Monday was Thanksgiving here in Canada, as I'm sure your bellies can recall. In the U.S. it was Columbus Day--something many people would like to see changed, as it turns out Columbus was kind of a big jerk. He's been accused of tyranny, terrorism and genocide. And, as often happens with big jerks in history, he went on to be painted quite favourably by settlers in the continent he claimed.
Columbus's attitude towards native peoples in the lands he conquered was a common one, and it had profound repercussions that continued far beyond the colonial era. It's well-known that the government of Canada has a shameful track record when it comes to ensuring that the needs of its indigenous groups are met. This leads me to my focus this week: Aboriginal women in Canada.
The first Sunday of this month saw vigils being held nationwide under the Native Women’s Association of Canada initiative, Sisters In Spirit. Sisters In Spirit fights to have the government recognize the hundreds of cases of murdered or missing Aboriginal Canadian women that have occurred since the 1960s. Sisters In Spirit conducts research in an attempt to understand not only why and how so many women are disappearing or being killed, but how the justice system reacts to these occurrences and what needs to change about that.
You can probably deduce through your own observation that things aren't looking good for you if you're an Aboriginal girl who disappears.
I recall when I first saw posters around campus announcing the disappearance of Maisy Odjick and Shannon Alexander, of nearby Maniwaki. Photos of their youthful, grinning faces illustrated each name. Their height, weight and hair colour were neatly listed. And there was hope. Not much time had passed. The two girls are clearly cared about--posters were everywhere. The voices of family members pleaded over the radio waves.
It's now been 405 days since Maisy and Shannon were last seen. That's 405 days of confusion, fear and gut-wrenching anxiety for their families to endure. The hope is growing stale. And what has troubled me most about the case is the lack of police presence. The lack of any presence outside the Native community, really. Where are the professionals? Where are the people paid to solve this sort of thing? I can distinctly recall cases of non-Aboriginal women who have disappeared. I recall their names. I recall the frenzy. The way hordes strangers were at the ready to help. The way police issued near-daily statements, if only to say they hadn't found much, but they were still looking. What about Maisy and Shannon?
A lot of people seem to be asking that. "What about us?" is a strong theme in the Aboriginal community. "What about us?" was the question put forth by every installment of this month's Sisters In Spirit vigil. And what about them? What can we possibly do? It's too late for the murdered women, and arguably too late for many of those missing.
We need to re-examine our priorities. That much I know for certain. We need to recognize the value and rights of every Aboriginal citizen. It does not matter if they are mentally ill, or driven by social and environmental factors to sex work and drug abuse. We need to ensure that the law and justice system treat them as being every bit a priority as the white, middle-class girls who spark media hurricanes when they're late for dinner. And we need to structure this country accordingly.
In 2009, we told the UN that "Canada commits to identifying the causes of violence against Aboriginal women and developing appropriate responses in consultation with Aboriginal and civil society organizations." You and I need to hold our government to this commitment. So write to Harper. Write to your local newspaper. Tell them that the current state of affairs simply won't do.
You can read more about the issues at these links:
[The content on these pages may include graphic accounts of physical or sexual violence]
- Voices of Our Sisters in Spirit: Read about individual women and girls who have gone missing or become victims of violence.
- Amnesty International - Stolen Sisters: Includes wonderfully insightful and detailed reports on the national issue that is violence against Aboriginal women.
- Excerpt from Stolen Sisters documentary