The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) Inquiry’s final report has concluded that the long-term and ongoing murders and disappearances of Indigenous women in Canada is an ongoing genocide.
Violence against Indigenous women and girls in Canada and elsewhere is central to colonialism. It’s a powerful tool in the dispossession of body, mind and spirit of the knowledge-holders, the carriers of the waters, the protectors of the land, the creators and givers of life.
The title of the final report itself — “Reclaiming Power and Place” — was drawn from the testimony of a family member who explained:
“As a woman, as an Indigenous woman, for me, it’s really about power and place.”
In recognition of this endemic violence against Indigenous women, the report called for broad, sweeping changes. The 231 recommendations — described as legal imperatives — pertained to culture, health, security and justice. The recommendations not only reflect the breadth and depth of what Indigenous women and communities need, but to what they are entitled.
"Indigenous Peoples should never be considered normal, and neither should the violence that ensues in cases where Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people are refused service, provided with discriminatory service, or abused by service providers." @MMIWG Final Report pic.twitter.com/zzZ70xfuPN— NWAC (@NWAC_CA) June 13, 2019
Amid whatever theatrics or criticisms that emerge from the inquiry, central to its process — and any actions moving forward, as Indigenous women have made clear — are the families and communities who are at the heart of the struggle against colonial violence.
This central role of the families and communities is evident in the magnitude of the grassroots work and advocacy through mass searches, marches and rallies, awareness-raising, media campaigns, databases and toolkits, coalition-building, community patrols, artwork and installations, dancing and drumming, healing ceremonies, literary activism, memorials and vigils, performances, fasts and feasts, talks and teach-ins and journeys and walks. Despite the onslaught of colonial hardships, it is through these activities that the women’s spirits are kept alive.
This grassroots energy highlights the vastness of Indigenous strength and resourcefulness and reflects the profound value of each women stolen from their families, people and land.
While the police and criminal justice system has the mono-function of fact-finding, building cases, and obtaining convictions, the grassroots are sharing a constellation of support and resources.
Drag the Red is one community initiative that has had significant impact. Volunteers came together to drag the Red River in Winnipeg after police refused to do so when Tina Fontaine, a 15-year-old Anishinaabe girl, was found lifeless in the river. Families and community members pooled their resources to provide boats and financial support, to learn to map and navigate the river, identify bones and carry out search and rescue.
Other activities carried out from grassroots initiatives include supporting families in their searches by helping to navigate the media, showing how to build an investigation, offering accommodation or paying for a hotel room, building banners and signs of the missing women, providing gas and supplies for searches, offering food to volunteers, raising funds, and joining in memorials and walks to raise awareness.
The Iskwewuk E-wichiwitochik (Women Walking Together) is another grassroots network of activists in Saskatchewan who raise awareness, provide support to family members and collaborate with organizations working on violence prevention. According to the group:
“The program seeks to support families of victims by providing a forum through which the victims’ families can share their struggles and stories with the community.”
Each year Iskwewuk organizes a Sisters in Spirit vigil on October 4th in Saskatoon, to raise the public profile of violence against Indigenous women.
Another grassroots advocate is Gladys Radek, who is known as a “carrier of stories.” Gladys, along with other volunteers, has carried out five walks across Canada each of approximately 7,500 kilometres lasting over three months. Gladys remembers hundreds of women’s stories and, as they walk from town to town, she recounts them and posts pictures of the women on her “war pony” keeping the stories, memories and spirits of the women alive.
Unlike police and criminal justice officials who often trivialize and even erase the murders and disappearances, Indigenous families and communities return the collective memory of the women to the land and people by connecting community, weaving the women’s stories together, and creating spaces for remembering.
Despite the significance of their work, the initiatives and strategies of the families and communities have been given little media and public attention. Their work, however, is central to understanding and dismantling colonial violence today.
It is the grassroots efforts that unearth colonialism’s hidden secrets, tell the untold stories of the land and people and bring the women home.
Vicki Chartrand is an Associate Professor, Sociology at Bishop's University.