On 25 August Robyn Lawson posted on Twitter that three women in her family had disappeared in Canada in the last three years. Robyn is Indigenous, one of about 1.6 million Indigenous people in Canada (5% of the population).
In June, the report of a national inquiry found:
“First Nations, Inuit, and Métis women and girls and (LGBTQI) people in Canada … have been the targets of violence for far too long. This truth is undeniable … (and) amounts to a race-based genocide of Indigenous Peoples, including First Nations, Inuit, and Métis, which especially targets women.”
I have read much over the years about the experiences of Indigenous People living in Canada (and written about some of them in this blog and beyond). But Robyn’s tweet hit me hard — it’s difficult to imagine three people disappearing from my family.
I wrote and asked Robyn, who is an activist for Indigenous people’s rights, to describe those incidents and the broader context of the lives of Indigenous women and girls in Canada. Her powerful, authoritative answers, lightly edited by me, are below.
Can you tell me about the 3 women in your family that you Tweeted about — they all went missing in the last 3 years?
There were actually four that went missing within my family, all cousins. The fourth went missing in 1988 from a Cultus Lake campground in British Columbia (province) after she accepted a ride that was to take her home to Surrey, BC. She has never been found. Her name is Roberta Ferguson, and she was 19 years old at the time she was taken.
One went missing 3 years ago, and the other was last year (2018) from Grande Prairie, Alberta. Both were especially vulnerable with addiction issues. The one from 2016 was found about 2 months after by friends, in pretty rough shape, but she has recovered since. The other came home on her own 6 months after being reported missing.
Neither want to discuss the details of their ordeals publicly, but I’d like to stress that these women represent many of our community members, who have already been traumatized into addictions, which puts them further at risk for abuses and in particular, human trafficking.
The latest missing as of 3 July 2019 is Shae-Lynn McAllister, 20 years old. Her mother is adamant she would not simply disappear without a word to family or friends, nor abandon her babies. Shae-Lynn’s mother, Trudy McAllister, posted online on 18 August: “My daughter is my life, and those cute grand babies too. I hurt for my girl but mostly I hurt for my grandchildren without their mommy!!”.
Have any of them been found? Three individuals is a huge loss for one family — how are you and your relatives coping with it?
It’s very difficult to describe the mix of heartbreak and disbelief; the repeated dives into the pool beyond surreal, and yet it’s all common enough to be a constant fear. While it may be hard to process, we are hardly a unique family within this issue. We know the statistics. We know why we’re so vulnerable. We do what our relatives have been doing for 150 years: we breathe, we chase comfort, we speak out to demand change. We just do our best to cope for another day.
How have the police and other authorities responded to these incidents?
It’s got better over the years, at least in terms of initial response. There’s a willingness to take details down and put out a public notice now sooner, but we don’t know how to really gauge the degree of attention their cases get. The statistics don’t bear out the same levels of successes as for other demographics, hence the Inquiry (the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls — more info. below).
Let’s face it, one of the very real consequences of becoming Canada’s least important demographic, is that abusers, users and killers are well aware of the convenience of that for them. That history began with Canada’s Indian Act, which worked to immediately reduce the value of Indigenous women within our own communities, as well as confirming it for colonialist Canada to this very day.
I think there is a fairly common belief among many Canadians that Indigenous women and girls go missing because they live ‘vulnerable’ lifestyles. Can you comment on that?
Yes, that’s a statement made often, and usually in reply to stories that report missing or murdered Indigenous women. That’s quickly followed up with the assertion the culprits are Indigenous men, so… Many Canadians prefer these more convenient narratives — that the victims are ultimately responsible for their own injury, abuses or demise. It’s easier to live with that idea in order to not only justify the reduced funding and efforts in protection and law enforcement, but to look past the reasons for why such a ‘lifestyle’ even began for some Indigenous women. Which is that, all of this is the damage of colonialism practices over generations.
These are the consequences of unchecked poverty and abuses with little to no resources being applied to the communities for restorative healing and growth. We are
occasionally thrown a grossly low amount of money and told to go heal ourselves.
In June the report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) was released. Among other things it said “state actions and inactions rooted in colonialism and colonial ideologies” were responsible for the epidemic of violence against Indigenous girls and women. Do you think this explains what happened to your relatives?
