Discussion uncovers harsh realities faced by Aboriginal women
Aboriginal women speak up about missing and murdered Indigenous women
On Tuesday Jan. 20, an important discussion was held in Ross Glen hall. While often neglected, the topic of murdered and missing Indigenous women and Aboriginal women’s rights was shared by four brave and inspirational Aboriginal women. At the event, called Words and Actions: A Round Table Discussion of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Nellie Carlson, Beverley Jacobs, Josie Nepina and Muriel Stanley Venne shared their stories on the struggles they’ve encountered due to their race.
One week earlier, a report by Mark Elyas in an Aboriginal newspaper First Nations Drum, described how Stephen Harper was not placing importance on the issue of murdered Indigenous women. Several days prior to the discussion, another homicide occurred with one woman found dead, a cousin of Beverley Jacobs’ client.
The event had to change rooms due to spots selling out well in advanced. The new location had no problem filling up the 100 spots.
Nellie Carlson began the event with an opening prayer. Carlson is a respected elder, whose inspiration for the movement of Aboriginal women’s rights began from her own experience. Carlson, a Cree woman, married a non-Aboriginal man. Within 18 days she received a letter stating that she had lost her Aboriginal status. This procedure is a patriarchal matter, as non-Aboriginal women who marry Aboriginal men gain Aboriginal status.
Unfortunately, Carlson’s case would also mean that her children would not have a status either. Carlson received a request from her mother — who was on her death-bed in 1950 — asking her to continue to fight for this issue, which affected many women. Carlson says that in the beginning, phones were tapped, she was followed and was threatened for standing up for Aboriginal women’s rights.
Frustratingly, though it took only 18 days to receive notice that her identity status had been changed, Carlson says it took 18 years for the Indian Act to be changed to support equality of women. Despite the difficulties that Carlson has faced, she hopes that Aboriginal people can be recognized as the first peoples of this country.
The next speaker was Beverley Jacobs, a lawyer of Mohawk descent. Jacobs was the president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada in 2010 and also has researched the topic of murdered and missing Indigenous women in Canada for Amnesty International’s Stolen Sisters.
Jacobs said she feels that the first phase of murdered and missing Indigenous women goes back to colonial policies, which were designed to wipe out women. Jacobs disapproves of the portrayal of murdered women in the media, giving the example of her client’s cousin who was found murdered was described as a “sex worker” rather than a mother or a human being.
As a researcher for Stolen Sisters, Jacobs emphasized the importance of respecting the families of murdered women. Wondering what to give back to the families, she suggested bringing them together so that they would feel less isolated.
Aboriginal families who have lost a female member to murder have described that the response from police has been one of neglect. Jacobs began her work with Stolen Sisters in 2004, and said that it’s been ten years and nothing’s changed — except the rates of missing and murdered Indigenous women are growing and the attention to the issue is not. However, she says she sees the strength and resiliency of her people, which will continue to grow with a return to their language and culture.
Josie Nepinak spoke next about the rights of Aboriginal women. She began by saying how excited she was to be at Mount Royal University because the young people who attend school here could be very influential. She went to a residential school in North West Manitoba and feels that she is one of the lucky ones because she got to go home. Many women, according to Nepinak, don’t make it home after attending residential school.
Nepinak is an Anishinabe woman who directs Awo Taan Healing Lodge Society, which provides emergency shelter for women. The issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women is one which hits close to home for Nepinak. Nepinak said that the murder of her aunt has yet to be resolved after 37 years, and her cousin went missing three years ago and has not been found.
“More than 1,200 missing and murdered Indigenous women”, Nepinak said, and nothing is being done. Similar with what Jacobs found, Nepinak observed that, “families have reported dismissive attitudes,” from police and many questions have been left unanswered. She reported that 11,000 of the 17,000 women who made calls for emergency shelter last year were Indigenous.
“We need you to be our ambassadors, we need you to be our friends,” Nepinak said.
Muriel Stanley Venne
The last speaker of the event was Muriel Stanley Venne, who is a Metis woman. She began by showing a poster of an Aboriginal woman that had bullet holes in it, which she explained was because police had used the image as shooting target practice. Venne’s viewpoint on the treatment of Aboriginal women in Canada was loud and clear: “Indigenous women live in a country that is hostile to their existence.”
Venne is a member of the Alberta Human Rights commission. She reminded people of the Esquao awards, which Nellie Carlson has won. Esquao is close to the Cree word for women, she explained, and this award is about love for women. She encouraged people to nominate their family members. “If we don’t honour our own, who will?”
Venne shared more information on the horrors faced by Aboriginal Canadian women, including a mother who had her children taken away and has been trying to get them back. She recognized the rights of those imprisoned as well, stating, “solitary confinement is not tolerable.”
To conclude the speakers’ portion of the event, Venne urged people to make Canada a country that is passionate and loving.
After these four women shared their stories and gave the audience a call to action, three people were chosen to witness the event. This meant that they would share and reflect on what they thought and felt.
One of the witnesses was Brian Pincott, alderman for the city of Calgary. Pincott began with an expression of gratitude towards treaty 7 First Nations, upon whose land the discussion was held on. He added that though we may not feel the same pain, we will lighten their load and share their pain; that by not being silent, we will do our best to honour them.
The audience clapped at the powerful stories of each woman, and one woman went around the room with a tissue box because so many were tearing up from the moving stories.
The event came to an end as the microphones were passed to the audience, as an opportunity to ask the speakers questions or make comments. Many Aboriginal women in the audience spoke up to share their own personal experiences.
Nellie Carlson closed the ceremony with a prayer. After the event was officially completed, audience members had the opportunity to speak with the guests.