Canada’s National Observer spoke with Lorelei Williams, an advocate for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) and their families, ahead of the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

Williams is an Interior Salish/Coast Salish woman from Skatin Nations/Sts’Ailes, Vancouver, B.C. She started a dance group called Butterflies in Spirit to empower Indigenous women in her community and spread images of her aunt Belinda Williams who went missing in 1978, and to honour her cousin Tonya Holyk, who was a victim of Robert Pickton in 1996. The group dances wearing shirts with photographs of their missing and murdered loved ones and has performed across Canada, in Colombia, and in Mexico.

She used to be the women's co-ordinator at the Vancouver Aboriginal Community Policing Centre and volunteers for the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Coalition in Vancouver.

(This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.)

What does the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation mean to you?

To me, it's like some of the world is actually seeing the truth. When I speak internationally, I've always gotten the same responses back, they've always said they thought Canada was perfect. When I would speak about the residential schools and what they did to us, everybody would always be like, “Why did they target the children?” Like they were so shocked to hear that. It's hard to say this, you know, it took those children's bodies, it took those children being found, for a small part of Canada to be woken up and a small part of the world to be woken up about the genocide against our people. Finally, people are understanding. Finally, they are realizing this. Finally, they're hearing the truth. But there's a lot of racist people out there who are not accepting this. They still believe that there's no genocide, there was no genocide against our people.

As Sept. 30 approaches, what emotions are you feeling, or do you expect to feel on that day?

I honestly don't know because sometimes I feel like I can be strong, but the emotions just overtake me. When I first found out (about the unmarked graves in Kamloops, B.C.), I actually went up to Kamloops right away, and you could feel it. Whenever you go to any residential school across Canada — I’ve only been to two: my parents’ residential school and Kamloops — it's just such a cold, eerie feeling. You just automatically feel it right away as soon as you step onto the ground, and especially when you go inside the schools. I used to go to my parents' residential school. They used to have gatherings at the school for other things, and even as a kid, if I wandered by myself or with other children, there was always a weird feeling there for me.

So, when I went to Kamloops after finding out about the children's graves, I felt that feeling. The first time I went to the memorial, I just kind of stayed in the background, and when they put the shoes at the memorial at the (Vancouver) Art Gallery, I was OK. But I went back a week later, and I thought, “I'll be OK to go.” … As soon as I went up ... I was by myself (and) there was a huge difference, and it was uncontrollable, my tears just wouldn't stop coming out. I have two kids and I explained to them, “We are so lucky to be here right now. We're so lucky to be here and alive.” All those children didn't make it. They didn't get to have children.

#MMIWG advocate @loreleiBIS604 speaks about the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation and what must be done by governments and individuals. "The government has to acknowledge that there was a genocide against our people." #OrangeShirtDay

In light of the over 1,000 unmarked graves that have been confirmed this summer, what action needs to be taken immediately, either by individuals or the government?

It's actually over 6,000 now that I know of so far. That's the number that's circulating now. It's going to be more, for sure, because it's not just here in Canada, it's down in the U.S., as well. I'm just waiting for my mom and dad's school.

With the government, first of all, everybody in the government has to acknowledge that there was a genocide against our people. I noticed some politicians out there who are saying there's no genocide, or they're saying things like, “Oh, the schools were good for the children.” It's like, no. I know one person, they were able to go through the residential school without anything happening to them. But the majority of them were either raped, molested, starved, used for medical experiments, hit, beaten — my mom being one of them.

There are so many people across this country who really don't believe that there was a genocide against our people. They really don't believe that these things happened to the children, especially when leaders, politicians are saying things like this. They're downplaying it. They're going against it. People listen to those (leaders and politicians), especially racist people, they will feed off that.

There's so much systemic racism, especially in the child welfare system. It hurts me to say this, but when the children were in the residential schools — an elder said this — they had each other, whereas now, Indigenous children are being split up into foster care homes with non-Indigenous people. They're being separated from each other, and they don't have each other in these homes. The other part of it is, there (are) so many white foster care parents who are only doing this to get money. They're the ones who don't care about when the children turn 18 ... they just kick them out, they throw them out, they tell them, you're on your own, and we can't have those kinds of people taking on our children. This is a huge problem in the system right now, and it's because the government's policies are supporting that. They could use the money to support the family, they could use the money to actually get to the root causes of the trauma that the government caused us. But they don't do that.

What meaningful action should settler Canadians be taking on Sept. 30 and beyond?

First of all, go to the events that are happening across the country. I know there's one in Vancouver, and, actually, we're involved with it as well, (Butterflies in Spirit) will be performing at the Vancouver Art Gallery at noon. Buy orange shirts from Indigenous companies, from Indigenous people. A lot of people are making a profit off of this by stealing Indigenous people's designs. It’s so horrible. So, look to the events that are happening that day. Definitely don't take up any space. The space is for the survivors and intergenerational survivors, their children.

I definitely noticed a lot of non-Indigenous people are hearing, they're supporting. Like, I've gone to get my nails done and people were talking about it. Also, everybody has their own gifts, everybody has their own expertise in something. Right now, our Indigenous people need whatever supports they can get. A lot of our elders are emotional, they're sad. Maybe they could offer their expertise in certain things like with media (for) the survivors, and people who want to speak, who want to have a voice. Sometimes that's healing to them ... just to be able to speak about it, but it has to be done in a safe way. I've seen survivors speak about what happened to them for the first time, and they've collapsed. So it's got to be in a safe way. Give them the space and time that they need.

So this is just a few things, like instead of offering me food, give it to whoever you know who's a survivor, offer them something. Maybe they need a ride to the events, maybe they need a ride to get something to eat. That day is going to be really hard for people across the country, so any little thing, maybe they need something from the store. Everybody across the country needs to know that emotions are going to be high that day and to actually acknowledge it and honour that day.

Is there a message you would like to convey to every Canadian?

Read this book called Suffer the Little Children by Tamara Starblanket. You'll really learn about the genocide against our people from that book because she proves the crime of genocide legally. When (people) try to go against me about the genocide against our people, I'm like, go read this book and then we'll have a conversation. You can't go against this book.

Natasha Bulowski / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer