“You’d be hard-pressed to find an Indigenous person who hasn’t experienced that kind of loss and that kind of grief. We all know someone who has been murdered. We all know someone who has been removed from their family, we all know someone who’s displaying all kinds of trauma as a result of Indian residential schools and the child welfare system,” said Myrna McCallum, lawyer and “product of the Sixties Scoop” who has made it her life’s work to serve disenfranchised and disadvantaged Indigenous peoples and communities.
What she says is backed up by stark statistics.
Despite being only four per cent of the female population in Canada, Indigenous women make up nearly a quarter of homicide victims. Indigenous women are three times more likely to be physically assaulted, sexually assaulted or robbed than non-Indigenous women, and are vastly overrepresented in prisons.
But these numbers don’t indicate an issue pertaining solely to Canada’s Indigenous population. Rather, according to the reports on Canada’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG), it is widely concluded that the systemic nature of violence against Indigenous peoples is inherent in a colonial relationship with the Canadian state.
The National Inquiry into MMIWG has said it will build upon the common conclusions of the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry (AJI), the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP), and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC): “that violence against Indigenous Peoples… is rooted in colonization. For the violence against Indigenous women and girls to end, the ongoing colonial relationship that facilitates it must end.”
According to the AJI report, unresponsiveness by police and justice systems enable violence against Indigenous women. RCAP, found that a “combination of racism and sexism” in Canada are among the most damaging attitudes resulting in the stereotyping and devaluing of Aboriginal women. The TRC’s legacy volume highlights Canada’s “sweeping history” of violence against Indigenous women and girls, as deeply entrenched consequence of colonization. All three reports came to the conclusion that the solution must be Indigenous led, and requires “transformational change to the core relationship between Canada and Indigenous peoples.”
Root causes of violence
“When we look at Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, nobody needs to really do a lot of intensive research to find out what are the root causes of that kind of victimization and vulnerability because we know,” McCallum told National Observer.
The MMIWG interim report acknowledges that “no understanding of violence against Indigenous women and girls, including LGBTQ2S people can be understood without grounding it firmly within Canadian colonialism.”
The report condenses the findings of hundreds of other reports, concluding that many agree that the discrimination under the Indian Act and other Canadian laws, as well as the Sixties Scoop “have all contributed to Indigenous communities’ loss of traditional knowledge, profound intergenerational trauma, and violence.”
"We are not the other, consider us your relations and your relatives when you look at us and hear our stories. Sit with us like you would sit with your parents, your siblings, and your grandparents. I think it will begin there." #MMIWG
McCallum explained that Canada’s colonial legacy touches on everything, from the overrepresentation of Indigenous peoples in jail, to the disparity of MMIWG compared to any other ethnicity, “because there’s been a breakdown in family structure, there’s been a breakdown in community structure.”
The result of this institutionalized breakdown in community structure is tangible inequality.
Indigenous women are 16 times more likely than Caucasian women to be murdered or missing in Canada, a fact that is perpetrated by systemic inaction in fields of justice. This sentiment was echoed by the emotional testimony of Trudy Rose Mary Smith, a survivor who spoke to the National Inquiry in Richmond last week about her sister Pauline, who was brutally murdered in 1985.
“When it’s a Caucasian [woman] they are all over the news. What happened to me and my sister, it’s like we were invisible. All of the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls are invisible.” As one survivor, Bonnie Fowler said, the experience of reporting her missing sister to the police felt to her like 'reporting a missing wallet' — she felt authorities weren't concerned at all for her sister's safe return.
Canada’s National Inquiry is a start
“We are also leading the way. Nowhere else in the world is an inquiry being done, nowhere else is even acknowledging their murdered and missing Indigenous woman, that the genocide is real and still happening,” said Audrey Siegl, Musqueam travelling medicine woman for the Commissioners, Staff, and families at the National Inquiry for MMIWG.
Though she remains critical that the Inquiry does not go far enough to listen to Indigenous voices, McCallum recognized its importance. “As Lorelei Williams has recently said in the media, lives are depending on this, so despite my skepticism, I hope that they achieve something that will ultimately serve to protect Indigenous lives,” she said.
Last month, the Commissioners asked the federal government for a two-year extension. The Inquiry concluded its hearings this week after hearing from its 1000th testifier, in a two-year long process.
How to be an ally
From lawyers to medicine-women to survivors, the consensus is clear. The first step towards creating solutions is to listen.
“Indigenous people have the solutions to these problems. From Health, Status of Women, Child Welfare, to the Justice System, there are so many different departments, where if they sat down and listened to Indigenous people instead of taking a paternalistic approach, they would know that we have the solutions to the problems that are impacting us and ultimately killing us,” said McCallum.
The same sentiment echoed throughout National Inquiry testimonies. “I just want all our voices to be heard, we have the right to be heard about what happened to us and what happened to all the missing and murdered,” testified Smith.
When asked what all Canadians can do to start a dialogue in their fields of work, and to become allies with Indigenous peoples to begin decolonizing institutional structures, McCallum offered a decisive first step.
“Open your hearts and open your minds, and listen to the stories of Indigenous people," she said. "We are not the other, consider us your relations and your relatives when you look at us and hear our stories. Sit with us like you would sit with your parents, your siblings, and your grandparents. I think it will begin there."
Watch Audrey Siegl's full interview with National Observer here: