in ways we would not want to be treated. Society and the state witness and hear about the racism and injustice and violence and heartache and death that is inflicted upon Indigenous women and girls, and still there is silence.

Colleen: The root cause is the dehumanizing of Indigenous people though the making of Canada. The apartheid reserve system, the stealing of resources and land for profit, the miseducation and ignorance being taught in Canadian schools about Indigenous people -- it's all wrong! Canada is the problem. The Canadian plan was to keep us out of sight and out of mind, to assimilate us into becoming taxing-paying loyal citizens. Indigenous people recognize and see the problems with the system, but Canadians only have a limited understanding and do not value Indigenous people. Many are ignorant because the state has largely misled them about the controlling and managing of First Nations, Inuit and Metis affairs.

Bridget: The main problem is that society believes racist stereotypes about us. They believe we are "drunks" and "bums" and all these things. They do not believe we are valuable. So when a young girl goes missing, there is no support to find her. When Maisy Odjick and Shannon Alexander went missing in my reserve of Maniwaki there was no big search parties. But when a baby lion went missing on the reserve, there were helicopters and search parties. It was unbelievable that the people on my own reserve barely responded to these two girls going missing and it still breaks my heart.

Ultimately, it all has to do with colonization; it has been like this for years and years. From the residential schools to the '60s Scoop, and now the children's aid societies -- it's still happening. I was in state care in Children Aid's Society and my Santa Clause every year was the Indian Agent. It is so wicked and it never ends.

Part 2 of the roundtable, discussing a national inquiry, government proposals to address this violence, and community-based alternatives as forms of Indigenous resurgence, will run on February 13 here.

Harsha Walia (@HarshaWalia) is a South Asian activist and writer based in Vancouver, unceded Coast Salish Territories. She has been a member of the February 14 Women's Memorial March Committee since 2006 and also been involved in grassroots migrant justice, feminist, anti-racist, Indigenous solidarity, anti-capitalist, and anti-imperialist movements for over a decade.

Photo: yaokcool/flickr

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