I was asked to reflect on December 6th 1989 and the aftermath of such violence in relation to contemporary forms of violence we face as Indigenous women in Canada. I am tremendously humbled by this task. While my words today focus on Indigenous families and communities, in no way, do I wish to distract from the ways in which violence affects us all, wherever we are from or from the specific grief families have for the loss of their loved one on this tragic day. I dedicate these words to my students. Your ethics, ideals, friendship and actions inspire me on a daily basis.
Violence takes many forms.
It is imperative as a society that we are vigilant and understand the many forms that violence takes. For Indigenous women and girls, violence has many faces and it takes us away from our families, our lands and our own selves. As Indigenous women, we do not need statistics to point out how physical and sexual violence becomes a prominent experience in our lives. Whether perpetrated by men who are supposed to love us or by men we know to hate us, we learn at a very young age that resistance means to survive, to learn how to hide the scars and bury the emotional pain of this kind of violence.
But, as I have said, violence takes many forms. Two stories were prominent in the media this week that underscore this point. The first story reported the unbelievable increase in Aboriginal inmates in our federal prisons, despite a decline in crime statistics. In Canada, Aboriginal prisoners make up 20% of the federal prison population despite being only 4% of the general population. According to the same report, Aboriginal women make up 34% of the federal prison population and 75% of reported incidents of self-injury. This last statistic stings more than anything I could ever write, speak or convey. It is a pain that is too familiar and a form of violence that cuts to the core of colonial harm.
The second story, featured in a series in the Edmonton Journal, revealed the underreported and staggering number of Aboriginal children who have died in foster homes in a single province. That report found that while only nine percent of Alberta children are Aboriginal, they account for a staggering 78% of children who have died in foster care since 1999. There are more Indigenous children in state care now then there ever were in residential schools. And this report tells us that they are not safe.
In this so-called year of reconciliation, how is that Indigenous men, women and youth are 10 times more likely than other Canadians to be incarcerated in their lifetimes? In the year of reconciliation, how is that our children apprehended by the state into foster care make up 78% of all deaths in one province? In a year of reconciliation, how is it that women must still place their own bodies between gas companies’ thumper trucks and the land to prevent further destruction of the earth, our mother? In a year of reconciliation, how is it that Canada continues to ignore calls for a national inquiry into the murdered and missing Native women, our sisters, mothers, daughters and friends? These questions anger me. Indeed, they often paralyze me but they also inspire me to keep questioning, seeking answers and challenging people to never forget how violence operates in the daily lives of Indigenous peoples. These are questions I see my students carry as burdens, and the ones I see them struggle to find answers to when confronted with such brutality. Their dedication to finding answers makes me proud and sad for them all at once. But this thought brings me back to December 6th, and those beautiful young women who died that day.
When I think of December 6th, 1989, I think that 14 lives stopped so short is a tremendous and irrecoverable loss to all of us in shaping a better future. I cannot imagine a more bitter loss than that of one’s child to such brutality on school grounds. When I think of those young women, I think of my own beautiful students. But most of all, I think of their mothers and sisters and their loved ones.
I think those young women are our loved ones.
I think too of course of the children, men, women and girls that Indigenous peoples have lost to colonialism and gendered violence in schools, in the prisons, and in their own homes.
I think that colonialism is gendered violence.
Yet given the overwhelming sadness I feel about the pervasiveness of violence in our society, I refuse to believe that violence in all these forms is a given.
Gendered violence is not a given.
In fact, colonialism is not a given. We have the tools: our minds and our hearts, our ability to love, and our commitment as people here today who can remember and envision something better. A better relationship built in the wake of violence but not beholden to it. Understanding how we came to be here in this place as settler, ally, immigrant or Indigenous, we can begin to travel down a path together towards truer forms of reconciliation. We can move towards that future together that will see an end to violence in all its forms, against women, against the land, against our own selves. Before we can do that however, we have to look back and remember, take account of our past as we walk together towards that decolonized future.
I want to close by reading a few words from Chickasaw feminist and novelist Linda Hogan from the end of her novel Solar Storms — forgive me, I am a literary scholar and my students are reading this treasure as their last text in my Indigenous Feminisms course this term. I chose to close the semester with this story as a gift to my students who I know are weary from reading about and working through the impacts of patriarchal colonialism. Indeed, I often re-read the ending of this novel when I am overwhelmed by the work that faces me, or my own past experiences with violence that make me doubt what I carry inside myself. Importantly, Hogan chooses to end a novel about women’s love and resistance with an affirmation—a ‘yes’ to all of us working towards resurgence that is loving and beautiful.
If you listen at the walls of one human being, even if that one is yourself, you will hear the drumming. Older creatures are remembered in the blood. Inside ourselves we are not yet upright walkers. We are tree. We are frog in amber. Maybe earth itself is just now starting to form.
One day when the light was yellow, I turned to [my mother] and I said, “Something wonderful lives inside me.”
She looked at me. Yes, she said. […]
Something beautiful lives inside us. You will see. Just believe it. You will see.
Dory Nason (Ph.D. University of California, Berkeley) is Anishinaabe and an enrolled member of the Leech Lake Band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. She currently holds a joint position with the First Nations Studies Program and the Department of English at the University of British Columbia. Her areas of research include contemporary Indigenous Feminisms and related Native women’s intellectual history and literature.
A version of this piece was originally delivered as a speech at the University of British Columbia’s commemoration of the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, on November 28, 2013 in Vancouver, BC.