Interview with Lorelei Williams
By: Anishka Nagji
Above: Untitled by Brendan Stephens
As a front lines legal advocate, I’ve been working in solidarity with Indigenous Nations, in particular, with indigenous women, asserting their sovereignty in the face of extreme oppression, ongoing genocide and state sanctioned violence. I was very excited to speak with Lorelei Williams as she’s been a strong and creative advocate for Indigenous women, particularly around the call for a nation wide inquiry into the epidemic of missing and murdered women in Canada.
The work she has done and continues doing is a testament to the strength and resilience of Indigenous women who continue to rise and resist, despite the imposition of a colonial system that directly threatens their land and lives.
Anushka: Can you discuss a bit about who you are and some of the work you’ve been doing?
Lorelei: My name is Lorelei Williams and I am from Skatin Nation on my mom’s side, and Sts’ailes on my dad’s side, and I do a lot of work around the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. This has had a huge impact on my own family with my missing aunt, Belinda Williams, and my murdered cousin, Tanya Hollick, who was murdered by serial killer Robert Pickton. So I started a dance group called Butterflies in Spirit*, and that was to get my missing aunt’s picture out there somehow, and also to honour my cousin Tanya. I work at the Vancouver Aboriginal Community Policing Centre, where I work with families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. I do a lot of work with women in violent situations, with women in the Downtown Eastside, and I try to build positive relationships with the community and the police as well. I know that relationships between our communities and the police are bad because of our history but I feel like there needs to be changes somewhere. I also volunteer at the Vancouver Women’s Memorial March, the Missing and Murdered Women’s Coalition. I’ve been doing that since I got involved in the Wally Oppal inquiry**, that’s where all of my work started.
Anushka: Thats a lot of history. We have reached a point now where the federal inquiry for missing and murdered women is getting going, after the provincial inquiry. Tell us a bit about what that looks like for you personally, and also for your community as well.
Lorelei: In the beginning when the inquiry was first announced, I found it very hard to believe. Ever since I started working, I’ve been pushing for this national inquiry, and with the change of government, we got it. It took that change in government for it to happen. I would be up there speaking against Stephen Harper, because he always said it wasn’t high on his radar, those were his words. I had a lot of hope at the beginning, especially with Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould. When she became the minister, I actually cried because one of our women was in there.
Right now, at this point, I’m starting to lose hope. This inquiry has been a slow process. You know, maybe they’re taking time to hire the right people, but now I’m thinking okay, if we only have two years, is this taking time out of that? How much time will that leave us? Two years isn’t a lot of time. Even in the Oppal inquiry, that was six months I believe, and at the end families were pushing for an extension and they didn’t get that.
I know that this inquiry is opening a lot of wounds across the country, too. I don’t know if I or anyone else from my family will be testifying. We don’t know what the process is going to be like. We don’t know if families are going to be testifying directly in court, or if it’s just one family member who can testify, or a whole family. We’re left in limbo right now, and that’s eating away at me, that not knowing.
I get their emails, and that’s how I know they’re still in the hiring process. I hope that’s why it’s taking so long, that they’re taking the time to hire the right people.
Anushka:You talked about the BC inquiry. Tell us about some of the lessons that can be applied to the federal inquiry.
Lorelei: First of all, my family wasn’t even involved in the BC inquiry from the beginning. We only got involved because I stumbled upon a rally that they had outside of the inquiry. All of a sudden I met this lady from The Province newspaper, Suzanne Fournier, and she was very curious about me cause she didn’t know who I was or who I was representing. I noticed family members getting blanketed, and they had pictures on them of the women that had been killed by Pickton. I was thinking, I wonder if they made one for my cousin or if the family has to make one themselves. So I walked up to one of the organizers, and I asked her, and they started to look for Tanya’s blanket. Sure enough, there was a blanket for her with her picture on it. They blanketed me, there was this whole ceremony around it. At the end of the ceremony, Suzanne Fournier came up to me and asked me a bunch of questions, like why my family wasn’t involved. She introduced me to other family members, and they introduced me to the lawyers, who said “your family needs to be involved.” Right away I called my auntie Lila, and we got involved.
So that was a huge mistake from the beginning- not getting all the families involved. There were a lot of flaws in that inquiry. I missed a month of the inquiry because my mother passed away, but I remember, at the beginning, there were police officers on the stand- there were officers testifying and being cross-examined for days and days. When it came time for the community, who actually work with these women, they put five of them on the stand and I think they all had half an hour each and I was thinking they can cross examine a police officer for days – just one officer – but they put five people up with around a half hour each. That’s not a lot of time.
