AUNDECK OMNI KANING—Despite decades of activism on the part of Indigenous women and their allies, the lives of Indigenous women and girls in this country remain far too tenuous and society institutionally indifferent to their plight. Across the country, National Day of Awareness and Action for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and 2 Spirited-plus events were held on May 5 in an ongoing effort to turn the tide on those narratives through the sharing of experiences, education and support.
Several engaging speakers were featured at the event held at the Four Directions Complex in Aundeck Omni Kaning, each of whom provided their stories and experiences before a large and engaged audience.
The events ran from 6 pm with the opening of several education booths from Island social service organizations who provide resources aimed at supporting Indigenous women and girls and their families and allies to a candlelight vigil and walk following the speakers.
Elder Geraldine McGregor of M’Chigeeng provided an opening prayer and song, assisted by firekeeper Sierra Jocko, which “opened” the doors of the Four Directions: east, south, west and north, in order to assist the ancestors to join in the gathering. The duo later closed those doors by the sacred fire following the candlelight vigil and walk.
Aundeck Omni Kaning Chief Patsy Corbiere provided the welcoming address. Chief Corbiere delivered an impassioned plea for community solidarity across the Island, as the scourge of drug dealers and human trafficking are becoming endemic. “It is effecting a lot of youth in our community, in everybody’s community,” she said. “It’s not just girls, it’s boys too.”
Chief Corbiere recalled how hitchhiking was deemed reasonably safe in her youth. “We knew everybody,” she said. But now there are so many strangers moving through Island communities, the practice has become a kind of Russian roulette.
“We need to start protecting each other,” said Chief Corbiere. “We are seeing people dying every day.”
The first speaker was soon-to-be officially installed UCCM Tribal Police Service chief of police James Killeen, who delivered an impromptu speech (hence his “plainclothes” attire, he explained) focussing on the need for Island communities to band together to defeat the drug dealers and human traffickers preying on Island youth. (He was passing through the community after a meeting in Sudbury.)
Police Chief Killeen knows well of which he speaks, having served as an officer for 23 years, 17 of those with the City of Greater Sudbury Police Service drug intelligence and human trafficking squad. He has become intimately acquainted with the tactics of drug dealers and human traffickers and how to combat them. Key to success in that war is to provide information to the police—something the police need in order to overcome barriers to enforcement. “We know which houses,” he said, “but we can’t get a search warrant without someone coming forward.”
So, if a person in the community knows of someone who is being victimized, be it a family member or acquaintance, they can make a difference simply by “picking up the phone.”
Chief Killeen pointed out UCCM Tribal Police have executed eight search warrants in the past year which resulted in charges to four people from the Toronto area. “There have been seven overdose deaths,” he shared, noting that the fentanyl coursing through the community has been identified as being supplied from Toronto. Drug addiction and human trafficking are inextricably linked, he noted, as the debts from addictions allow the dealers to prey on their victims.
Order of Canada recipient, lifelong activist for Indigenous women’s rights and founding member of the Ontario Native Women’s Association (ONWA, of which she served as president), Jeanette Corbiere Lavell spoke next, relating how she and her compatriots helped to launch the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
Ms. Corbiere Lavell delivered some of the alarming statistics that helped lay the foundation for that inquiry. “Back in the ‘80s at ONWA we did a small study, the ‘Breaking Free Report,’ that found 75 to 95 percent of Indigenous women had experienced some form of abuse,” she said. “Be that verbal, physical and/or sexual.”
The battle to have something done raged for years—decades. “Even our own leadership, those men, told us to not air our dirty laundry in public,” she said. “While national Indigenous organizations were calling for action, while the premiers of every province and territory supported our call, in fact three-quarters of the Canadian population supported the call for a national inquiry, former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper continued to deny and deflect, claiming this crisis was not on his radar. This was not merely a women’s issue, this was not only an Indigenous issue, this was a human rights issue—a national tragedy and, more importantly, a national shame, because this doesn’t have to happen.”
Even in the face of international human rights organizations coming forward to state unequivocally that the failure to protect Indigenous women and girls in Canada was a grave human rights violation, the Harper government was “busy shining the light elsewhere,” she said, sending millions of dollars overseas claiming that saving the lives of women and children was an issue close to his heart, “unless they are Indigenous women and children apparently.”
“It wasn’t until he was replaced by a Liberal government that a national inquiry was finally called,” said Ms. Corbiere Lavell.
