Editor’s note: The following column may contain material that could be disturbing to some readers.
The lens turned back home in its fourth year with She Matters 4 Canada, which focused on indigenous women in our own country.
As CBM’s spokesperson for the campaign, it was a chance to tell my personal stories on one of the toughest subjects ever, murdered and missing indigenous woman and girls.
I often say if you ask an indigenous person if they know of a missing or murdered indigenous woman or girl, they will likely say no. “No, I don’t just know one.”
This is the case for most of us because our indigenous communities are very close. We also know many people from neighboring reserves because we are so connected.
In 2016, the government of Canada opened a national inquiry into the murdered and missing indigenous woman and girls, spurred on by the frequent requests of many indigenous families, communities and leaders.
There were 2,386 participants in the Truth Gathering Process from all across the land. The inquiry pulled away a veil of secrecy that was Canada-wide and used the word genocide in their final report.
At a high school in Abbotsford this past spring, Marion Buller, the chief commissioner of the National Inquiry Into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Woman and Girls, shared stories from families who had lost their loved ones.
She said the original number of deaths is far more than originally reported (approximately 1,000) because many deaths of indigenous women are ruled nonsuspicious.
One young woman, whose death had been ruled a suicide, had been found shot in the back.
There was another story in the news from up north where a young indigenous woman was found in a ditch, naked, an hour outside of her community. Her death was also ruled nonsuspicious.
My heart aches to read these stories and to think about how many precious lives have been taken and how many communities are left to grieve.
Grieving a loss is one thing. Grief is made even worse when there are no answers, or when an obvious murder has been deemed unworthy of further investigation. Injustice compounds grief.
When I am invited to speak to churches, I ask, “If you did not know about the residential schools your whole life, what else could Canada hide from you about indigenous people?”
These government-funded schools were administered by Christian churches and created for the purpose of removing indigenous children from the influence of their own culture and assimilating them into the dominant Canadian culture. Because of an incomplete historical record, the number of school-related deaths are unknown but are estimated to range between 3,200 and more than 6,000.
Canadians deserve to hear from indigenous people about indigenous issues. Listening to these stories is important.
Decades of ignorance about the residential schools made it clear that Canada does not willingly admit there is a problem.
Something has to change, especially if we as Christians truly believe that humankind is created in the image of God.
One of the reasons it is so easy to dismiss the news reports about murdered and missing indigenous woman and girls is because of stereotype and objectification.
It started back in the day when explorers from Europe were given the mandate called the (Christian) Doctrine of Discovery. The land was considered terra nullius – empty – if there was no recognized monarch found.
During the 1500s, there were debates about whether or not indigenous people had souls.
If we had souls, their obligation was to send missionaries. If we did not have souls, we could be exterminated.
Missionaries were sent after a papal announcement that indigenous people indeed had souls. Thus, began the second extermination attempt, which still continues today in some forms – termination by assimilation.
Canada has controlled the story from those days until today. Indigenous people have either been portrayed as dumb or as scary.
Such stereotyping is dangerous because it keeps us locked in position, never able to understand one another.
The other tactic is objectification. It is easier to dismiss news about indigenous people, to ignore treaties and to treat others badly when we can objectify them – defined by Dictionary.com as “degrade to the status of a mere object.”
When I was in sixth grade, my teacher announced we would be studying Indians in Canada. I suddenly felt a little bit special.
But then the teacher said, “We’ll be studying the Hurons who are in eastern Canada. But … they might be extinct.” My euphoria left immediately replaced by a feeling of utter objectification and invisibility.
No one would say those words today. But instead, we read biased news stories and hear our neighbors use derogatory stereotypes without even questioning where these ideas came from and why they persist until today.
Stereotyping can have deadly repercussions. This is only one of the reasons why there are so many indigenous women and girls at risk.
There was a joke making the rounds on the internet that said, “You know you’re Indian when…”. There were many funny comments posted by indigenous people themselves. We like to poke fun at ourselves, and indigenous people are often humorous.
Then, an indigenous radio host named Gunargie O’Sullivan, (Ga’axstalas) added a grave statement, “You know you’re Indian when you go missing, and no one looks for you.”
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series for the United Nations International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples (Aug. 9). Previous articles in the series are:
Seeking True Repentance for Western Christians’ Colonialism | Jonathan Langley
Breaking Colonialism’s Bonds and Building Friendships | D. Steven Porter
Cheryl Bear, Nadleh Whut’en, is Canadian Baptist Ministries’ Indigenous Relations Specialist.