I remember one person specifically; Bonnie Fournier. She had a lot of information about those women because she worked with them and she had to say what she had to say in half an hour. I was like ‘how could they do this?’, they weren’t going to get a lot out of this. I was pretty upset about that but I know that some organizations were shut out of the inquiry and that’s how the coalition started; The Missing and Murdered Women’s Coalition.
They have to make sure that the non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) and the community is involved somehow because they work with a lot of women that are missing or have been murdered.
There’s a lot of issues with it, I know there’s some big ones I just can’t remember.
With the actual report itself, I haven’t actually looked at it fully. I tried to twice, but both times I was drawn to my cousin’s’ letter. My aunt had given them a letter that my cousin wrote and in the letter she states how much she loves her cousins. So both times I tried to read that report I just couldn’t. I just read her letter and shut the book closed. I still want to try to read it. This lady read the whole thing and she actually advised me not to read it. She said “Lorelei, don’t do it, it’s just too much for you”, like emotionally right?
There’s a lot more that I’ve said publicly about that inquiry and I don’t want the national inquiry to look like that inquiry. From what I remember, somebody told me that they called out the police and the RCMP a lot. The national inquiry should have reflected this aswell, but what I notice from the terms of reference for the national inquiry is that it’s not in there. I feel that’s very important. From what I hear is that Wally Oppal is saying “well we covered it”. But that’s just the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) in Coquitlam, that doesn’t cover all the RCPM and police officers across this country. These officers are a problem as well. They are the ones abusing our women and girls. That’s one important thing that needs to be brought up in this inquiry.
Anushka: Let’s talk a bit more about that because it’s come up a couple of times now where you’ve mentioned your communities and other Indigenous communities in general in relation with the police and specifically in regards to missing and murdered Indigenous women. Tell us a bit in regard to your personal experience and larger experience of what that relationship is like. I know it’s a big question.
Lorelei: Well in our history, the police were the ones taking our children and bringing them to the residential schools. This is where that bad relationship started. To this day, they are still sexually and physically abusing our women. Even with what’s happening in Québec where all those officers were actually being charged***. That one’s upsetting. You get these women who finally get the courage to go against these officers which is really hard. It’s really hard to talk about this issue let alone call them out. And then for that to happen. I know there’s an incident here in Vancouver and I don’t know all the details about it yet because it’s going to court.
I’m just shaking my head. It’s just a slap in the face.
In my own family stories, in Tanya’s case there was a VPD Clerk; Sandy Cameron, who was racist and judgemental when taking my cousins case. She even closed my cousin’s case a month into it without even checking to see if Tanya was at this party. Even before that she was saying a lot of racist things and calling my aunt down to say “Tanya’s probably in Mexico partying”, “she’s just a drug addict”, and “I should take her son from you”. So not only are the police abusing our women, but these officers are flawing the cases if they’re taking reports like that.
Even in my aunt’s case; she wasn’t technically listed as missing or murdered until 2004, but she went missing in around 1977 or 1978. My family tried to report her as missing several times. Even during this Pickton stuff they tried to report her missing again but because my missing auntie Belinda Williams wasn’t a sex worker or a drug addict they wouldn’t even take her case.
Then there’s also the cases of women that were deemed as a suicide; those need to get looked into because a lot of them were not suicide. Where police just say “oh it’s a suicide” without even really looking into the case. I’m actually unclear whether that is even going to get brought up in the inquiry and I want to do more research into that and voice my opinion on it.
I hear stories all the time of police officers abusing women physically and sexuallly. Even in the Wally Oppal report, it stated that the police officers were throwing womens in the back of paddywagons and driving down alleys with them so they would be bumped around in the back. I know of one woman that was in court who lost her hearing because of that. These officers need to be held accountable for all these types of cases.
Above: Women’s Memorial March in the Downtown East Side, Coast Salish Territoies
Anushka: In this Federal Inquiry, that’s slowly coming together, do you feel that the police will be held accountable?
Lorelei: I don’t know. I really don’t know and that’s what’s bothering me; not knowing what this is going to achieve.
Anushka: What are some things you would want the inquiry to achieve? What are the objectives?
Lorelei: Well, those 700 recommendations that are already out there about missing and murdered women and violence against women need to be implemented. There’s already recommendations out there, there just needs to be a process where they are implemented, even the ones that come out of the inquiry. It’s something I noticed in the Wally Oppal inquiry, that these recommendations don’t get implemented and that’s what these inquiries are for.
So, I am on the Missing and Murdered Women’s Coalition and we actually did a an open letter recently (December 2016). I’m just going to read some of it.
