We Are All Treaty People

One Path to Truth Before Reconciliation: Reading the Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls

  • Published - 30/08/2022
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  • Posted By - The Saskatchewan Reclaiming Power and Place Reading Group
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Indigenous people have rightly emphasized the need for Truth before Reconciliation. However, many non-Indigenous people who may genuinely want Reconciliation and are prepared to work at achieving it may yet be at a loss about the way to arrive at such Truth. No one route to getting at Truth before Reconciliation exists, nor is there a singular truth about Indigenous experiences in Canada that needs to be faced before Reconciliation can actually occur. Nonetheless, the Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (hereafter the Final Report, or simply, the Report) can help non-Indigenous Canadians get significantly closer to the truths of Indigenous experiences in this country than they were before reading it.

If you are among those who desire Reconciliation, and particularly if your heart aches or you feel shame, guilt, or anger when you read about yet another Indigenous woman, girl, Two-Spirit, or other non-binary Indigenous person having gone missing or being found murdered, you are not alone. If you feel powerless to do anything about the situation, and especially if you think you don’t know enough to be able to act effectively in response to the ongoing epidemic of violence, you might benefit from reading about the learning experience of a mostly Saskatoon-based group of settlers who tackled the Final Report. Shortly after its release, we formed a reading group to better equip ourselves to move towards Reconciliation and to act in solidarity with Indigenous relatives.

The Very Reverend Jordan Cantwell, a participant in the reading group, pointed out that “Indigenous people have told us that they don’t want our guilt or our shame or even our anger. What they want is solidarity, for us to stand with them as relations.” This article documents one attempt to do so, specifically on the issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and Two-Spirit, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, Intersex, Asexual, and those other sex- and gender-diverse people whom the authors of the Final Report recognized by the plus sign at the end of the 2SLGBTQQIA+ acronym. (Hereafter we abbreviate this acronym to 2S when using it in combination with the term “Indigenous Women and Girls,” its abbreviation IWG, or the related designation of the Missing and Murdered, MMIWG.)

As members of an interfaith reading group we met, mostly monthly, between July of 2019 and March of 2022, to discuss Reclaiming Power and Place (RPP), the Final Report of the National Inquiry.  Then, group members involved at the end, the Reverend Nobuko Iwai, Sheila Catto, Susan Gingell, Jane Knox, and Lea Pennock, planned how we could ourselves respond to the Report’s Calls for Justice.

Besides sharing our reading group process in an article, our commitments included donating to Iskwewuk E-wichiwitochik (IE)/ Women Walking Together, a local group that works on the issue of MMIWG2S. It does so by supporting victims’ families, educating others about the issue, and lobbying all levels of government to urgently address the disappearances and murders. Our hope in writing this article is that other reading or (inter-)faith groups, racial- and gender-equity activists, and other justice-seekers will be prompted to read the Report and aided in establishing their own process. Most important is that they are then motivated to act on those of the Report’s 231 Calls to which the group has, or individual members have, the power to respond.

One of those responses needs to be to hold various leaders accountable for urgently creating change: leaders in government, , education, healthcare, social services, policing, and other Canadian institutions, as well as those in group members’ own families, and social and workplace circles. The 2022 Progress Report on the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA+ People National Action Plan affirms the special importance of advocates’ and allies’ commitments to impel governments to act: “your ongoing efforts to push forward and ensure that missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA+ people are at the forefront of government decision making is much appreciated.”

RPP was made public in June 2019, so the Report may seem old news to many. Imagine, though, that the one gone missing or found murdered were your mother, daughter, sister, gender-diverse relative, or close friend. Would the Report then seem old news? Consider too, that RPP explains and lays out plans for ending the longstanding, complexly interrelated nature of the violences done to Indigenous Women, Girls, and 2S people. Lives are at stake.

Those who are appalled at the ongoing epidemic of violence can, however, feel daunted by the Report’s 231 Calls. The many Calls are directed separately to groups with the power and responsibility to act:

  • various levels of government;
  •  industries, institutions, services, and partnerships, including media and social influencers;
  • health wellness, and social service providers in general and child welfare workers in particular;
  • transportation providers and the hospitality industry;
  • police;
  • attorneys, law societies, and corrections;
  • educators;
  • and all Canadians.

Noting that not all of the Calls are directed towards institutions is critically important. Individuals can certainly answer some Calls, and people do not have to be in powerful positions to respond.