The battle is far from over, Indigenous women are still eight times more likely to be killed than non-Indigenous women; rates of spousal abuse for Indigenous women (whose spouses are not necessarily Indigenous) are more than three times higher than non-Indigenous women; those incidents of spousal abuse are more severe and life-threatening (54 percent versus 37 percent) and Indigenous women are far more likely to be the victim of a serial killer.
Due to ongoing issues of systemic racism at all levels and historical social inequalities that exist into the present day, the number of Indigenous women federally incarcerated has increased steadily. Indigenous women are 36 percent of all women behind bars despite making up only five percent of Canada’s population and on top of that, Indigenous women are far more likely to serve the full sentence.
Poverty lies solidly at the core of the issue. Forty percent of Indigenous women live in poverty, and more than half of all Indigenous children. Is it any wonder, she said, that twice as many Indigenous women turn to crime to make ends meet as non-Indigenous (which are 18 to nine percent respectively). “But that still means 82 percent are totally legit,” cautioned Ms. Corbiere Lavell. “It is all about blaming the victim, blame the Indigenous community, or more specifically, blame Indigenous men.” But statistics show that it is non-Indigenous women who are more likely to be killed in the family home, while Indigenous women are more likely to be killed by a stranger or serial killer.
“Plain and simple, our women are at-risk because they are Indigenous and female in a society that has a long history of devaluing and degrading both of those groups,” said Ms. Corbiere Lavell. “The devaluing of women, the dehumanization of Indigenous peoples has left a tragic legacy, colouring our unconscious attitudes towards Indigenous people generally and Indigenous women in specifically—which influences our responses or lack of response.”
“Missing and murdered is a wrong term,” said Ms. Corbiere Lavell. “It should be ‘stolen from our families.’”
She offered up some solutions aimed at tackling the issue. “Programs for Indigenous women led by Indigenous women,” said Ms. Corbiere Lavell, citing 29 Circle of Care programs, 4,202 community events, 126 partnerships, more than 9,643 community members served by ONWA, with 79,956 participants, 71 family reunifications and 11 human trafficking exits.
ONWA’s activities have saved the Ontario government an immense amount of money, including child welfare costs, the provision of specialized care ($12,780,00 annually at minimum) and the $116,000 yearly cost of incarceration for each individual diverted.
“We are all treaty people,” said Ms. Corbiere Lavell. “These problems will not go away until we improve the socio-economic outcomes for Indigenous women and families. We can’t do it alone, this must become a priority at all levels of government. Men must make a stand as part of the solution. If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem. We all have a role to play as we work to change this situation. Most importantly, we cannot continue to turn a blind eye.”
Sierra Jocko of Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territories spoke next, delivering her talk without notes or preparation, but from the heart. She spoke of having recently lost her brother and how that loss forced her to step up to take a leadership role in the observances for her family. She spoke of how, as a little girl, her great uncle’s body was found, murdered, and the anger that boiled up in her heart.
“But anger can be a good thing,” said Ms. Jocko, noting that she harnessed that emotion as a teaching tool. She went on to relate a story from her own experience, the first time she left Ontario to attend a conference in Quebec. Although she thought the hotel they were staying in was very nice, she learned that it was actually located in a red light district. What followed were a series of harrowing experiences that she managed to navigate thanks to the advice given to her by her father.
Nina Toulouse is the daughter of Linda Mae Toulouse, who died in March of 2020. A member of Whitefish River First Nation, Nina Toulouse works with UCCMM as an Indigenous Youth Prevention Intervention Worker and casually with the Crisis Response Team. She spoke of how her mother’s death was categorized as from natural causes, despite her body being covered in bruises.
She relayed the trauma that her mother’s death caused and how her mother had struggled with alcoholism for years, but was a kind and comforting human being who always had time to listen to those who needed her ear.
Ms. Toulouse described her career of helping the vulnerable. “It is not work,” she said. “It is life.”
Ingrid Madahbee of Aundeck Omni Kaning was the final speaker, she is the sister of Sonya Mae Cywink of Whitefish River First Nation, whose body was discovered near London, Ontario on August 30, 1994. Ms. Cywink was pregnant at the time of her death. Her murder was never solved, and the family continues to hunt for answers to this day.
Following the speakers, candles and tobacco ties bound in red cloth were provided to the participants who then walked through the gathering dark to a sacred fire, where the four medicines were offered before the hand drummers closed the four doorways to conclude the services.
The main facilitators of the event were: Dakota Legge, cultural support worker MMIWG at Noojmowin-Teg Health Centre; Lisa Still, cultural support worker SDVS at Noojmowin-Teg Health Centre; and Jo-Anne Thibodeau Audette, family wellbeing program at AOK health centre.