In celebration of the new year, Elle Beaver brings you profiles of courageous Canadian women who changed our world in 2014. Meet the icons, agitators, athletes, survivors and changemakers who challenged our view of womens’ place in Canadian society.
Tina Fontaine, a beloved niece, daughter and sister. A “beautiful, sweet girl” who “wanted to live,” pulled from Winnipeg’s Red River.
Loretta Saunders, a brilliant young woman with an incredible smile, pregnant with her first child and poised to take over the academic world, found by the side of a New Brunswick highway.
Rinelle Harper, a courageous survivor, “daddy’s girl with a shy smile,” who rose out of the Assiniboine River’s frigid waters to reclaim her life.
Tina, Loretta, and Rinelle are among the estimated 1, 200 – 1, 800 missing and murdered Indigenous women whose blood stains the hands of our nation. They are women who, as Darryl Leroux wrote on Loretta’s passing, have lived an ‘organized terror of the everyday.’
Tina, Loretta and Rinelle are also the faces of a story whose tide is finally turning in the mainstream media.
And while their stories must be told and their voices heard, we the Settlers must also strive to understand why the story of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women has gained traction in the mainstream media.
In its Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women: A National Operational Review, a report published in May 2014, the RCMP confirmed facts that Indigenous communities have long known to be true: Aboriginal women are dying at alarmingly high and disproportionate rates in Canada.
And while the RCMP – that great Canadian institution renowned for its own culture of violence – lent a form of *ahem* government ‘credence’ to research already undertaken by a number of Indigenous grassroots initiatives like Sisters in Spirit, Native Youth Sexual Health Network, No More Silence, the report unsurprisingly made ‘no mention of colonialism, colonization nor residential schools, and places responsibility back onto Indigenous women for their own deaths and disappearances.”
The RCMP report further entrenched the ‘organized tyranny of the everyday.’ It reinforced centuries of deeply ingrained disinformation that has sought to rob Indigenous women of their humanity, thus ensuring our indifference and allowing violence and murder to flourish with impunity.
It is the organized tyranny of the everyday that allows us, the Settlers, to ‘tsk tsk’ over substance use/abuse, sex work and violence while ‘white-washing’ and absolving us of our shared history, those provisions to solve “the Indian Problem” – the barbarity of residential schools, theft of land, conditional citizenship for women, cultural pillage and political suppression.
Thus it is entirely unsurprising that the features of the young woman on the cover of the RCMP’s report have been blurred. She is every woman, and yet no one at the same time. She is everyone’s problem. And yet no one’s problem.
When Loretta Saunders went missing in February this year, her wide, sparkling eyes and shinning smile papered the internet and the media. It was Loretta’s lovely face – not the faces of her killers – that sank into our hearts, compelling us to recognize the young Innu woman’s humanity.
When Winnipeg lit up to mourn Tina Fontaine and Faron Hall, with nearly a thousand mourners gathering at Alexander Docks, it was the face of a child that the country saw. The face of a little girl who had so much potential stolen from her.
When – with the family’s permission – Winnipeg police took the unprecedented step of naming Rinelle Harper as the survivor of a brutal assault on the shores of the Assiniboine River, it was partly “a move that appeared aimed at humanizing the city’s latest victim.”
And when Rinelle rose to speak at the Assembly of First Nations to seek justice for her Stolen Sisters, it was the face and the voice of a survivor speaking for hundreds of women whose lives remain unfinished.
Through Loretta, Tina and Rinelle, Stolen Sisters are reborn – their faces, lives and names reclaimed.
Riding on the wings grassroots efforts by Indigenous communities like Walking with our Sisters and the Faceless Dolls Projet – initiatives that are the embodiment of lives lived – Loretta, Tina and Rinelle have breathed new life into Canada’s Stolen Sisters, humanizing women that history has long taught us to disregard.
But why, after decades of only tepid indignation, has Canadian mainstream media finally changed its tune on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women? The RCMP report? Is it the culmination of courageous, wrenching efforts by Indigenous community to honour their Stolen Sisters, whether by railroad blockades, drumming circles on Parliament Hill, or thoughtful cultural projects like Walking With Our Sisters? Or is the answer a little simpler: that the faces of young women like Loretta, Tina, and Rinelle have replaced the anonymous Indigenous woman without a face, name or story?
The reasons matter. Viewing the RCMP report as the tipping point to mainstream media coverage of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women – rather than grassroots efforts by Indigenous communities to recognize the humanity of our Stolen Sisters – is problematic, because it does nothing to dispel our long-held and profoundly colonial views of Indigenous people, and Indigenous women in particular.
But instead of listening to the RCMP’s findings, let us instead honour what Indigenous communities are telling us: yes, Stephen Harper, it’s a “sociological phenomenon.” Yes, Mr. Prime Minister, Loretta, Tina and Rinelle should be “on our radar.”
Let Loretta Saunders and Tina Fontaine tell us of how we have egregiously failed our Indigenous sisters.
Let Rinelle Harper be the spark that ignites our nation’s conscience and our rage to act.
And let us hope that we can earn Rinelle’s closing words at the Assembly of First Nations in December 2014:
I ask that everybody here remembers a few simple words: love, kindness, respect and forgiveness.