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The inquiry on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls has spoken. Is Canada ready to listen?

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Click here to view original web page at The inquiry on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls has spoken. Is Canada ready to listen?

In early May, Marion Buller, chief commissioner of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, sat before a Senate committee on wide-ranging justice reforms and gave them a blast in the measured, logical way that Marion Buller does. Buller had just finished presiding over an […]


Ashley Callingbull, model, actress, activist, Mrs. Universe 2015. Photographed in Edmonton. A series of images of families, survivors and supporters, produced by Eagle Vision, is designed to inspire Canadians to “stand together and help create a strong foundation for healing, justice and reconciliation.” It’s part of a new public campaign by the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

In early May, Marion Buller, chief commissioner of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, sat before a Senate committee on wide-ranging justice reforms and gave them a blast in the measured, logical way that Marion Buller does.

Buller had just finished presiding over an inquiry that spent nearly three years on the road, listening to 1,484 MMIWG families and survivors speak their truths over the loss of our sisters, our aunties, our grandmothers and our friends.

In too many instances, the disappearances and deaths of First Nations, Inuit and Métis women have been overlooked or misclassified by authorities who have neglected to properly investigate.

For decades in this country, it is as if our women were less than.

When Buller sat before the committee reviewing Bill C-75, an omnibus bill containing many justice and criminal reforms, she was stunned to hear that the reforms had not been viewed through an Indigenous woman’s lens.

That lack of oversight was a telling omission.

Rinelle Harper, survivor, advocate. Photographed in Winnipeg.

Indigenous women are statistically more likely to experience violence than most everyone else: our women are 12 times more likely to be subjected to violence than non-Indigenous women. And according to Statistics Canada’s Homicide in Canada Report, in 2017 the homicide rate for Indigenous women was six times greater than for non-Indigenous females.

“When I think about the number of Indigenous people who are affected by the Criminal Code and potential amendments to the code, I am still kind of surprised that the review through that lens was not done,” she said in an interview.

“What will come out in our final report is the issue of substantive equity. Equal treatment doesn’t necessarily make it fair and we want fair treatment.”

Buller told the Senate that every single time an Indigenous woman is killed in Canada, the charge should automatically be upgraded to first-degree murder, just as it is when someone kills a police officer.

And every time a crime is committed against an Indigenous woman, when the judge is sentencing the offender, they must take her Indigenous identity into account.

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Equity is important and for too long, that basic principle of a just society has not extended to Indigenous women who have not experienced equity in dealing with federal bureaucratic institutions, in law or education, in health and child welfare, and in some cases, in our own families and communities.

Speaking up, elevating the position and lives of Indigenous women and girls in this country is at the very heart of what the inquiry set out to do: show that our women are valued and they are loved and that we will be Idle No More when it comes to their losses.

Elisapie Isaac, Inuk singer/songwriter, mother, filmmaker, producer. Photographed in Montreal.

On Monday in Gatineau, the inquiry will release its long-awaited final report.

The crushing loss of First Nations, Métis and Inuit women and girls is yet another example of the genocide Indigenous people have experienced in Canada. The term genocide was also used by Truth and Reconciliation Commission Chair Murray Sinclair to describe the crimes of colonialism and the onslaught of intergenerational trauma experienced by the children and grandchildren of survivors of Indian Residential Schools.

In the national inquiry’s final report, obtained by Star Vancouver, the commissioners refer to a “Canadian genocide.” “Genocide is the sum of the social practices, assumptions and actions detailed within this report,” reads the executive summary. The report, which has more than 200 recommendations, describes how “colonialist structures” have enabled the murders and disappearances of Indigenous women.

For the last several weeks, a digital social media campaign using striking images by renowned Anishinaabe photographer Nadya Kwandibens, has built up anticipation, reminding us all of the power and presence of Indigenous women.

The inquiry heard truths from a total of 2,386 families, knowledge keepers, artists, experts and survivors.

On June 13, 2018, I had the honour, along with broadcaster Jesse Wente, of being an expert witness at the inquiry when it stopped in Toronto. Our panel discussed racism in the media and broader Canadian culture.

Marlene Jack, sister of Doreen Jack, missing since 1989. Photographed in Vancouver.

We spoke of how our women and Indigenous people have been portrayed in film, literature and in all mass media and news sources. Among other things, Wente spoke of the damage of popular culture’s Noble Savage myth and I, of the Seven Fallen Feathers, the seven First Nations students who died in Thunder Bay between 2000 and 2011. The families of the seven have had similar experiences to MMIWG families with respect to law enforcement, including a lack of response by police.

It was a humbling experience to walk into the ballroom of the Chelsea Hotel, and to see the long, full tables to make room for the 100 parties with standing who travelled from coast to coast to coast. The lengthy tables were separated by a couple dozen chairs that were given a place of honour for the MMIWG families and survivors. A sacred fire burned near where the four commissioners and Elders sat, to remind everyone of those who weren’t with us.

Before we spoke, I got a big hug from Laurie Odjick. Laurie, from Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation near Maniwaki, Que., is the mother of Maisy Odjick, 16, who, along with Shannon Alexander, 17, disappeared in September 2008. I wrote about Maisy and Shannon in early 2012. Laurie told me how police had bungled the case from the start, how they had treated their disappearance as if they were runaways.

