There are two sets of sirens. One siren, sharp and constant, interspersed with other sirens, which are loud and honk and sound like geese. That’s an ambulance and fire truck, maybe the police. Sounds like danger. I listened from the hotel window, looked down from the 17th floor to the dark, cold, and quiet streets of downtown Winnipeg, and wondered how people whose jobs rang sirens could have 15-year-old Tina Fontaine failed miserably. By the time his 72 pound body was pulled from the Red River five years ago, wrapped in a blanket and weighed by rocks, the Anishinaabe girl had been dead for days. At that time, no sirens were needed, because danger had passed for Tina – or rather, was allowed to pass. The police officers, social workers, nurses and doctors who had interacted with him in his last days never took a peek.
Tina’s fate is very normal for Natives in Canada, especially women, girls and Two-Spirit people. We were told that schools, hospitals, social services and the police were there to help us, so we asked for their help. Instead of helping, we often meet with the best indifference, direct hostility and the worst racism.
In the end, ignorance and violence are two sides of the same genocide coin. Both are the reasons Tina left. Both are reasons why I can’t forget it, more than five years later.
Last June, the National Investigation on Missing and Killed Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) was released final report, after nearly three years of research, community hearings and consultations. Title Reclaim Strength and Place, it is more than 1,000 pages long and covers topics including health, culture and justice. The report argues that “the colonial process has, in fact, created conditions for a continuing crisis of the loss of indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA residents” (the latter being an acronym that includes people who are marginalized because of their sexuality or gender). It ends with 231 recommendations. The most important thing is to create and implement national action plans at all levels of government. Others range from the need for universal basic income to calls to assess – and address – the relationship between resource extraction and gender violence.
Unfortunately, many Canadian news agencies ignore the majority of reports and instead choose to focus on using one word: genocide. Debate swirls around whether the culture of historical and continuing death faced by Indigenous women and girls is really genocide, as the commissioner of inquiry says. Old media, including National Post, Toronto Star and Toronto Sun, quickly disagree, quickly publish columns and editorials that avoid the actual legal arguments of the report.
Only a month before, the Canadian Economic Journal had published a study on the death rate of people of First Nations Status (those who are legally identified as “Indians” under Indian Law). It was found that the Status of Indian Women and Girls between the ages of 10 and 44 has a mortality rate that is three to four times higher than women in the general population. Status girls 15 to 19 are five times more likely to die than Canadians who are not Statuses.
Reclaim Strength and Place full of the same statistics. The report cites 100 other reports, from another investigation – the 1991 Manitoba Judicial Aboriginal Investigation, the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Communities, the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to name just three. Investigation members wrote that they could not count the number of Indigenous women and girls who had been killed or disappeared since 1980, but estimated more than 1,181, a number often quoted from 2014 RCMP report. Three Indigenous women and one Indigenous man who wrote Reclaim Strength and Place built on decades of research and evidence to pinpoint what genocide means in the context of indigenous peoples in Canada.
The main response to this tiring work was to paint the writers as an overreaction.
The counterattack on the report occurred in my own life. I write regularly for Globe and Mail then, who issued a editorial immediately rejected the claim of genocide (it was called the “absurd” idea). The editorial came out three days after the report, suggesting that the authors were so eager to refute it that they could not waste time actually reading it all. The editorial runs without a byline, which I understand as meaning that it is the official position of the newspaper.
I read the whole report: I need five full days of work or less, and that’s difficult. The figures in the report are not just statistics for me. They are a reminder of the fact that, as a Haudenosaunee woman whose family comes from the Six Nations in the Grand River region, I struggle to forget so that I can function everyday. But when you try to convince people that you are a human being – that what happened to your people and still happens to your people, in fact, genocide – you can’t forget statistics like this.
Read this next: As an Indigenous Woman, I was Triggered by the MMIWG Report
My efforts to convince this are through my writing. And as a writer, I always believe that good writing and strong logic can change people’s hearts. I have used Aristotle’s methods of persuasion – logos, ethos, and sadness – in all my parts, trying to emphasize to non-Native Canadians how traumatic it is to move in a world bombarded with constant evidence that the country where you live wants you dead. . I have tried to uncover how much modern injustice is only a continuation of residential schools, Sixties Scoop, and other policies and practices that Canadians today apologize for, insisting they will never let them happen again. I have thrown all the evidence I can on the reader, hoping and hoping that if I shed enough blood, it will convince Canadians that I am also human.
