Believe it or not: there is a major Human Rights violation occurring in Canada right now. Since 1980, at least 1,182 Aboriginal women are missing or have been murdered.  The Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister, however, admits that, despite these statistics, this number is likely substantially higher. How does something like this happen?

Twelve hundred mothers, sisters, and daughters have disappeared or are dead.   Breaking down the issue, the statistics surrounding this are staggering. Aboriginal women report violence 3.5 times higher than other Canadian women, and are 5 times more likely to die of this violence. Furthermore, the level of violence reported by Canadian First Nations women is more severe than that reported of other Canadian women.  The province of Alberta has the lowest “clearance” rates in the country – which means that the majority of the cases are not resolved. Why is this happening?

An inquiry into the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in Canada, (MMIWC) is taking place to investigate the underlying mechanisms that make Aboriginal women more susceptible to violence, and the corresponding response of government and other institutions. The inquiry is set to be completed in 2018 – after 2 years of data collected. However, the Native Women’s Association of Canada’s Report card on the inquiry so far has it falling short of some expectations.

stolen_sisters2_0

Why Should You Care?

  • This issue has lasting impact. The majority of the missing and murdered are mothers. In 2010, an estimated more than 440 children were impacted by the loss of their mother. What becomes of these children in this intergenerational issue?
  • While the violence inflicted on aboriginal women is often done by their partner, Aboriginal women are 3 times more likely to be victims of violence from a stranger. This means that the crime has a lot to do with the vulnerability of the victim – and is far from simply an inter-familial or inter-cultural issue. This means that there are perpetrators among us who are actively seeking the most vulnerable members of our population.
  • Although MMIWC are receiving attention lately, this has not always been the case. There is a societal bias that this human rights violation has much to do with the risky lifestyle “chosen” by the victim. Victim blaming has no place in our society – a crime committed is the fault of the criminal, not the victim. As human beings, we are much more than what field we choose to earn money in. We all have multiple roles – and these women are daughters, mothers, friends, and “stolen sisters”.
  • If your set of personal ethics doesn’t lead you to be concerned, the very fact that there is a large inquiry being undertaken into this matter, that MMIWC is a well-known acronym, and the fact that Amnesty International has found this to be a significant human rights violation should stir you into concern.

What Can I Do?

Educate Yourself:

  • Gain knowledge in Canada’s historical treatment of Indigenous peoples and how these historical events, in particular, the Residential Schools, are impacting Indigenous peoples today.
  • Take a look around at the women in your life. Try to imagine what it must be like to physically search for them, maybe never hearing from them again after they disappear one night, or finding their remains after weeks or months of searching. Thousands of families and communities are directly affected by missing or murdered women. Make it real to yourself. Meet people who are searching. Hear their stories and recognize their humanity as well. Then lend a hand.

Create Awareness:

  • Help out with The Red Dress Project, where red dresses are displayed annually to symbolize each of the 1, 182 missing or murdered.
  • Partake in the Annual Women’s Memorial March that occurs in and around February 14 in various cities.

Influence Change:

  • Do not allow racist dialogue of any kind to occur around you.
  • Spread the word: do not be afraid to tell people that this issue matters to you, in-person and on social media.
  • Expressions of Reconcilliation – become involved in the truth and reconciliation process with suggestions found here.
  • Support feminism – which seeks to find equality for both genders and all races.
  • Reach out to groups doing work around these stolen sisters and at-risk Indigenous women, and lend your time, money and support to keep them safe.

erin

Erin Newman, M.Ed. is a mental health therapist specializing in the treatment of youth in both private practice and in the public sector. She is also passionate about feminist issues, Indigenous rights, and advocacy for children and youth. Academically, Erin was the recipient of the Indspire Scholarship and the Metis Bursary Award for social services. She hopes to pursue further graduate studies exploring how movement, dance and therapy can assist in healing trauma. Erin uses gardening, nature, and animal therapy for her own personal growth, is a dancer with the integrated and political performing group, CRIPSIE, and spends the rest of her spare time chasing after a toddler.

