A month ago, on December 9th, Rinelle Harper spoke before the Assembly of First Nations. This brave young survivor, eagle feather in hand, added her voice to the chorus of people throughout the country who have been calling for a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada. A month previously, two men had tried to add this 16-year-old from Garden Hill First Nation to the heart-wrenchingly-long list of Indigenous women in Canada who have been murdered or gone missing since 1980 – a list which the RCMP reported earlier this year as being 1,181 names long, and to which more names have since been added. More than one thousand, one hundred and eighty-one women and girls – gone. More than one thousand, one hundred and eighty-one women and girls who lived, laughed, rejoiced, struggled, persevered; who had talents, weaknesses, gifts to share, pasts that shaped them, futures to live – gone. More than one thousand, one hundred and eighty-one women and girls. Words fail me. I cannot convey the weight of the grief captured in this figure. The many faces, voices, and stories it represents.
The Canadian government has repeatedly refused to answer calls for a national inquiry. Not even two weeks after Rinelle Harper pushed for a more concerted effort to have the government start such an inquiry, Prime Minister Stephen Harper stated that an inquiry “isn’t really high on [the government’s] radar.” This has outraged many of us – and rightly so. But, as a non-Indigenous woman and a Canadian citizen, I am writing this as a challenge to all of us: let us not feel righteous in our outrage; let us not pat ourselves on the back for pointing fingers at the federal government. Instead, let us redirect those fingers towards ourselves, and ask ourselves what role we have to play, what we can do. The sickening, saddening, enraging rate at which Indigenous women and girls in this country face violence is alarming and unconscionable. Something must be done. A national inquiry would be but a small step in the right direction. We need to push further.
At its very root, the rate of violence against Indigenous women in this country is tied to colonial ways of relating between Canada and the Indigenous people of Turtle Island. I don’t think this is a controversial statement. Neither is it controversial to state that sexism is also at the root of this violence. The interacting forces of sexism and colonialism are killing Indigenous women and girls across this country at an alarming rate, and my tears and anger are no solution.
This violence is directly tied to Canada’s colonial history and ongoing colonial practices to which many of us are all too often blind. It is tied to our history of tearing Indigenous children away from their families and communities, placing them with White families or in institutions with the intention of stripping them of their language, culture, identity, and pride. It is tied to the childless communities left behind. It is tied to our insistent attempt to delegitimize and silence Indigenous ways of knowing and being. It is tied to the persistent underfunding of health and social services to Indigenous communities. It is tied to our delirious notion that the land of this country is here for the taking, to be exploited unreservedly. It is tied to our amnesia about our country’s own past.
Yes, a national inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women is needed. But no, this will not be enough. Yes, we should call on the federal government to fund such an inquiry. But no, we cannot be content with stopping there. What we need is a national conversation on settler-Indigenous relations, and it is up to us to start it. This will require more energy and conviction than it takes to call on the government to start a national inquiry. But the good news is that it does not require being high on Harper’s agenda to make it happen.
We have strayed so far from the right path of peace, friendship, and respect. These are the values that are supposed to guide settler-Indigenous relations. This path, laid out in early treaties and on-going agreements between Indigenous peoples and the British Crown, is perhaps best captured by the important concept of the Covenant Chain, and by the 1764 Treaty of Niagara. The vision painted by those three words – peace, friendship, respect – is so very different from the reality we live in today of structural inequality and denial of rights. We cannot wait for the powers-that-be to start this conversation. This is something that all of us, non-Indigenous and Indigenous alike, need to participate in. It is a conversation that movements such as Idle No More are helping to start. We all must join in. How can we live well together?
I urge us all, particularly those who are non-Indigenous like me, to remember that a conversation cannot be had without listening. I think we have a lot of listening, unlearning, and learning to do. We have a lot of visioning to do.
There are many ways to get started. You can become informed about current pressing issues nationwide through APTN news – either on TV, on their website, or on Twitter (@APTNnews). Keep an eye on public lectures by leading indigenous thinkers at your local university – there may even be a listerv you can sign up for that will send you information on such events. Take advantage of Twitter – you can follow Idle No More, Indigenous scholars, Indigenous activists, and Indigenous politicians. Embrace the diversity of views and start engaging critically with the conversations already happening. Push your comfort zone; be curious, humble, and respectful. You can turn to good old-fashioned books (authors to check out might include Marie Battiste, J.R. Miller, John Borrows, Taiaike Alfred, Michael Hart, John S. Milloy, James (Sákéj) Youngblood Henderson, to name but a few). You might even decide to organize an educational event in your community – many teach-ins were held a couple of years ago with the start of the Idle No More movement. There are so many ways to get involved in this important conversation about establishing and maintaining right relations.
In this national conversation, the voices of Elders and of those who have been most silenced should be given priority. Indigenous women and girls like Rinelle Harper should be given room to speak, not just as victims and survivors of sexualized colonial violence, but as women and girls with a vision of what the right way of relating is. “Love, kindness, respect, and forgiveness.” Those are the words Rinelle Harper asked the AFN gathering to remember a month ago.
Love, kindness, respect, forgiveness. Peace, friendship, respect. We need to revive this conversation and ensure it is no longer side-lined. It is up to us to join, with open heart and open ears, this crucial conversation.