Indigenous women, leaders say ‘no time to waste’ on MMIWG anniversary
One year after the National Inquiry on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) released its final report, Indigenous leaders say little progress has been made.
Titled Reclaiming Power and Place, the report concluded violence against Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people amounted to a race-based genocide empowered by colonial structures.
The report included 231 calls for justice directed at governments, industries, institutions, and all Canadians.
In a statement on Wednesday, the inquiry’s commissioners acknowledged growing awareness of the issue and thanked those who shared their testimony “for re-writing Canadian history by courageously telling your truths.”
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But they admonished the inaction, lack of transparency, and “deafening silence” from some governments, saying the calls for justice aren’t just recommendations, they’re legal imperatives when it comes to protecting human rights.
“As the ongoing levels of violence attest, the fundamental human rights and Indigenous rights of Indigenous women, girls and 2S [two-spirit] people continue to be violated daily in Canada,” the statement read.
“[They] continue to be subjected to colonial violence, physical violence, disappearances and murder.”
The commissioners called for international oversight if Canada does not implement the calls for justice in a timely manner.
The federal government had said it would release a national action plan – one of the report’s recommendations – by the first anniversary of the report’s publication.
Last week, however, Crown-Indigenous relations minister Carolyn Bennett announced the action plan had been delayed because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
‘We cannot afford more delays’
Lesa Semmler, the MLA for Inuvik Twin Lakes, told the Legislative Assembly on Wednesday she was “terribly disappointed and insulted” by news the action plan was being delayed over Covid-19.
She said the federal government had plenty of time with the report before the pandemic hit and had received numerous requests for a plan.
“This delay concerns me deeply. We as Canadians, as a government, as an Indigenous woman, as a mother, as an aunt of Indigenous women and girls, cannot afford any more delays,” she said.
Lesa Semmler, the MLA for Inuvik Twin Lakes. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio
“I get very emotional whenever I talk about the missing and murdered Indigenous women. I remember their stories, I see their faces. It’s never going to leave me.”
Semmler was one of the first to testify at inquiry hearings in Yellowknife in 2018. She spoke about her mother, Joy Semmler, who was murdered when she was eight years old.
More than 2,380 people participated in the national inquiry, which began in September 2016 and included truth gatherings across the country. Many shared personal, often painful stories about missing and murdered loved ones as well as their own experiences with violence.
Inquiry commissioner Qujag Robinson said the federal action plan could have been completed regardless of the pandemic.
“I think commissioner [Marion] Buller put it perfectly when she said, ‘That feels like a bit of a my-dog-ate-my-homework kind of an excuse,'” said Robinson, who described a “troubling” lack of national leadership and called for coordination between jurisdictions.
She pointed out that, much like the national inquiry, the pandemic has highlighted issues with data collection and a lack of recognition of the experiences of Indigenous people.
Research from the Yellowhead Institute found cases of Covid-19 in Indigenous communities are nearly three times those reported by Indigenous Services Canada.
“It’s a virus and it does not discriminate but how it’s devastating communities is discriminatory,” Robinson said.
“We are seeing that it is going to, and is affecting, those that are already the most marginalized and neglected in our society. This has to be a reminder of the immediate need to act and can’t be a reason to delay.”
Canada wants to ‘get it right’
Michael McLeod, the NWT’s Liberal MP, said the federal government is working with many partners on the action plan and discussions are ongoing. For some communities, he said, the pandemic has taken priority.
“I think all the people that have done the good work on this issue were expecting to be further along,” he said.
“The Covid-19 pandemic certainly hasn’t helped us. It’s caused plans to get a little bit deferred.”
Michael McLeod says discussions are ongoing during the pandemic. Emelie Peacock/Cabin Radio
McLeod said there remains a sense of urgency to complete the plan and a “desire to get it right.” He said it’s important for Indigenous people to be able to feel safe and have pride in their culture.
“People don’t want to let the families down, let the survivors down,” he said.
Many Indigenous people in the NWT have spoken to McLeod about the need for skills training and self-determination, he said. That means Indigenous governments need to be included in decision-making.
“Far too long, Canada has moved ahead and has been developed without the participation of Indigenous governments and it’s really left us with many gaps that have to be looked at and considered,” he said.
The Liberal government plans to introduce legislation on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People this year, he added.
‘We know what empty promises feel like’
Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya said the legacy of colonialism is alive and well in the territorial and federal governments.
“We see it, we feel it, we hear it,” he said. “We know what empty promises feel like and for Indigenous people, actions speak louder than words.”
A screenshot shows the cover of the MMIWG final report.
Nearly three quarters of the report’s calls to justice are directed at provincial and territorial governments.
The NWT government’s initial response to the report did not specifically address each of the recommendations, but outlined work the government was already doing in those areas. It said it would be up to the current Legislative Assembly to implement them.