I attended a conference in the field of child and youth care at MacEwan University this spring. Prior to opening comments, the emcee addressed the crowd. His initial words were somewhere along the lines of “before we begin, I would like to acknowledge that we are on Treaty 6 land”.  Because this was the first time I had heard this acknowledgment, my initial reaction was that it was neat to hear; however, I assumed it was said because there were many people in the room that were First Nations, and many employees of agencies who serve First Nations people (myself being in both categories). Furthermore, I assumed this acknowledgement was directed more particularly to the First Nations individuals in attendance, as a thank-you-for-giving-up-your-historical-land sort of thing. It was fitting and appropriate and I’m sure that most in the audience accepted and understood the acknowledgment.

Now, I wonder how accurate these assumptions were. Did all the attendees understand the reasons behind recognizing treaties? Do I? Given that I come from a lineage that means I am both colonizer and colonized, it is a topic I better be clear on.

So, what is a treaty? On a basic level, it is an agreement between the Government of Canada and First Nations people whereby tribes gave land to the government in exchange for certain “privileges”, such as pockets of land and hunting/fishing “rights”. At least…that’s how the Government explains them. Accounts from the other side, however, tell us that these treaties were coercive and forced upon First Nations tribes while settlers started moving into these lands and encroaching onto the food supply. First Nations signed the agreements, and many accounts indicate that this was done primarily because agreeing to the treaties was necessary for survival. In total there are 11 treaties signed.

My city, Edmonton,  is within Treaty 6, but I can’t help but wonder how it came to be that the land underneath this city does not remain that of First Nations people? The answer seems to be that Treaty agreements meant that land was to be shared between settlers and First Nations, and the way of life of each was to be respected and maintained. However, as time went on, Indigenous people were pushed onto small pieces of land within the Treaty territories, called reserves, which was part of the overall colonial project to erode their connection to the land and their way of life. The widely diverse and rich cultural practices of Indigenous peoples were lost. Or, like the land, stolen.

Why should we acknowledge this? Because this land is both stolen and shared – stolen from the Indigenous people who lived here long ago and now shared between those with lineages that settled here and those with First Nations lineage who remain. In my case, I embody both. Yes, now shared, although most of us would never know this and shared in way that does not maintain or respect the Indigenous ways of life found here, as was promised. In fact, what we see today is the continued segregation of First Nations people,  spatially and socially.

“The ground on which we walk is sacred ground. It is the blood of our ancestors”

– Chief Plenty Coups

So, what do treaty acknowledgements do? Treaty acknowledgements serve as a reminder that this land is shared imperfectly, and that we have real commitments to fulfill towards one another. They also remind us of the historical treatment of First Nations people in Canada, and how we are or ought to be working toward reconciliation as a society.

Fast-forward to this fall, where I was a part of a performance. I don’t believe it was attended by many First Nations individuals, yet the organizers still acknowledged Treaty 6 territory. This time I better understood the importance of the acknowledgment, and that it not only serves to remind that the land was taken from First Nations people, but it moves us away from segregation, towards an imperative of sharing the land and experiences, while appreciating and embracing cultural differences. It is a small gesture with profound impact. This time, when I heard that acknowledgement, I recognized that I am both settler and indigenous, privileged and segregated, oppressor and oppressed, colonizer and colonized, and I continue to work through those divisions within me, represented by the land I walk upon and the society I participate in.


erinErin Newman, M.Ed. is a mental health therapist specializing in the treatment of youth in both private practice and in the public sector. She is also passionate about feminist issues, Indigenous rights, and advocacy for children and youth. Academically, Erin was the recipient of the Indspire Scholarship and the Metis Bursary Award for social services. She hopes to pursue further graduate studies exploring how movement, dance and therapy can assist in healing trauma. Erin uses gardening, nature, and animal therapy for her own personal growth, is a dancer with the integrated and political performing group, CRIPSIE, and spends the rest of her spare time chasing after a toddler.

