Tag Archives: rcmp

A Little Surprising

Today, CBC published an article about RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson’s reaction to yesterday’s report – published by the RCMP – about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.

In his comments, Paulson said, “We have known for some time that there’s a higher rate of violent victimization within the aboriginal female population, but to see these numbers crystallized as they have was a little surprising.” What’s surprising to Paulson is not surprising to those of us for whom the threat of violence is a lived reality, but what more troubling is that these initial comments about a “higher rate” are not reflected consistently in the article.

From the federal government’s side, Justice Minister Peter MacKay said, “We must continue to take concrete action now, not just continue to study the issue.” This is true. When we relegate this issue to the realm of academic questions, we hold ourselves back from taking urgent actions to protect  indigenous women and girls. But let’s try a little experiment: Raise your hand if you’ve heard this line before with no visible action once the cameras and microphones stop rolling.

Let’s not get lost in the muddy waters of who said what and what responsibility they have. On a superficial level, the statements made by Paulson and MacKay are true. Convenient and obvious, but true. Instead, I want to move beyond the colonial talking points for a minute. Those men only represent two of the institutions that systematize the oppression of indigenous peoples in this country. Let’s take a little time to talk about a third. Let’s take a little time to reflect on how lazy journalism isn’t a neutral action – but an actively oppressive one.

Journalists: who are the voices you present in your story?

Is your article simply about a colonial agency’s report on systemic issues faced by indigenous women, with reactions limited to the non-indigenous man who heads that agency and the non-indigenous man appointed within the federal government to oversee “justice”? If you answered “yes” to all those questions, we have a problem.

I am an indigenous woman. I have agency, and I have a voice, and I am not an anomaly. Where are the voices of the families who are waiting for their missing women and girls to come home? Where are the voices of the families of the victims for whom that hope is extinguished? Where are the voices of survivors who have become spokespersons? Where are the voices of community-based advocates and organizers, the indigenous institutions that are fighting for social justice? I know, journalists. You’re writing to deadline. But in the case of this article, I don’t even see an apologetic “X, Y, and Z couldn’t be reached for comment.” You have agency too; you’re making a choice.

With all due respect, I’d like to state the obvious myself: Commissioner Paulson and Minister MacKay are not marginalized women of colour. Their voices are far from sufficient to populate a meaningful conversation about this issue.

What’s problematic about privileging some voices above others?

A funny thing happens when you end up with a narrative in which nothing is challenged. Namely, there is no room for growth. Again quoting Paulson, CBC provides this reference point: “there were 5,370 non-aboriginal women who were murdered and 1,291 other non-aboriginal women who went missing during the same period.” Paulson also indicates it’s the responsibility of the RCMP to “answer from an informed position and put some context around these numbers.” So where is it?

It’s true: the number of non-indigenous women who are missing and murdered is higher than the number of indigenous women who are missing and murdered. That is a virtually meaningless statement. Where is the “context” (from the RCMP, the Justice Minister, or for that matter, CBC) that this number is not proportional to population size?

Estimates vary, but even at a cautious guess, as an indigenous woman I am four times more likely to experience violence than my non-indigenous sisters. Fully 19% of the cases referenced by Paulson involve indigenous women as victims. But according to Statistics Canada, indigenous women and girls make up only 4% of the total Canadian female population. Let’s reflect on that. Even according to the figures presented by the RCMP, 4% of women are vulnerable to 19% of the violence. Paulson also talks about the “solve rate” for indigenous versus non-indigenous murders: they are similar. But we’re missing the point that the “solve rate” isn’t the only or most important thing.

“Solve rate” vs. Solutions

Injustice isn’t just “murders going unsolved.” Injustice is the substantiated fear and oppression that comes from knowing that as indigenous women, we are four times as likely to face this violence in our lives. Injustice is knowing that colonial institutions and society at large aren’t just ignoring the problem – they’re perpetuating it and benefiting from our subjugation.

Why aren’t journalists investigating the figures instead of dropping them into articles like pointless trivia? There are at least two answers, and neither of them is pretty: either journalistic integrity doesn’t matter, or journalists en masse are intentionally reinforcing and apologizing for the very colonial power structures that create the conditions for this violence to be perpetuated.

In either scenario, journalism is complicit in the problem. It commodifies the violence. It chooses the voices that are privileged. It chooses the data presented and the context given for those data. And in choosing not to be bold or critical or to investigate the facts and figures, journalists enact the oppression they write about when they cover stories like this one.

You might argue it’s not the place of mainstream media to instigate social change. Maybe you’re right. But I refuse to passively accept that mainstream media should submit to being a tool of oppression that reinforces the disproportionate violence that pervades the lives of indigenous women and girls in this country.

So what’s the solution? I believe in a diversity of tactics, but let’s start here: If mainstream media won’t make space for bold, critical investigation, let’s do it ourselves. Challenge the isolated facts and figures. Elevate the journalistic trivia to subjects of serious conversation. Demand journalistic integrity. Speak truth, and seek it in others.

To my indigenous sisters: You are the women who give birth to Nations. For that, you will always be the wellspring of power and hope. And for those non-indigenous people who are solidary with us, let’s continue working together to make a space where meaningful societal change can happen.