Reading not just the Calls but the entire Report empowers readers with knowledge of the systemic nature of the problems and helps explain why the Report calls the violence against IWG2S people genocide. Such knowledge helps us to move beyond reading newspaper reports or signing petitions; it helps us to see how and where we might have influence on stopping and redressing the violence. Undeniably, reading the over 900 pages of the main Report is a big project. Still, as our group’s experience shows, the prospect need not be paralyzing. Reading and learning from the Report, especially hearing directly from survivors and families, can be transformative and invaluable for those willing to wrestle with the painful realities it documents.

How the Group Came About and Developed

When RPP was published, Nobuko Iwai, minister at Saskatoon’s Grosvenor Park United Church, knew she wanted to read it. Aware of how long the Report was, however, she experienced what proved a common feeling among group members: “I figured I really needed to have a group to be accountable to, to keep on reading.” Thus, Iwai sent out invitations to other local people to be part of a group reading and discussing RPP.

Some, like Catto, learned about the group from announcements at, or in the bulletin of, the United Churches they attend. Pennock read one of the monthly announcements of meetings on the website of the Office of the Treaty Commissioner of Saskatchewan. This publicity also led several others to join the group, either for a single meeting to see what we were up to, or in the case of Knox, our sole Regina author, for the final four meetings. She joined after having been active in Reconciliation work through her Unitarian Congregation. 

Gingell, who has also been a 7-year member of Iskwewuk E-wichiwitochik (IE), learned of the reading group from one of IE’s Co-Chairs, Darlene Okemaysim-Sicotte. Still, Gingell joined the reading group because she knew that as a person of European ancestry, she lacked a comprehensive understanding of the lived experiences of violence faced by IWG2S. She explains, “I wanted to be more broadly informed, and consequently more sensitive to the families whose needs IE attempts to serve; more knowledgeable about what those families and other Indigenous experts say is necessary to overcome the violence; and better equipped to help advocate to all levels of government for change.” She also reports being aware from other contexts, “how important it is not to burden members of groups so negatively affected by colonialism as Indigenous people have been, with educating members of groups who have materially benefitted from colonial processes and continue to do so.”

 The group started with about 15 members, but our numbers fluctuated over time, and on rare occasion only two attended a meeting. The important thing in such circumstances is to keep going. With our group, both the desire to educate ourselves and a growing appreciation of other members as a rich resource to help us contend with the complexity of the Report made us persevere.

How the Group Operated and Its Impact on Group Members

As Pennock observes, “Our approach—arrived at collectively—was unstructured, respectful, non-judgmental, and contemplative. We read the full Report, but we took it slowly, each month choosing a manageable passage (for example, part of a chapter), which participants were asked to read in advance. Whether we met face to face or by videoconference, we encouraged setting the mood by lighting a candle or otherwise creating an atmosphere of reverence and focus.” For Knox, reading the Report in “manageable chunks” was key to a successful process.

The ready accessibility of digital copies of RPP at https://www.mmiwg-ffada.ca/final-report/ enabled members to easily copy key passages into an expanding document, thereby creating a record of important learnings. However, those who preferred to read a print version could borrow one of the Saskatoon Public Library’s multiple copies. Where Interlibrary loan is available, that service can put print copies into the hands of readers outside major centres.

Our meetings, which first were at Grosvenor and St. Martin’s United Churches and later online, started with a brief social catch-up, a practice which helped build ease and trust among the members. To move us toward discussion, each person read aloud without comment from the section of the Report to be discussed in the session, a sentence or two that had had a powerful impact on that person. This practice kept us accountable for thoughtfully doing the reading, and required a pre-meeting review of notes to select both what each person most wanted to share and a couple of alternative passages in case someone had already read aloud the same first choice of passage. Thus, we were further familiarized with the material before the meeting. Listening in group sessions as others shared their selected passage extended the familiarization process and sometimes encouraged us to take note of something important that we’d missed or to which we’d paid insufficient attention. Moreover, the reading aloud got everyone’s voice into the conversation.

Iwai adds, “I found it interesting that sometimes the passages people chose for the openers were the same. What one member found touching, touched many.” We frequently picked passages that either presented information that shocked us and was important to learn, or that gave us hope that IWG2S people were indeed reclaiming the power and place of which colonial processes had robbed them. Whether shocked or hopeful, our learnings and feelings gave us further motivation to continue with the reading and discussion.

What we were reading was often laden with detailed, disturbing information. What Iwai reports of her response to the reading was a common experience: “There was so much background, and because it is not my lived experience, I was filled with sorrow and shame while reading the first volume.” However, the granular detail of the testimonies and their framing by the findings of the Inquiry’s researchers made the Calls for Justice come alive, rendering them inevitable and understandable, and helping us appreciate why so many Calls are necessary.