As a mom, almost every day there is a moment where I think to myself, am I messing up my kid?  Is she eating too much sugar? Am I on my cellphone too much? Is the TV on too often? And, even when she has my undivided attention – is it truly undivided if my mind wanders? Can any or all of these concerns screw up my kid for life?

As a therapist, I know how ridiculous this line of thinking is. Every day, I see kids whose lives are truly negatively impacted by their past or present. Their parents are on the streets as drug addicts and we now have a teenager questioning her very existence and contemplating suicide. A youth diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder and ADHD is moved in and out of various residences and can’t quite connect to anyone because he was severely emotionally abused as a child. Sugar, phones, TV, and thoughts do not cause trauma as drugs, abuse, and dysfunction do. And while it is important to consider all factors when raising our children, I also know that somethings are more harmful than others.

But let’s back up. Why would a parent turn to drugs? What leads someone to take their frustrations out on a child? How can someone sexually abuse their own?  Are they only an individual problem? Many agree that most of these issues are systemic, inter-generational and related to widespread trauma. When these associated effects accumulate in certain communities, the possibility for these terrible social side effects multiplies for everyone involved.

As a Metis and white person, I’ve never had to wonder in which generation things went “wrong.” Fortunately, I’ve never had to live with the stigmas that come with addiction, trauma, and other mental health issues. As a Metis person who looks fully white, I’ve never had to live with discrimination on a daily basis. But I do live with dissonance – like feeling exceptionally close to the First Nations community but always considered to be an outsider, treating racist individuals in therapy, and raising my multi-race child to be open and inclusive and loving to all, while protecting her from the problems of the world that I see everyday.

The biggest way I could screw up my child would be allowing her to live a life of ignorant bliss. As a society, we mess up our kids by allowing them to embrace or ignore the discriminatory racial values of society, to view mental illness and trauma as an individual problem, and by not embracing, helping, and loving those whose lineages constrain the choices for their future course in life. Next time you see that an allegedly “thugged out” POC kid walking around downtown – give her a smile and then get to work on educating your kids about these important subjects. A little compassion goes a long way to breaking social isolation and she needs to know that you care about not messing up kids.


erinErin Newman, M.Ed. is a mental health therapist specializing in the treatment of youth in both private practice and in the public sector. She is also passionate about feminist issues, Indigenous rights, and advocacy for children and youth. Academically, Erin was the recipient of the Indspire Scholarship and the Metis Bursary Award for social services. She hopes to pursue further graduate studies exploring how movement, dance and therapy can assist in healing trauma. Erin uses gardening, nature, and animal therapy for her own personal growth, is a dancer with the integrated and political performing group, CRIPSIE, and spends the rest of her spare time chasing after a toddler.

Last week, I spoke about Reconciliation to a room full of white people. I was invited by a local holistic health clinic to come speak before their keynote lecturer because a friend of mine that works there had let them know I am raising money in support of the Young Indigenous Women’s Circle of Leadership Cree cultural camp at the University of Alberta. I have done many talks for a variety of different audiences before, but this was the first time, in a very long time, that I was only one of four people in the room who belong to a visible minority. And I was certainly the only apparent Muslim in the room.

You can imagine my trepidation at suddenly realizing what I was about to do: I was about to stand in front of these people from a dominant socio-economic and racial strata of society, and I was going to talk to them about being on Treaty 6 territory, about our responsibility as settlers and refugees on Indigenous and First Nations land, about why adopting the language of reconciliation is important but why putting that language into action is even more critical to moving forward. About why this was their responsibility. About why someone like me –an ally – should not be ignored. This is difficult enough for anyone to do, never mind me as a Muslim.