“It’s not enough. GNWT cannot continue to pass the buck,” Yakeleya said in a statement on Wednesday.
“Women are the backbone to our nationhood, and we must do everything in our power to strength[en] ourselves and women, by making our women in society safe again.”
He told Cabin Radio the government’s response amounts to lip service and he has seen no movement on working with Indigenous governments or supporting families seeking justice.
There has been no commitment to creating a child and youth advocate in the NWT, he added.
Yakeleya wants the territory to take immediate action on the calls to justice and work with Indigenous governments on a nation-to-nation level.
“There’s no time to waste,” he said.
“These women are not just stats, they’re real in our communities.”
Yakeleya has been personally affected by the issue as his cousin’s daughter was murdered in Yellowknife while she was attending school. His aunt was murdered in Edmonton, and Yakeleya said for a long time, his mother and her siblings were kept in the dark about what happened to her.
“There was a lot of sadness when my mother talked to me, talked to my brothers and sisters about her older sister,” he said.
Beyond government, Yakeleya said the RCMP has a lot of work to do when it comes to restorative justice with Indigenous communities.
He noted there is longstanding mistrust of the RCMP as they were in charge of enforcing the Indian Act and took Indigenous children away from their families, and pointed to recent concerns in Fort Good Hope after it was discovered an RCMP officer in the community had been convicted of sexual assault.
CBC recently reported that across Canada, there is still no coordinated police approach to handling MMIWG cases and law enforcement’s response to the report has varied among jurisdictions.
Semmler, the Inuvik MLA, believes the territory shouldn’t wait on the federal government to take action. Caitlin Cleveland, the MLA for Yellowknife’s Kam Lake, backed that call.
“We have lost an entire year of action. We must demand change now,” Cleveland told the Legislative Assembly. “While we are focused on the response to Covid … the genocide of Indigenous women and girls cannot be allowed to continue in the face of inaction.”
Diane Thom is the NWT minister responsible for the status of women. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio
She noted some provinces have introduced missing persons legislation, which makes it easier for law enforcement to search for missing people
Commissioner Robinson said it’s been encouraging to see the number of women who’ve taken on leadership roles in the NWT since the report was released.
She pointed to the Yukon Advisory Committee as a good example of how territorial governments can work with Indigenous people to identify solutions at the community level.
“How the work is done is equally important to what work is done,” she said.
The committee is made up of the Yukon government, Yukon First Nations, and Indigenous women’s groups and families. They’re working together to review and analyze the calls to justice and create a territorial action plan.
Diane Thom, the NWT minister responsible for the status of women, said she understands people don’t “want the report to sit on the shelf and collect dust.” But she doesn’t agree that the territory needs its own action plan.
The issue is national in scope, she said, and the NWT can benefit from discussions and experiences across Canada.
Thom said the territorial government has created an interdepartmental working group tasked with reviewing and analyzing the calls for justice. She said there is no timeline for this work but committed to providing more regular reports.
When it comes to missing persons legislation, Thom said it’s not something the NWT government has considered but the territory is open to discussing it.
Mahalia Yakeleya-Newmark said real change will come from Indigenous communities and people.
Regardless of what Canada does, she said Indigenous people are strong and will continue to fight for justice. She noted the first anniversary of the report comes at a time when protests against racial inequality are taking place across the world.
A beaded hearts tapestry produced by the NWT Native Women’s Association hung at a Yellowknife hotel as MMIWG hearings began in January 2018. Jesse Wheeler/Cabin Radio
“We must really invest in our community organizing and our own community solutions … and gatherings because that is where the needs of our community are identified, and it is through that work that we can get things done,” she said.
As a recipient of the NDN Collective’s changemaker fellowship, Yakeleya-Newmark is currently working on a mural series in Yellowknife that focuses on the strengths of Indigenous people and communities.
The project came about, she said, after conversations with her sister about how to honour their late cousin Mariella Lennie and other Indigenous women and girls.
“Indigenous women are strong, we’re powerful, we are the life givers in our communities, we are hard workers,” Yakeleya-Newmark said.
“We are the people who get things done and yet we face a long history of being diminished and of being violated and of literally being murdered and assaulted.”
Lennie was 17 years old when she went missing in Yellowknife in 1991. Her body was found near Con Mine in 1992 but her murder remains unsolved. Yakeleya-Newmark said she and her sister have been working to raise awareness about the case and find justice.
“I remember the day that my mom received a phone call that this had happened very clearly,” she said. “I was a little girl. So I remember how hurt my mom was and how devastating that was.”
This year the mural project will focus on relationships and community-building and there are plans for a webinar series. Completion of the mural is expected next summer.
Ollie Williams contributed reporting.