Sarah Birmingham, mother of Mary Ann Birmingham, killed in 1986. Photographed in Iqaluit, Nunavut.

I received another hug from Maggie Cywink, whose sister Sonya was found outside London, Ont., at the Southwold Earthworks, a national historic site, on Aug. 30, 1994. She was last seen on Aug. 26, 1994, in London, and her murder remains unsolved.

Maggie has been a constant source of knowledge to families all over Ontario. She funnelled her grief and power into being a special adviser in the creation of family liaison units in the province. The units act as support services and a bridge for MMIWG families and survivors to police, child welfare, social services and to the coroner’s office.

The inquiry said it was the first in Canada to be truly national in scope, encompassing federal, provincial and territorial legal jurisdictions. The mandate, from the start, was huge, and fear prevailed that there was never enough time to get it all done. It included a review of policing, justice systems and social services — the inquiry itself notes — “each of which could be the subject of its own inquiry.”

Sharon Johnson, sister of Sandra Johnson, killed in 1992. Photographed in Thunder Bay.

And how to cover everything needed, in a culturally appropriate and sensitive manner mindful of Indigenous protocols, became a focus of much scrutiny and debate. No one wanted to get this wrong. After years of work by the Native Women’s Association of Canada — which was often the lone voice, besides the families, trying to call national attention to the tragedy — women raised their voices of concern because they didn’t want to fail their loved ones and the next generations.

Buller knows there is much hope and many expectations resting on the commission’s findings.

But it will take a nation to change what our women experience now.

Often, it feels as though Canada is taking two steps forward, then 10 backward when it comes to the rights of Indigenous women and girls.

In the last month, we have seen both progress in the highest court of the land with respect to protecting our women, and then we have seen the opposite, after an RCMP officer interrogated a teenage rape victim.

On May 24, the Supreme Court of Canada ordered long-haul trucker Bradley Barton to be retried in the death of Cindy Gladue, a young Cree mother who was viciously assaulted with a knife before she bled to death in a bathtub.

In its decision, the Supreme Court said what the original trial judge did not: that Gladue was a loved and valued member of society that deserved to be treated fairly under the law, by the police and in the courts.

Gladue was not valued or treated equally or with respect in that first trial. Gladue’s sexual history and profession as a sex worker was constantly brought up and she was also referred to as a “Native” 26 times and as a “prostitute” 25 times. Barton’s defence at the trial alleged that Gladue liked rough sex but few believed she would have asked for an 11-centimetre knife blade to be used in her vagina. In a shocking, horrific move by lawyers during the trial, her preserved vagina was actually brought forward as evidence.

In what court, anywhere, is an individual’s body part — not to mention private body part — preserved and then brought out to display?

However, even the Supreme Court’s steps forward weren’t its best.

Susan Aglukark, Inuk singer/songwriter, keynote Speaker, activist and role model. Photographed in Vancouver.

Instead of ordering Barton to face trial again on the original charge of first-degree murder, the court said he’d be tried for manslaughter instead.

Our women, survivors and families have constantly asked for more respect in the court system and from law officials. We’ve asked for Indigenous knowledge and teachings to be brought to the courtroom, and we’ve demanded to participate in juries that routinely leave First Nations, Métis and Inuit people out.

We have consistently asked for equity and justice.

This brings us to our giant leaps backward.

On May 13, Aboriginal Peoples Television Network ran a story on how an RCMP officer in Kelowna interrogated a teenage girl who was in state care and said she was sexually assaulted by an acquaintance.

The officer, in video obtained by APTN, asked the girl is she was in any way aroused by the assault. “Were you turned on by this at all?” the officer asked in the two-hour long interrogation, one in which she was routinely left alone and without caring adult support.

He also said this, “Go over again with me, how did you try and get him to stop,” he said, reported APTN, “Did you scream ‘no,’ did you say ‘get off me,’ did you say ‘this was rape? I need you to stop?’ ”

Buller is well aware of the case. “That is a classic example of inter-partner violence that isn’t taken seriously, that isn’t investigated. Those clips, I think, showed all of Canada, or I hope it did, what Indigenous women and girls — and non-Indigenous women and girls — have been saying for generations, ‘Look, we aren’t taken seriously and we are further traumatized by the police investigation,’ ” said Buller.

The clips spoke volumes.

“It is unfortunate she had to do that in order for her and for other Indigenous women and girls to be heard.”

Vanessa Brooks, sister of Tanya Brooks, killed in 2009. Photographed in Halifax.

Canada still has a lot of listening to do.

As for what happens after the report is released, Buller said it will be up to governments to offer official responses, and to accept or reject their recommendations.

She does not think the inquiry will amount to another report collecting dust. There are too many families, too many advocates to let that happen.

Internationally, the inquiry is also getting attention from Central America, the United States and the United Nations.

There is no time to stop and catch our breath, said Buller. “We have to keep going.”

The MMIWG families and survivors are rewriting Canadian history, exposing the truths of lives of Indigenous women and girls.

“You can’t unhear that truth now, thanks to them and their courage for coming forward,” she said.

Let’s hope all of Canada is listening.

Tanya Talaga is a Toronto-based columnist covering Indigenous issues. Follow her on Twitter: @tanyatalaga

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