I think the latter point is where my nerves kicked in: would this group of people see me – a veiled, Muslim woman – as an ally of the process of reconciliation and Indigenous peoples? Would I be harming the cause by appearing in front of such a group when so many view me and my Islam as a social adversary already?

Of course, I am not speaking to anxieties about this group of people in particular, but systemic uncertainties that made me think twice before talking to them – anxieties I hadn’t really had in over a year as a public speaker. The actual people in the room were friendly and inviting, and when I started speaking, I could see heads nodding as I acknowledged Treaty 6 and touched on points about our duties as people sharing this space with regards to how we could support the creation of safe spaces for young Cree women “to just be free to be Cree.”

After I spoke, the keynote was introduced and the main lecture began. I had to take off but I left an envelope on the side that people could put donations in, reminding myself not to be too disappointed if it came back empty. Yes, heads had been nodding, but no one clapped when I was done talking. And maybe my veil was just too much of a barrier for people to get past, even if they agreed with the words coming out of my mouth.

In the end, people did donate – enough, in fact, to cover all of the costs of food and crafting supplies for one young girl attending the camp for its two-week duration. But even if they hadn’t, I came to realize how powerful the whole experience was socially, if not monetarily. Rather than being anxious about talking to white people about reconciliation as a Muslim woman, I should have viewed it as an incredible opportunity to challenge what it means to stand in solidarity with one another.

I stood there as a Muslim woman calling for sisterhood, regardless of where our sisters come from, how they look and the culture they practice – a sisterhood that celebrates those origins and appearances and cultural elements. I stood there as a Muslim woman, enjoining people to what is just and compassionate behaviour – to contemplate their social position and what responsibilities it entails to others around them. I stood there as a Muslim woman imploring people to learn about one another and help create spaces for Indigenous people to learn about themselves. I didn’t do this in spite of my Islam, as I belatedly realized: I did this because of my Islam. Because respect, protecting the freedom to worship, enjoining what is just and kind, and seeking knowledge are all cornerstones of my way of life. In standing before a group of white people, talking to them about reconciliation, I was unintentionally dispelling misconceptions about my own people. And any chance we have to share with one another and explore intersections of knowledge to come to greater mutual understanding should never be taken lightly.

For some, what happened last week may have only been a ten minute fundraising speech to garner funds for social change. To me, it was the change itself that we are all looking for.

In solidarity,

Nakita

To donate to my campaign in support of the YIWCL’s Cree Women’s Cultural Camp, please visit: www.gofundme.com/creewomenscamp. Our next group run is on December 4th – pledge a runner today.

Image Credit: “Over Time We Come Together 2015″ by Cassie Leatham”


nakitaNakita Valerio is an academic, activist and writer in the community. She is currently pursuing graduate studies in History and Islamic-Jewish Studies at the University of Alberta.  Nakita was named one of the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation’s Top 30 under 30 for 2015, and is the recipient of the 2016 Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, as well as the Walter H. Johns Graduate Studies Fellowship. She has also been honoured with the State of Kuwait, the Queen Elizabeth II and the Frank W Peers Awards for Graduate Studies in 2015. She has been recognized by Rotary International with an Award for Excellence in Service to Humanity and has been named one of Edmonton’s “Difference Makers” for 2015 by the Edmonton Journal. Nakita is the co-founder of Bassma Primary School in El Attaouia, Morocco and the Vice President of External Affairs with the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council.

 

In personal solidarity with Alberta’s First Nations and Indigenous communities, The Drawing Board owner, Nakita Valerio, is raising money raising money in support of the Young Indigenous Women’s Circle of Leadership youth camp by getting sponsorship for a 5km run on October 8th, 2016.

index

The money will be donated to the YIWCL to be used for basic operational costs of their 8-day intensive, Cree-immersion cultural camp. Recently, this camp lost funding and faces an uncertain future.