From birth, Indigenous women are subjected to the highest rates of poverty, lack of education, lack of social supports, abuses within community and outside of it, and are most likely to have their children taken by the state. We are the most vulnerable to heinous crimes from human trafficking to serial killers and all of this is absolutely caused by government policy, still enforced in the name of the still in place Indian Act of 1876. There is a federal government department of over 4,500 employees dedicated to this paternalistic application of orders and demands for compliance or we won’t receive the funding that comes from our own lands and resources.
It’s a constant dance of the carrot and stick approach, which is a grotesque technique for holding power. It’s a power that affects an entire culture psychologically and in the day-to-day needs of life.
The Indian Act and its creators actively created an agenda to dehumanize the Indigenous as much as possible. They threw us into fenced-off cages they called reserves, they killed off our food systems, and literally made nearly every aspect of our lives illegal — spiritual beliefs and practices, social events, farming and commerce — and then blocked any and all avenues for recourse. Not even death was an escape from this oppression: we were required to submit any wills for approval.
Then our education was as intensely anti-Indigenous as it was for the Canadians. We were all taught the Indigenous were essentially wastes of human beings who are dependent on the ‘largesse of the Canadian people’. The entirety of these teachings and policies are meant to break down an entire culture, and it very nearly did. We’re still fighting to come out from all of this and we are, thankfully making greater inroads now.
Other reports, from human rights groups and the United Nations have condemned Canada for its treatment of Indigenous women and Indigenous people in general. Do you think these reports are having an impact?
While many more Canadians are now aware of the truth of what their own country’s foundation is really built upon, it’s safe to say that most remain oblivious. Most remain unaware of the details and calls to action of the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Report, which detailed in heartbreaking and horrific specifics the suffering of Indigenous children forcibly taken from their families to attend Canadian ‘civilizing’ schools, and of the MMIWG report, which detailed the evidence of genocidal policies in practice.
If one were to state that the majority of Canadians do know of these report details, then one would have to conclude the majority take little interest or care. In 2019 Canada continues to ignore its own Human Rights Tribunal rulings, seven of them, to cease its funding discrimination toward Indigenous children. I’ve had conversations with people who state to me upfront that they are our allies, but when it comes to their political parties, they will always vote for what makes their own lives easier even as it costs us ours. It doesn’t get more stark and real than that.
Canadian governments, including the current Trudeau government, routinely pledge to improve the relationship with Indigenous people but that never seems to happen. Why do you think that is? Why is there so much recognition of the ill treatment of Indigenous people but so little improvement?
In order for a Canadian political party to do right by the Indigenous, they would essentially have to renounce the Canadian foundation — which is a corporation run by the country’s wealthiest, particularly in resources extraction. It is those wealthy who stand to lose most if Indigenous land titles and treaty rights are fully upheld.
The only antidote to that, that I can see, is a majority of Canadians standing up to them and demanding their political party leadership do what’s right. The reality is, we can’t get the majority of Canadians aware of any issue enough to participate fully in any election as it is.
Even if a majority did step up, would they still be willing to pay the price of having to give up their stronghold over the country? Would they be willing to fork over the portions of Indigenous funds that subsidize their lives so richly today? Would they fight to keep the lands that belong to the Indigenous but are currently called “crown lands’? Would they be willing to share the leadership if that leadership is also Indigenous?
These are all the issues that are really the basis of what’s behind the same cycle played out over the last 15 decades.
What will it take to end what the MMIWG report called “genocide” against Indigenous women and girls?
For a start, it would take re-directing the billions that are given to the provinces to manage the social services of Indigenous families and putting it back directly into Indigenous communities. Those efforts need to be put where the origins of the pain are, where restorative healing, counseling and education can replace the damages of generations of colonialist abusive policies.
For example, Child Family Services is an incredible provincial economy based on removing Indigenous children from their homes, setting up and funding foster care systems — employing thousands to manage that and generously paying Canadians far more to take in those kids rather than providing the funding for their own Indigenous parents to do the same, and what’s more, it is Indigenous funds that pay for all that anyway.
The re-education on Canada’s true history and its continuing misinformation of its relationship to the Indigenous is perhaps the largest pivotal requirement to turning this issue and in fact, all Indigenous issues around. Even if we do get full Canadian cooperation to do that much, the amount of time that alone will take seems daunting. But, here we are, still doing our best to get it done. Because, in the end, what choice do we have?