After the sharing of passages, we moved into an unstructured conversation about the questions, observations, and feelings that had arisen for each of us as we read the section for that month. Pennock notes, “This created a safe, non-threatening environment for discussion, allowing each of us to participate to the extent that we felt comfortable.” At the end of every meeting, we settled on the pages we’d read for the next gathering and on when we’d next meet. We always stuck, though, with a Sunday afternoon, 3:00-4:30, to help us keep our calendars clear for that day and time. Sometimes before we said goodbye, we’d share details of relevant up-coming events, but such sharing was also done by email.

The pandemic modified our approach, necessitating a move from in-person to Zoom-based meetings, but creating other changes, too. As Iwai explains, “We had been reading 50-70 pages or so to discuss per gathering, and with the pandemic, and COVID-brains, we cut down our reading to 10-20 pages at the most. It was important for us to read for meaning, for understanding, and to try to integrate our learnings. We weren’t going for speed, but for depth.”

The move online allowed us to continue when it wasn’t safe to meet face to face, and had the added benefit of enabling people in other locations to join our meetings. Iwai received queries about the group before almost every meeting although most expressing interest joined us for just a meeting or two, if at all. Law students at Lakehead University and an Indigenous woman from Brantford, Ontario, were among those who participated. While having numerous people indicate interest and then not come was disappointing, they may have felt daunted when they learned the rest of the group was as far into the reading as we were. Still, their realization that such a group existed could have its own benefits, including the possibility that interested individuals could establish their own groups. 

Important Learnings

From the group process

  1. Having a kind, open, and committed leader matters, especially one who understands that their view and experience of the world are not the same as others’. 
  2. Staying focused on one section of the Report at a time aids in persevering to the end.
  3. Working together on Reconciliation is important because sharing perceptions broadens understanding, and discussing emotionally difficult issues with caring people eases the pain.
  4. Feeling safe in the group helped some of us to face the role our own settler forebears played in the ongoing legacies of colonialism, including the Indian Act and the residential school system. Pennock comments, “Reconciliation is as much about coming to terms with tensions within ourselves (for example, conflicted loyalties) as with repairing relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.” Yet Pennock emphasizes that settler peoples must not allow themselves to become the primary focus of Reconciliation: “it’s not about us. For too long our sense of entitlement and privilege as non-Indigenous people has led us to . . . focus on and centre ourselves.”

We learned that people in group members’ communities both long to build and continue good relationships with the Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island, and carry guilt and shame about what our non-Indigenous ancestors and ourselves have done or not done, even if sometimes unwittingly. The process of Reconciliation is not helped simply by feeling bad. Such feeling can lead to perceiving ourselves as more righteous, and therefore better, than others because we feel so bad. Instead, we need to acknowledge and then move through our feelings to act for justice.

From the reading and discussions

1. The tangle of ways Indigenous lives are impacted by colonial violences means that things are hugely stacked against Indigenous people, and that trauma has become widespread. Knox notes in particular her enhanced understanding of “the close links between housing, transportation, and violence against women.” Furthermore, failure to respect Indigenous peoples’ human and specifically Indigenous rights in the areas of education, employment, safety, and healthcare renders IWG2S people even more unsafe.

2. Indigenous children have been and still are taken from their families and communities in a dispiriting variety of situations. The existence of a system of birth alerts came as a shock to us. This practice entailed social workers informing hospital staff that an expectant mother was one whose new-born would be at risk from the time of birth because of the mother. Sometimes the sole reason for issuing a birth alert was that the mother herself had as a child been taken “into care.” Testimony in the Report taught us that this phrase presents apprehensions as occurring for the child’s benefit, but the reality is that the process does violence to Indigenous mothers and their families. Furthermore, taking the children makes them far more vulnerable to homelessness and violence in the future.

When a birth alert was issued, typically no attempt was made to support the mother so that she would be better able to provide the necessities of life for the child. Before the birth, the mother was simply deemed unfit, and the child began life without the loving presence of family and too often without entry into Indigenous culture to support the child’s thriving. Moreover, anxiety about having children apprehended didn’t end when mother and babe left the hospital.

Despite the practice of birth alerts having officially ended, Indigenous children are still being apprehended in disproportionately large numbers. RPP documents one Indigenous mother deciding she could not report domestic violence because she knew that children have been taken from Indigenous mothers due to the unsafe environment created by their partners. For Indigenous mothers in remote communities about to deliver again, even giving birth can be occasion for anxiety about losing children to child protection agencies. RPP reports child and family welfare services apprehending children when their mother had to fly out to give birth.