This initiative means a lot to me because I have learned that one of the first points of cultural erosion and social disorder is the erasure of a community’s history and culture. In my experience in women’s advocacy, I have also learned that incredible social change comes through the empowerment of women and the creation of safe spaces in which they can learn and grow.

I am doing my very small part to get fundraising kick-started for this very worthwhile cause and would appreciate your support of both my social justice and exercise efforts in the meantime.

Donors will receive social media shout-outs and other perks along the way.

Help spread the word!
IMAGE CREDIT: Artist Aaron Paquette – please visit his blog HERE and support local artists.

 

 

The latest annual report on life expectancy from Alberta Health was published earlier this week and the massive drop in the projected lifespan of Alberta’s indigenous people is startling. The report states that “in comparison to Alberta’s total population, the First Nations populations experience an infant mortality rate that is more than one and a half times higher, a suicide rate that is five to seven times higher, a higher rate of diabetes and significantly higher rates of arthritis, asthma, heart disease and high blood pressure.” While non-indigenous Albertans are expected to live to the ripe old age of 81.87 years, the indigenous life expectancy currently sits at only 70.36 years. That’s almost a dozen years less than everyone around them. A dozen less years to live, laugh and love in relative health like the rest of us.

It is critical to realize that these statistics are only an alarm bell sounding for the rest of us living next to or among our indigenous neighbours. These numbers do not tell First Nations stories: tragic stories of children lost prematurely, stories of loved ones lost to suicide and to the social isolation of addiction and mental illness. They do not tell of the loss of an entire way of life and the effect that this has had on a community’s eroded sense of self and access to healthy, life-giving foods and exercise.

The fact that these preventable tragedies are happening in different communities occupying the same geographic space is unacceptable, and it is not only the imperative of our government to take action: as a Muslim convert born in Alberta, I am not only religiously implored to treat my neighbours well, care for them and cooperate with them, I am also forbidden from harming them and allowing others to harm or neglect them as well. Islam teaches us that it is incumbent upon everyone to ensure that our neighbours do not go hungry as we eat our fill – no matter who those neighbours might be. And an extension of this is that we simultaneously cannot accept our own privileged access to health foods and services, while our brothers and sisters are neglected. Food bank usage among non-indigenous Albertans alone increased more than 23% between 2014 and 2015: if we are going to be a strong Alberta, we are our strongest together and this starts by helping protect our most vulnerable populations.

Empty stomachs and subpar nutrition have vast social consequences, particularly for communities that are already vulnerable through inherited historical trauma and continuing marginalization. The first question to enter one’s mind when faced with what Health Minister Sarah Hoffmann is calling “a troubling situation” should be: how can I help?

The most practical and immediate action you can take is to support local agencies that are trying to make change. Municipal food banks help serve indigenous peoples in cities while Alberta Food Banks is the provincial association of food banks with a mission to advance the vital role, capacity and voice of Alberta’s food banks through advocacy, educational and networking opportunities. While they have yet to form a similar initiative as the Regional Food Distribution Association (of Northwestern Ontario) which feeds indigenous communities specifically, there is no reason such a critical project could not be initiated here. And putting our dollars and donations where our mouths are helps such projects gain momentum. Further, while it is critical that the government of Alberta take action to improve access to health services, better infrastructure and healthier foods, we cannot forget that these people are our elected representatives. Contact your MLA to ensure they are doing everything they can to answer the call to action and are following through on partnerships with indigenous leaders to address the issue through purposeful action.

At the very least, raise awareness with the intention of taking action and remember that while these news stories and reports may fall off our radar within a couple of days on being shared on a newsfeed, these troubling statistics are life stories of the indigenous people around us: lives cut short, potential diminished, and injustice allowed to continue in our midst. I, for one, cannot accept that reality and neither should you.

Nakita Valerio is the owner and head writer for The Drawing Board.


Update: I have called the Alberta Food Banks to ask for an update on any projects that deliver to reserves specifically and will follow-up with how to donate or initiate such a project depending on their response.