I did all this on the page Globe and Mail. And the editors I work with directly see great value in my work. But the unmarked editorial suggests that the editors in charge of the paper see very little value in me as a person. Despite the serious financial consequences, I decided to stop writing to The Globe that day.
I thought about asking who actually wrote the editorial, asking how they could publish something so careless. But it feels no use. The best statistics, historical information, and research that I can use to refute editorials is in the report itself. If the writer really reads everything and comes to the conclusion that Canadian treatment of Indigenous women cannot be genocide at all, there is no way to compromise. In my opinion, my disagreement with The Globe came to the fact that while they seemed to have found a way to monetize my mind as a Native woman, they could not find a way to get money from my humanity. So they returned to the tried and true practice of Canada: monetizing dehumanization and neglect of Indigenous women.
How can you meet in the middle with people who seem unable to listen? Who believes that Canadians are inherently good, have built their lives around that trust and refuse to see how a “good” country might also do something as terrible and unforgivable as genocide? You can not. So I did not do it. I go.
The Canadian Museum of Human Rights opened in Winnipeg in 2014. Initially, the museum stated that they would not use the term genocide when referring to state crimes against indigenous people in the country – except when discussing our nation’s efforts to “Get recognition for this violation as genocide.” Instead, former president and CEO Stuart Murray said in 2013, it would present historical facts to visitors to “help them reach their own conclusions.” The decision was canceled last year, fortunately. On my visit to Winnipeg a few months ago, I thought maybe I would stop by. Then a friend told me that the museum was built right in Forks, where the Assiniboine River meets the Red River, the river where Tina’s body was found. I immediately knew that I did not want to leave. I thought about how long Tina had been there, whether the river held her small body with respect, like a fallen pearl, or whether the idea was that I projected my emotions into the environment.
I feel a shift in what I can only describe as energy in certain spaces. The last time I toured the land of the former Mohawk Institute, Canada’s oldest residential school, in Brantford, Ontario, where I live. As soon as I stepped into the boiler room in the basement, my chest became heavy, as if someone was standing on it. Breathing suddenly feels like a very big task. Survivors from the Mohawk Institute who gave the tour told us that many children were abused there. The teachers use the sound of the boiler to cover up their screams. I felt dizzy and left the room.
I knew it was irrational – more precisely, I knew others wanted me to consider it irrational – but I felt the Red River, like the boiler room, kept a spiritual and emotional imprint of the violence that had befallen Tina and many others. If I see the river, if I smell it, I’m sure I will get sick. It’s better not to be seen. It’s best to pretend everything is fine, like other Canadians have done for centuries.
But I did not have that luxury. The reality of the basement, that school, state-sponsored violence, has filtered from generation to generation in my community. Everything was not good, and I saw it on the faces of my friends and family. I felt it work through my brain, convincing me that I was worthless, or that I would rather die, or both.
I heard it in the words of white people around me. One day, at that hotel in Winnipeg, I was waiting for an elevator with three white men. An Indigenous man came to ask if he could smoke. They looked at each other with expressions of mutual understanding, and then said no. The man left, the elevator arrived and my body stiffened as I waited for what I knew was coming.
“I certainly wouldn’t give that person a cigarette.”
“Oh no way.”
“You know what’s funny? If someone soaks a cigarette in gasoline, give it to one of them and watch what happens. “
I immediately processed what this sentence meant. First, this white man pretended not to know what would happen if someone lit a cigarette soaked in gasoline. Second, this white man thought that maybe killing “one of them” – maybe an Indigenous man – would be “funny.” Third, this white man thought that maybe killing an Indigenous man would be funny if “someone” did it, but strategically didn’t say who. Fourth, and perhaps the most said, this white man thinks that, because I have white skin, he can say this in front of me without consequences, hoping every white woman will appreciate the joke about killing Indians.
I turned my head, plain disgust on my face when I surveyed the three white men, and said the only word I could think of at the time: “It was very chaotic.” Then I leave.
Back in my room, my body shook for more than an hour, afraid for my brown and black relatives, who could not hide who they were and always paid their visibility. Even in one of the most Indigenous cities in Canada, it’s not safe. In Canada, for Indigenous people, it is almost never safe.
