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.