“The Coalition acknowledges that there are positive elements of the Inquiry****, but we are concerned that the larger issue of Indigenous women going missing and being murdered in this country every single day will not be adequately addressed given some clear limitations of the Terms of Reference*****. We also acknowledge that it may be very difficult to change the contents of the Terms of Reference now, but we ask you to not only seriously take the following issues into consideration when conducting the Inquiry, but actively work to include, solve, and answer them.
1) There is no explicit provision to examine the role policing has had in causing or contributing to the violence against indigenous women. The RCMP and other police departments, such as the Vancouver Police Department, have an extremely damaged relationship with indigenous communities, and ignoring this reality is deeply problematic. Several Indigenous women and families in Canada have reported instances of racism, brutality, and negligence on the part of law enforcement. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women also recently recommended that Canada ensure that the Inquiry clearly covers the investigation of the role of the RCMP, provincial police, municipal police and police complaints commissions across all Canadian jurisdictions. While the Commissioners may be able to look into policing if they choose under the final Terms of Reference, we feel that this must be an explicit mandate. The recent horrific decision by the Montreal Police investigatory committee to exonerate the Sûreté du Québec in thirty-seven cases of sexual violence against Indigenous women leaves us disheartened at the prospects for justice for Indigenous women and girls. Corruption in the form of internal investigations of policing authorities and the systematic disbelief of survivors’ experiences continues to shield police officers from prosecution for violence against Indigenous women and girls.
2) The final Terms of Reference, released August 3rd, 2016, places emphasis on the examination of systemic causes of violence, proper and inclusive accommodations for victims and witnesses, and healing for families and communities. The Coalition is pleased that the federal government has included these provisions, as the MWCI****** largely ignored these issues and alienated families. That said, we are also concerned that without a provision specifically for the investigation of policing, the Inquiry will not lead to tangible change.
3) The final Terms of Reference state that if family members wish to contest old cases or report misconduct on the part of the police, the Commissioners are to direct them towards the “appropriate authorities”—presumably the same authorities who caused them this injustice in the first place. This does not, in any shape or form, provide families with proper or adequate redress, or any form of closure or justice. Again, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women recently reiterated this concern and recommended that Canada establish a mechanism for the independent review of cases where there are allegations of inadequate or partial police investigations.
4) There must be an accountability framework in place to ensure that final recommendations from the Inquiry are fully resourced and implemented. During the course of our meeting with Minister Anton on August 3, 2016, she and her staff acknowledged that the provincial government cherry-picked which recommendations of the MWCI to implement (and which would be dismissed) without consulting with indigenous community members and organizations. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women also expressed concern that Canada has not developed an action plan or coordinated mechanism to oversee the implementation of that Committee’s 2015 report, resulting in thirty-seven recommendations that have not been implemented. This cannot happen with the National Inquiry.
Finally, we urge the National Inquiry to interpret provincial legislative tools like BC’s Order in Council establishing a parallel provincial inquiry as broadly as possible so that they do not place additional and varying restrictions on the scope of the National Inquiry’s work from province to province, or inhibit the Inquiry’s ability to meaningfully investigate key subject areas.”
So, yeah I feel like I covered most of that.
The Missing and Murdered Women’s Coalition is where I get a lot of information and support with my family’s case. They’ve helped me a lot with my family’s case.
Anushka: Much more than the authorities it sounds like
Lorelei: Oh yeah, for sure.
Above: Women’s Memorial March in the Downtown East Side, Coast Salish Territories
Anushka: How much participation do you feel like you’ve been able to have with the federal inquiry process?
Lorelei: Nothing. We did get to meet with the two commissioners in September but other than that nothing really and that wasn’t even supposed to happen. I think Michelle Audette arranged that. She just thought “Okay, they’re going to be in Vancouver to look at a space to set up their office” and she just set up a meeting which is great for thinking of us but ever since then we haven’t heard from them. I’ve just seen on their website that they are hiring.
Anushka: And you’ve mentioned, the positioning of Jody Wilson-Raybould in the government as an Indigenous woman was important as well and was something very important to you. Now that we’ve had some time to see what the Trudeau government is like, what they’ve been doing and maybe more accurately what they haven’t been doing, what are you opinions and feelings around that?