3. Some of our members were taken aback by the number of stories of overt racism in Indigenous people’s interactions with law enforcement agencies. The disregard in some police quarters for families’ reports of missing loved ones is clearly not a thing of the past. If an Indigenous person is disabled, addicted, or working in the sex trade, the response from law enforcement agencies is often even worse.

4. A horrifically high suicide rate among Indigenous people in Canada testifies to their suffering. The Inuit rate is 10 times that of other Canadians, and young to middle-aged females show the largest difference between Inuit and non-Indigenous populations. So great is the problem of Indigenous youth suicide that it has its own acronym: IYS. In Saskatchewan, Indigenous girls “are 26 times more likely to die by suicide than non-Indigenous girls.” While suicide is neither a disappearance nor a murder, the Report makes clear that the despair that drives suicide is ultimately the result of colonial violences.

5. Distinctions-based Calls for Justice are important. Those are Calls made by distinct Indigenous groups—First Nations, Métis, Inuit, and 2SLGBTQQIA+ people, for example—with often overlapping but also distinct circumstances and experiences of violence and routes to healing. Recognition of the particulars of their situations, including geographical- or region-specific information and whether they live on or off reserve; in rural, urban, remote, or northern locations; or in communities or settlements, would otherwise be submerged in the overarching term “Indigenous” and miss relevant issues. The need for making such distinctions of course adds to the heft of the list of Calls.

Some members were initially puzzled that the report of a National Inquiry commissioned to investigate MMIWG includes discussion of issues related to, and Calls for Justice for, 2SLGBTQQIA+ people. The Interim Report of the National Inquiry, Our Women and Girls are Sacred, explained, “As Commissioners, we acknowledge and honour the memory of all Indigenous women and girls—including those who are Two-Spirit, lesbian, gay, heterosexual, bisexual, transgender, queer, or non-binary, and those with disabilities or special needs—who are missing or who have lost their lives to violence.”

6. We have so much to learn from Indigenous people about treating others with care and respect in stressful situations. Those who participated in the Inquiry demonstrated and modelled resiliency and grace despite their lives having been devastated in so many ways. Furthermore, the Report-writers captured the experiences of victims and their families eloquently and respectfully, without shying away from hard truths.

Pennock affirms Indigenous worldviews as a rich source of learning, especially highlighting “Indigenous spiritual understandings of the created world; the role of women and Two-Spirit people as teachers, leaders, healers and protectors; and the importance of ancestors.” 

7. In a range of self-reliant and creative ways, IWG2S have responded to the violence that targets them. They are far more than victims of violence; they are also agents of healing and change. They have founded across Canada a large number of service agencies. These include Grandma’s House, a refuge for sex workers in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, and Winnipeg’s three-site Indigenous Women’s Healing Centre, which focuses on different aspects of recovery for women dealing with family violence, intergenerational issues, addictions, and societal reintegration after time in correctional institutions. Another is The Arctic Rose Foundation, created by Inuk singer-songwriter and Traditional Knowledge Keeper, Susan Aglukark. It aims to help meet the needs of Northerners, especially young people, who have faced abuse and other trauma, addiction, and poverty, all of which would put them at risk of additional violence. 

The arts can also be an important mode of healing. The National Inquiry’s Legacy Archive includes an impressive array of visual art presented to the Inquiry. The art in the Archive commemorates lost loved ones and calls forth their spirits; sends messages of hope, resilience, and reconciliation; bears witness to injustice; acknowledges the inherent dignity of those targeted by violence; and raises awareness about the epidemic of violence so that perpetrators will be held responsible and pressure for change will be sustained.

Art in other media includes Red Dress Diaries, a collection of 54 poems, and a ballet, Ghosts of Violence, which the Atlantic Ballet Theatre staged as part of the University of New Brunswick’s annual multi-day Red Shawl Campaign. Events were designed to bring community together while comforting and supporting families who lost loved ones. Elder Imelda Perley asked if she might Indigenize the ballet by blessing the dancers’ shoes so that the dance would be not just a performance but the vehicle for a spiritual message. Thus arose the idea of painting Mi’kmaq-Wolastoqey pictographic symbols on the shoes.

       The Report itself makes art an integral part of communicating its messages. The photographs and other visual features are simply beautiful. In the Report’s many illustrations, the power of love and grief inherent in the testimonies comes to life in a way that words alone could not animate.

Why Answering the Calls for Justice Remains Imperative  

Despite all the work done, overwhelmingly by Indigenous people, to try to protect the safety of IWG2S, they continue to go missing and to be found murdered. Far too often their remains are treated with criminal indignity. Thus, Donna Aubichon, the aunt of 24-year-old Métis woman Taya Sinclair, a Saskatoon resident recently found murdered on March 15, 2022, stressed that no one, race or gender notwithstanding, should ever be treated the way Taya was. As family spokesperson, Aubichon urged people to read the Report’s Calls for Justice. The present authors strongly endorse Aubichon’s call. We do so, convinced by the RPP’s assertions that answering the Calls is required by Canada’s commitments to human and Indigenous rights.