“There really isn’t much to talk about because they haven’t done much,” the chief commissioner of inquiry, Marion Buller, to APTN.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Canadian news was dominated by stories about Wet’suwet adat leaders, and their objections to the natural gas pipeline proposed by Coastal GasLink. The company wants to build a pipeline through the Wet’suwet region in the west, and strategically use the provincial court to do so. In February, an order not to interfere with the construction of the pipeline caused catching Wet’suweten in their own territory, sparked months of solidarity, including the railroad blockade. As the RCMP officers moved, they walked past a display of red dresses meant to represent the families and friends of land defenders who were lost and killed – a moment of heartbreaking and almost distorted symbolism.
Nine pages Reclaim Strength and Place explores the relationships between male labor camps largely brought in for projects such as the Coastal GasLink pipeline and violence against Indigenous women. Using first-person testimony and academic research data, this document documents the high rate of sexual assault, harassment, sexually transmitted infections, and addictions in and around some call it “human camp.” Then, recommendations aimed at resource development executives suggest that planning for the project incorporates potential impact on indigenous women and girls.
The same consideration is asked of the government who approved the project. When and if a national action plan comes, I will pay attention to whether Bennett, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Native Services Minister Marc Miller and their colleagues honestly address this issue.
Before Tina Fontaine was born, her mother was also a child in care. Three years before Tina was killed, her father also died tragically, but social services never provided her counseling requested by his aunt. Sometimes I think about what Tina’s life would be like if her family were not an example of a textbook about the trauma of a Canadian visit to an Indigenous family. I imagine a world where Telma Favel, Tina’s great aunt, had never had to testify against Raymond Cormier, the man accused of killing her, then saw her found not guilty of all charges; a world where Tina realized her dream to become a social worker, and fundamentally changed the system that had fundamentally influenced her.
But that is not what happened. Among the endless reports documenting genocide is the one from March 2019, about Tina’s life and death. In it, Daphne Penrose, a Manitoba advocate for children and adolescents, revealed that Tina had asked for help from social service organizations several times in the weeks before she died, and was told at least once that no beds were available. Homeless at the age of 15, he went where he was told, asked who he was told to and was left to take care of himself. Then he was killed.
It’s been a year since its release Reclaim Strength and Place. This is not the part I want to write about it. I want to be positive, to emphasize how strong indigenous women, girls and Two-Spirit people are and to highlight their leadership despite opportunities that are almost impossible.
But I don’t want to pretend to be positive about their future when I’m not. I don’t want to pretend to know how to convince people to care when I’m not. I don’t want to pretend that words are enough when we need action, now.
I do not want you, dear reader, to read this, think it is sad, then continue with your life as if it were out of your hands. Not. However, Tina’s death triggered the most non-Native support for the MMIWG investigation, and that support was the main reason why the investigation was carried out.
Every Valentine’s Day since 1992, Indigenous women in Vancouver have organized marches to commemorate the lives of their murdered and missing daughters, sisters, brothers and friends. For years, police ignored their insistence that a serial killer was preying on women in Downtown Eastside. The killer, Robert Pickton, was not arrested until 2002. He was convicted of six murders but said he killed 49 women.
In 2005, NWAC began Sister in Spirit research project. Part of an ongoing effort to address a number of problems, the aim is to create a database of missing women and girls. Funding was cut by the Harper government in 2010.
Nobody ever listens to Indigenous women when we advocate for ourselves. Then, at a 2014 press conference about Tina’s death, Sergeant John O’Donovan’s murder showed obvious anger and sadness. “He’s a child,” he said. “This is a child who has been killed … The community must be horrified.” Spoken by a white man, the words seemed to finally solve his spell. Non-Native journalists began to take stories; non-Native Canadians began to demand action. Non Support – Canadian natives turn MMIWG investigations from other requests ignored into promises of Liberal elections, and then reality.
Now it looks like the Canadian government will add Reclaim Strength and Place dozens of other questions and thousands of other recommendations funded and then ignored. Imagine, if the energy that leads to an investigation is called upon to pressure politicians to actually implement their recommendations. Imagine if non-Native Canadians demand a plan of action, schedule and routine updates – also answers about delays and failures.
That’s a good fantasy. But it can be real. What is that Tina worthy. We must not let his memory face the same humiliation he faced while he was still alive.
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