Lorelei: This is where I am starting to lose hope because of this process right now. I think Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould is the only one that is giving that little hope that I still have. Honestly, even when they announced this national inquiry I heard Minister Carolyn Bennett and Patty Hadu speak but I felt like I wasn’t really listening or believing them and It wasn’t until Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould spoke that I started to cry and I couldn’t believe it was happening. I do have a lot of trust issues with the government and it’s only been Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould that has been giving me a little bit of hope and that’s all I got for this National Inquiry because I am starting to think is this actually going to achieve what is is suppose to achieve. Our Indigenous women’s and girl’s lives depend on this and it almost feels like they’re going to have this inquiry and that’s it, done, but our women and girls are still going to go missing and be murdered so what do we do after that and that is where all of the front line workers and our Indigenous communities have to figure out something, because the violence against women and girls is still going to happen. This is an issue here but it is also happening around the world, Canada being a first world country we should be leading by example, there isn’t one country that isn’t violence free for our women and girls and children; babies even. I heard a story recently about babies being taken, just stolen after they are born and taken to a place in the forest, I believe this was in Guatemala. We live in a world that is full of violence against women and girls and children, it has to stop somewhere.
Anushka: With that difficulty, it is very admirable and powerful to meet with someone like you and for you to be one of those voices of your community out there banging on the walls and rattling some of those cages. That’s an acknowledgement that I wanted to make clear.
What are your misgivings with the Canadian Federal Government, what we acknowledge as the colonial government, to be running this inquiry?
Lorelei: I really don’t trust them, especially after the Wally Oppal inquiry and after what they did to our people. They took our children, they tried to take the Indian out of us, how could I trust these people? During the Wally Oppal inquiry my mom passed away and she died from alcoholism. She was trying to numb the pain from what happened to her in residential school; physical and sexual abuse and even in her own home and it was there because of residential schools. When she died from alcoholism, trying to numb that pain of our history I was so upset, first of all that’s my mom dying but I blame the government and I actually wanted to sue the government for killing my mom. I even spoke to a lawyer about how i could do this. We talked about how I was going to try and figure that out,but after burning my mom, I just left it alone.
Anushka:What do foresee for your community in terms of how you want them to be involved, also how you would you want to deal with the continuing organizing around this kind of stuff?
Lorelei: There are a lot of people out there in the community pounding the pavement, we just have to keep going. If we are burning out though we actually have to take care of ourselves, i’m actually at the point right now. I had an elder tell me I’m burnt out. With our allies they need to just be there at the rallies, support the families the best they can, listen to the residential school survivors stories, listen to the families of missing and murdered women because that is where their journey starts, when they can finally open up about what happened to them, just having someone sit there and listen. There are so many experts out there that can help with any kind of situation, we have lawyers, journalists, counselors. Offer your expertise to help us.
Anushka: Where online can we go to see these open letters being written by the coalition, information and updates about when events are happening and how to contact and offer skills and financial support and other kinds of help?
Lorelei: When we do those letters or press releases they usually come out of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs website because that’s where we meet every month. That would be the best place to reach the missing or murdered women coalition. They can be reached at the UBCIC facebook page.
Anushka: Thank you so much to taking time with us, I know this is a busy and difficult time for you, we do look forward to keep in touch and support your work and your community.
L: Thank you
*Butterflies in Spirit is a Vancouver dance troupe started in 2012 by Lorelei Williams. Their mission is to raise awareness of violence against Aboriginal Women and Girls and the Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women and Girls across Canada.
**A report published in 2012 by former B.C. attorney general, Wally Oppal, on how authorities handled cases involving missing and murdered women in the wake of the Robert Pickton case. It is also known as the Independent Commission of Inquiry into Policing in British Columbia
***In October 2015 a complaint was filed against six Quebec provincial police officers in Val-d’Or after several Indigenous women came forward with experiences of abuse from members of the force. This led to the officers involved being suspended with pay. In November 2016 the Crown prosecutors refused to charge the officers.
****The national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women
*****The scope of the inquiry
******Missing Women’s Commission of Inquiry
Above: Still Dancing by Jonathan Labillois
A single mother from Skatin Nations and Sts’Ailes BC. Lorelei Williams is dedicated to raising awareness of the horrific issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada. Lorelei works at the Vancouver Aboriginal Community Policing Centre as the Women’s Coordiantor and is on the Missing and Murdered Women’s Coalition. She also created a dance group called Butterflies in Spirit, to commemorate Aboriginal female victims of violence in Vancouver and across Canada. Starting with her own missing aunt, Belinda Williams, and her cousin, Tanya Holyk, who was among the women murdered by convicted serial killer Robert . Pickton, Lorelei Williams sought to ensure that all missing and murdered Aboriginal women across Canada would be remembered.
Anishka is a queer Indian-Muslim writer, performer and anarchist revolutionary with burning buildings in her dreams and the weapons of love and chaos in her hands.