Are you listening?
While human instinct is often to turn away from stories of violence, loss and pain, in the case of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, people should lean in.
In particular, the B.C. government and citizens of this country should take a close look. Not only at these women, but also at themselves.
B.C. was home to serial killer Robert Pickton, who was found guilty of killing six women, but who may have murdered many more, many of whom were Indigenous. B.C. is home to the Highway of Tears, a stretch of road in Northern B.C. where several women, many of them Indigenous, have disappeared. And today, B.C. is home to an alarming over-representation of foster children who are Indigenous, an issue that has been likened to a modern-day residential school system.
And yet, when the national inquiry came to Metro Vancouver in early April, it was as though we all turned away, that it was too painful to read about, and we were too sad to witness, to listen.
I was there for one of the hearing’s five days. Most of those in attendance appeared to be either witnesses, or supporters of the witnesses or inquiry staff. There were a few reporters, but I’ve seen much larger crowds of journalists at more mundane news conferences.
At the technical briefing for media held the day before the inquiry launched, there were six reporters present. Every single one was a woman. I’m not sure I have ever been to a media event where all the reporters are women – usually more than half are men. I’m also not sure exactly what this means, but I think it says a lot about who is pushing for coverage of this story. I’m hoping it doesn’t speak to the relative priority editors put on the story of hundreds of women dying or going missing over the past several decades.
Although Indigenous women and girls make up just four per cent of the female population of Canada, nine per cent of female homicides in 1980 were Indigenous and by 2015, 24 per cent of homicide victims in Canada were Indigenous women, the commission’s interim report says. It goes on to say an Indigenous woman is 12 times more likely to be murdered or missing than any other woman in Canada.
There were more than a thousand police-recorded incidents of murders of Indigenous women between 1980 and 2012, the RCMP reported in 2014.
The inquiry was called for by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015. The inquiry’s four commissioners — Marion Buller, Michele Audette, Brian Eyolfson and Qajaq Robinson — will report on the systemic causes of violence against Indigenous women and girls.
"When little children reported abuse, they were not believed. When teenagers were on the streets, they were forced into sexual acts rather than asked if they needed help." #MMIWI #Indigenous #Women @TracySherlock
The inquiry has been beset by troubles since its 2016 launch. Another commissioner, Marilyn Poitras, resigned last July, telling the CBC she quit because the hearings were using an ineffective model with little chance of bringing about change. The commission has asked for a two-year extension to complete its work, saying it needs more time to hear from witnesses, and to do research on the criminal justice system and colonial violence. Buller told the Canadian Press that the commission has enough material to produce a report, but that it would only scratch the surface without the extension. I can’t imagine the federal government refusing the request, given what’s at stake.
Despite its challenges, the inquiry expected to hear from its thousandth witness in Vancouver. Those are a thousand stories of heart ache, loss, and pain.
Every story I listened to was interspersed with tears and extreme love expressed with emotion. The witnesses spoke of lives spent in foster care feeling unloved, teenage years spent on the streets falling into a life of drugs and sex trade work, and young adulthood spent trying to care for babies without having been cared for themselves.
Over and over, stories were told about how those in power failed to help when they could and often contributed to the pain. When women were reported missing, they were written off as drug addicts and prostitutes. When little children reported abuse, they were not believed. When teenagers were on the streets, they were forced into sexual acts rather than asked if they needed help.
These are people. Proud, dignified, loving people. We can begin by at least paying attention to their stories.
Every witness I heard was there for the future. Yes, they were there to remember their lost loved ones or their own painful childhoods, but they were also there to make sure the abuse stops happening.
“All I know is, I’m here because we have young people coming up and future generations that need to feel safe in our communities and that nothing is going to happen to them,” said Lori Davis, whose sister Carol Ruby Davis was killed in 1987.
Juanita Desjarlais told the story of nearly dying after being stabbed and beaten by a man. She believes she survived so she could make things better for her son and for future generations.
“Now it’s up to me to share that medicine, that strength, that bravery, honesty, truthfulness, and generosity, to continue walking in that way to share with our young people, our women and our men, because our ways haven’t been forgotten,” Desjarlais said.
Cynthia Cardinal, whose sister Georgina Papin was killed on Pickton’s farm, said the children of missing and murdered women should be reunited with their siblings and their families.
“Family is very important,” she said. “They need to be with a relative – they’re not going to find love in a stranger’s home.”
This should resonate with the powers that be at the Ministry of Children and Family Development in B.C. and with federal Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott. It’s a message that has been said over and over: Indigenous kids need to be cared for in their communities, with their families.
Canadians and British Columbians may want to bury their heads in the sand about missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, but that would be a big mistake. If we don’t want to be holding a similar hearing in another 25 years, the time for change is now.
Commissioner Robinson urged the same.
“We can’t ignore it anymore. We do not let this happen to our neighbours and our friends and our family. … Your truth is the truth.”
Tracy Sherlock writes about B.C. politics for the National Observer. Send tips and story ideas to [email protected]