Struggle for Justice - Missing and Murdered Sisters across Canadian Region of Turtle Island
FRIDAY FILE - Not so long ago few people knew of the issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (#MMIW) in Canada. But in a short span, No More Silence, Families of Sisters in Spirit, Native Youth Sexual Health Network (NYSHN) and other initiatives have contributed to building such momentum that the crisis of MMIW has finally entered mainstream media and public consciousness. AWID spoke with Audrey Huntley, a founding member of No More Silence, about some of the strategies driven by Indigenous WHRDs.
By Saira Zuberi
The efforts of Indigenous WHRDs, allies, and affected families not only seek to document, raise awareness and pressure the state to end impunity and violence, but also work to highlight the human stories behind the statistics and headlines; as well as mobilize communities through tradition, ceremony, art and other means; to show solidarity, support healing and engage in collaborative work to demand and defend rights. Thanks to such efforts, the issue of structural violence against Indigenous communities (specifically targeting Indigenous women) has gained attention across Turtle Island
The incredibly high and disproportionate rates of violence faced by Indigenous women, that have been documented, are likely just the tip of the iceberg, given the context of state violence and impunity, and the resulting lack of trust in the institutions of the settler state on the part of Indigenous communities. According to the state’s own research, Indigenous women are 4.3% of the female population, but represent 16% of female homicide victims over a 30-year span, and the rate appears to be rising. The report reviews 1,181 cases of MMIW, although an accurate figure cannot be determined, activists are working toward highlighting the extent of the crisis of MMIW through documenting cases through living memory and other means.
Audrey Huntley, documentary filmmaker and WHRD of European and Indigenous ancestry, was aware of the issue of MMIW. She lived in the city of Vancouver’s Downtown East Side in the late 1990s, “when women were being taken from the neighbourhood and were ending up on [serial killer] Robert Pickton’s farm; I was living in the neighbourhood when women were disappearing and the missing posters were going up all around us.”
Need for community-led initiatives
Huntley has long perceived how accounts of suspicious deaths are not properly investigated, and other forms of inaction and mishandling of investigations also contribute to perpetuating the crisis. Aspects of victims’ lives are often used to undermine their worthiness as subjects of investigation.
A recent effort by No More Silence, Families of Sisters in Spirit
No More Silence is working to spread the methodology of a community-led database to other provinces, as well as joining other initiatives that have arisen independently in different provinces to track MMIW; not only to quantify for advocacy purposes, but also to collaborate on family-led and community-led processes to commemorate, heal, build solidarity and work on self-organized responses to address the systemic violence. Sensitivity to the human needs of surviving family members has led to the process of building up tributes to the missing and murdered women alongside the database
Remembering, honouring, healing
Huntley emphasizes that the broader effort of commemorating MMIWs and of taking control of the narrative also involves family members and their allies, writing, covering the stories of lost loved ones in ways that are more respectful than mainstream media coverage
The painful work of gathering and documenting the stories can also take a heavy toll. Huntley herself became very ill during a period of concentrated data entry in December 2013, highlighting the need for self-care in the face of the vicarious trauma experienced by WHRDs driving this work. Strategies to address the problem are now being developed by sharing the data-entry work with non-Indigenous allies less personally affected by both vicarious trauma and the resurgence of individual traumas that usually go back through generations. The pairing-up to do data entry, both guards against errors and provides support whilst dealing with such painful stories. At the same time, respect for the needs of the families and the importance of Indigenous knowledge, traditions and cultural practices, mean that the direct work of speaking with families, which No More Silence always combines with ceremony, remains with Indigenous activists themselves.
Multi-pronged and innovative approaches
It is the multi-pronged approach that engages custom and tradition, led by community elders, as well as the experiences and knowledge of the families of MMIWs, to build up community and solidarity responses from the grassroots, that makes the actions led by No More Silence stand out. These groups have engaged in a variety of approaches; for instance, since 2006, No More Silence collaborate to hold an annual Strawberry Ceremony, every February 14
Efforts to take control of the narrative and engage in awareness-raising and healing by Indigenous artists and families of MMIW have also included a plethora of arts-based responses, which Indigenous WHRDs across the country have participated in. One highly successful example is the Walking with Our Sisters commemorative art installation and memorial, touring 25 locations and booked into 2018. It ends in Batoche Saskatchewan in 2019, NYSHN is a community partner on WWOS and is supporting youth resurgence and Two Spirit involvement.
The experiences of and strategies driven by Indigenous WHRDs and the families of the MMIW have shown that these grassroots efforts are critical for healing, and for Indigenous communities to center their actions around their own need for grieving, support and closure, including the need for self-defence; and how communities can work together to support themselves. The awareness-raising work and advocacy through international and regional mechanisms is, of course, also critical; and the efforts of allies and other groups to pressure the Canadian state to live up to its obligations all combine to try to build an environment where impunity will become less and less possible. The number of terrible deaths of Indigenous women this summer, with the Harper government insisting that these are 'criminal issues' and not social ones, highlights the relevance and importance of the work being done by activists to fight that notion, and insist on broader examinations to address and redress what is and has been going on for centuries. In the meantime, as critical momentum grows due to collective efforts by Indigenous WHRDs and communities and their allies, the epidemic of violence shows no sign of abating.
Thank you to Jamaias DaCosta (journalist with CIUT Radio and Muskrat Magazine), Shelagh Day (FAFIA), Lara Koerner Yeo (researcher) and Krysta Williams (NYSHN), for their time and inputs into this Friday File.
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