by Naomi Sayers
Above: Untitled by Brendan Stephens
Last October, Canadians across the country voted. The Liberals won a majority. If Canadians voted for the Liberals, the Liberals promised to launch a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit persons (MMIWG2S). Canadians voted, the Liberals won, and now, the party has initiated the first steps to launching a national inquiry.
As I write this piece, Cabinet Ministers just completed the inquiry design meetings in British Columbia. The Cabinet Ministers present at the meetings include the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, the Minister of Justice, and the Minister of Status of Women. Since the Ministers announced the first steps into the inquiry, many people were confused. How did they start the process so quickly? Who is involved in and how they are involved?
For me, as a survivor of colonialism and all of its violence including state/individual violence, I prefer to ask questions about how this inquiry process will change the system which imprisons Indigenous, Brown and Black bodies at alarming rates. How do we move beyond a system, the criminal justice system, which responds to the violence that causes the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit persons to persist? Conversely, how do we seek justice for missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit persons without validating or legitimizing a system which continues to imprisons Indigenous, Brown and Black bodies at shocking rates? Can we imagine a world without continued policing of Indigenous, Brown and Black bodies through criminalization of same? And, can we imagine a world without prisons which continue to inflict harm and violence in on Indigenous, Brown, and Black peoples’ lives and which continue to benefit white settler society?
Whenever I hear the police say they are seeking more funds to help protect the vulnerable, I know they are not thinking about Indigenous women, girls or two-spirit folks. Whenever I hear representatives of various levels of governments or representatives of non-profit organizations say they need more funds to help protect victims of violence, I know they are not thinking about Indigenous women, girls or two-spirit folks. When discussions of violence take place, oftentimes we forget about the people who exist within violent systems—the prison system.
For some people, justice translates to retaliation, an eye for an eye. For many families and friends of MMIWG2S, it means seeing people imprisoned away for life. A life for a life. The families/friends of MMIWG2S have every right to decide what is justice for their loved ones. Yet, in Canada, life does not life. Life means twenty-five years. And, sometimes it means less than that, similar to how white settler society values the lives of MMIWG2S: less than…less than human.
For me, as someone who has been in the system, justice means making a change to support the lives of those women, girls and two-spirit folks still living. Justice, to me, means responsibility. What are our responsibilities to each other? To our families? To our neighbors? To our communities?
Whenever another Indigenous woman, girl or two-spirit person is reported missing or found murdered, we tell the stories about how they were a family member or a community member. The media articles often quoting loved ones, “She was a mother, a daughter, a sister, a friend…” True. We all belong to a family or a community in one way or another. But how do we move beyond a system, the criminal justice system, which responds to the violence that causes the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit persons to persist? Often times, it is this same system which allows the violence to exist. So, instead of telling stories, Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit folks are keeping secrets. Secrets of police violence. Are these the secrets we want to keep?
One way we can move beyond a system which responds to the issue of MMIWG2S is the very simple act of believing. Believe the stories that Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit folks tell you when they are experiencing violence, including the stories of police violence, or after they experienced violence. Also, create the space for Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit folks to tell their stories. A space free of judgment, shame and a space filled with love and trust. Trust that one will not tell their stories without their consent.
While I acknowledge that some people see a criminal justice response as the only response, because as it exists today, it is the dominant response. However, I cannot agree that it is the only response to the issue of MMIWG2S. I think there are many actions that communities and individuals can take tomorrow to help fight for MMIWG2S.
For instance, similar to justice, safety or keeping safe means many different things to people in different contexts. In one context, being safe may mean staying alone for a few minutes or a few days. In another instance, being safe may mean having a telephone conversation with a loved one, letting them know you are okay. So, safety can mean many different things and we can help keep each other safe in many different ways. When I think about safety, I think about what has kept me calm, breathing. It is the system who prefers I stop breathing, so I breathe.
Both individuals and communities can do some of the following to help keeping Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit folks safe:
- Offer to give someone a ride or bus fare, if they need to get somewhere (if possible)
- Offer to pick someone up or pay for a cab, if they need to get back home (if possible)
- Offer to cook a warm meal, if they have been away for a long time
- Offer a warm shower/bath
- Offer to attend an appointment with them
- Offer to help with groceries for a week
- Offer to go for a walk with them
Even though these suggestions are not systemic changes to the criminal justice system which will end violence against Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit folks, I know that the small things have helped me get through the day and kept me safe—however, I chose to define safety for me in that moment. For members of over-policed/over-criminalized communities (i.e., sex workers), safety means not calling the police which often invites more violence into our lives. So, safety means never engaging with the criminal justice system. Ever. It is literally a life and death situation when our lives are threatened for simply existing.
It is no accident that the bodies who occupy the spaces in prisons are predominantly Indigenous, Brown and Black. It is not an accident that the bodies who are over-policed/over-criminalized are predominantly Indigenous, Brown and Black. So, how do we imagine a world without policing of Indigenous, Brown and Black bodies and without criminalization of same? And, can we imagine a world without prisons which continue to inflict harm and violence in Indigenous, Brown and Black peoples’ lives and which continue to benefit white settler society?
The people who work within the system are predominantly white settlers. They benefit from the imprisonment of Indigenous, Brown and Black bodies. They make a living off of the continued policing or criminalizing of same. So what if we asked questions about how the inquiry process will make change which prevents the continued imprisonment, or the continued policing or criminalizing of Indigenous, Brown and Black bodies? What if we asked for an investment into our communities, the same communities whose mothers, daughters, sisters, friends and family members who continue to go missing and murdered? What if we asked for an investment into our communities, the same communities who continued to be targeted with police violence? The same communities whose Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit folks keep secrets instead of telling their stories? The same communities whose same members occupy prisons at alarming rates? I want to begin to create the space where our people can tell stories instead of keep secrets. I want to begin to create the space where our people can feel safe, without judgment or shame. I want to begin to create space where our people can not rely on the system that continues to benefit white settler society through the imprisonment of our families/friends and that continues to benefit white settlers while they live and work on stolen Indigenous land. O’ Canada, our home on native land. Stolen Indigenous land.
If you believe the change is too hard to make, let me remind you that it’s simple: create the space, believe our stories, and realize the potential for a world without prisons. And, that should be our responsibility to each other and to our communities.
Naomi Sayers is an indigenous feminist and an Anishnaabe-kwe who writes at www.kwetoday.com. She is currently studying law at the University of Ottawa. Naomi is frequently asked to write about issues relating to missing and murdered Indigenous women. She is also regularly asked to speak on issues relating to violence against Indigenous women and sex work related policy.