The Report explains the number of calls by stressing that “the steps to end and redress” the epidemic of MMIWG2S “must be no less monumental than the combination of systems and actions that has worked to maintain colonial violence for generations.” If you have read the Calls but not the Report itself, we challenge you to invite others to join you in reading and discussing the entire Report. Our challenge echoes Call 15.3, which not only urges the reading of RPP, but adds, “Listen to the truths shared, and acknowledge the burden of these human and Indigenous rights violations, and how they impact Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people today.” Reading the Calls without knowledge of the truths shared in RPP, including the impacts of the human and Indigenous rights violations across centuries that it documents, may well leave non-Indigenous people baffled. The Calls come at the end of RPP because they arise from all it has previously documented and explained.

RPP asserts that its Calls for Justice “are legal imperatives – they are not optional. . . . [They] arise from international and domestic human and Indigenous rights laws, including the Charter¸ the Constitution, and the Honour of the Crown." The Report adds that Canada’s historical and ongoing failure to uphold both treaty rights and Indigenous human rights amounts to dishonouring the promises of our ancestors and to violating our constitution. Chief Commissioner Marion Buller, buttressed by the findings of the Report, asserted that these failures together comprise a national tragedy that amounts to genocide, and that by continuing with practices that violate Indigenous human rights, “we all knowingly enable the continuation of genocide in our own country.”

And to those who think answering the Calls would be too costly, we suggest the costs of not acting on them would be even higher, especially in terms of human suffering. Thus, we invite all to join with the authors of the 2021 MMIWG 2SLGBTQQIA+ People National Action Plan in envisioning and working urgently toward “a transformed Canada where Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA+ people, wherever they are, live free from violence, and are celebrated, honoured, respected, valued, treated equitably; [and are safe and] secure.”

Moving Beyond the Reading Group

When the regular meetings of our reading group ended, we felt the need to ceremonially mark the conclusion of this phase of our coming together. Also important to us was committing to ongoing solidarity with Indigenous relatives seeking to deal with and overcome the epidemic violence against Indigenous Sisters and gender-diverse people. We wanted to be on the land in a place where we could anticipate feeling a strong sense of connection to them, their families, and friends. and to place. We recommend such a ceremonial conclusion to those who undertake a reading journey similar to ours.

Wanuskewin Heritage Park seemed the perfect place for our ceremonial ending. There we could walk its trails mindful of its history as a gathering place for generations-upon-generations of Indigenous people. We could walk alive to our interdependence with all our relations, human and non-human.

Thus, on Sunday May 15, 2022, at the time we had gathered for our regular sessions, we met again at the Park. At the map just outside the Visitors Centre, we noted that one of the marked sites was Little Garden of Our Sisters, and decided we would make that our destination. First, however, we paused to share our hopes for how the visit would unfold, and to hear the first of our members’ land acknowledgements. As we began our walk in the spring sunshine, we took time to drink in the beauty of the land around us coming back to life.

At the tipi village, we sat on logs around the burned-out fire to share more land acknowledgements. In recognition of the connection between women and fire that is recorded in the respective Cree words iskwêw and iskotêw, and knowing that the fire in the pit would soon be relit, we sprinkled tobacco on the charred wood, each of us praying in our own way, before resuming our walk.

Along the trails, we felt blessed by the bursting beauty of the budding trees, one of which bore exquisite hanging cascades of seeds reminiscent of dangling beaded earrings. The calls of sparrows and red-winged blackbirds, and the graceful flight of swallows and the large crows or ravens arcing above the Opimihâw Creek came to us as gifts. We stopped again to lay down tobacco in gratitude for the waters. Soon we caught sight of a muskrat swimming up the creek toward the large pond created by a beaver dam. Deer tracks along the muddy margins of the Path of the People and young chipmunks emerging from the underbrush held our attention too. The cheery, golden buffalo bean blossoms and some tiny, delicate grey flowers growing close to the ground also stirred our gratitude.

Finally, reaching the Little Garden of Our Sisters, we sat in the adjacent teaching circle to share a little food and to decide on our next steps. We agreed to meet again to consider how we might, in a more ongoing way, support Indigenous women, girls, and gender-diverse people in reclaiming their power and place.

May those of you who take up our challenge to form your own groups for reading and discussing the Report act in your own ways to the same end.