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In the spirit of kindness

More and more often, we are reading in the news about the federal government and various intelligence and law enforcement agencies allegedly “spying” on aboriginals and pipeline opponents.

I am both of those things. I have no idea whether strangers are picking up shards of information from my emails and text messages. I have no idea what kind of beautiful stained-glass mosaics their imaginations might create. But in the spirit of wild and optimistic honesty, I would like to make a declaration to them, just in case:

I have nothing to hide from you.

Sometimes I can be arrogant. I’m very bad at playing guitar, but you know, I think I can sing pretty nicely. I like an embarrassing amount of honey in my tea. When I hike in the forest, I like to run. I write poems on napkins and receipts and scraps of paper and most of the time, I lose them; maybe you’ve found some. I don’t make my bed. Even though I think they’re silly, sometimes when it’s laundry day I resort to wearing animal print underpants.

I love my family so much it feels like my heart could burst out of my chest. Yeah, I know that emotions don’t really come from the little organ hidden behind my ribs, but I’ll admit it: I simplify the things that are too complex for me to comprehend, and I am content with those little truths I create. Besides, my family is pretty amazing. I really think my cousins build better forts than anyone else in the world, and they’re all my best friends.

It’s not just my family, though. I love my people. I really believe this: there are salmon swimming in my veins. Isn’t that incredible? My vertebrae are just stones from an old fishtrap arranged into a spine. My whole body belongs to the land I come from. I didn’t inherit the legacy of my ancestors; I’m part of a continuum. My whole sense of time is probably different from yours. I have 10,000 beautiful years of history on my shoulders and I live my life hoping that future generations will nod quietly to themselves someday and think of me as just another face in the vast village of ancestors that lives in their imagination. I’m Heiltsuk; it’s imprinted in every cell in my body.

Okay, that probably sounded a little smug. I told you I can be arrogant. Really, though, I wish everyone could experience how beautiful it is to know where you come from and to know where your bones will rest too. With a good heart, I wish you the peace that comes from having deep roots.

What else should I tell you? I was going to say “that you should never be afraid of me,” but I’m not sure that would be honest of me, and this is an exercise in honesty after all.

A journalist asked me a question once. Well, journalists ask me questions all the time – I’m not sure why – but there was one question I particularly liked. Not because it was original, but because of how he asked it.

This journalist, he was sitting on my deck last summer in Bella Bella, and a couple of barn swallows were swooping over us while he interviewed me. We were trying to have a very grave conversation, but it was a sunny day, and my heart was feeling light. After awhile, his formal interview tone just sort of dissipated, and then he asked me in a small voice: “Do you think this pipeline will get built?”

I couldn’t help it. It was instinct. I started giving my usual, predictable response. “I’ll be dead before this pipeline gets built,” I snapped. Then I paused and thought about his tone. And so he looked relieved when my voice got softer too, and then I said a thing I really do believe with all my heart: “But I hope it’s the case that I die an old, old woman, whose grandchildren never got tired of hearing how granny watched the people rise up to defeat the pipeline.”

I don’t want to die to stop this from happening. More importantly, I don’t want to ask other people to risk their own wellbeing to fight beside me if it comes to that. It’s why I work so hard to find peaceful resolutions. But people can be hard and soft at the same time, you know. I want justice for the land and its people without any violence. But that is secondary to a simpler statement: I want justice for the land and its people. I hope we find justice and peace; I know we will find justice.

I’m arrogant sometimes, but often it’s to cover up being nervous. When the journalist’s voice went quiet that afternoon, I should have known that for a moment, he was just a nervous person asking me a personal question. And you know what? I believe we should reciprocate the trust that comes with someone making themselves vulnerable in front of us.

That probably sounded like I expect you to trust me with your vulnerability too, stranger, if you do indeed exist. But don’t feel pressed. Making space for something isn’t the same as asking for it. Just know that if you want to tell me your secrets, I will respect them.

If you remember just one thing from what I’ve shared, I hope it’s not that I own animal print underpants or that sometimes I switch to autopilot when I’m being interviewed by journalists. I hope you remember that I have nothing to hide from you.

Maybe you’re worried that I’m organizing a riot when all I’m really doing is building community. Maybe you think I’m opposing development when really what I’m doing is protecting something sacred. Maybe you have questions about place-based indigenous identity. Or maybe you don’t ever ask yourself “Why?” Me, though, I sleep well at night because I do my work with a good heart; I’ll answer any questions you ask of me in the same spirit. If you’re out there, and if you’re “spying,” come out of the shadows. Be the audience to a story. Or be a participant in dialogue. Let’s understand one another instead of one side watching the other. Don’t be passive; be bold, and engage!

You don’t need to worry. My people have a long tradition of feasting with their enemies.

I’ve made peace with the possibility of watchers. I hope someday when this is all over, you will come out and publicly affirm all that to which you bore witness when reading my emails: that my boyfriend is, as I often rave to my friends, incredibly handsome; that the seventeenth round of edits to that draft of my thesis chapter is good enough already; and that as I write to my sister in Vancouver quite frequently, I’d give just about anything to share a cup of tea with her. I really do miss her. But you know that.

Does that sound like a deal? If so, give me a sign. I’m sure you are able to manipulate my devices and accounts to do so.

In the spirit of kindness,
Jess