A Line in the Sand
February 13th, 2014, is a date that I will never forget.
On that day, the Moosehide Campaign called a meeting in Victoria, BC, gathering men who stood in opposition to violence against Indigenous women. In solidarity, others from across Canada who could not attend – over forty men – fasted from they time they woke until the time they went to sleep, hoping to bring attention to and foster dialogue about the unrelenting physical and sexual violence, disappearance, and murder of Indigenous women in Canada and the United States. I was one of those who fasted. During that day, I reached out on social media: presented statistics; talked about responsibility; demanded accountability of myself and – most especially – white, Settler Canadian men like me. The response was amazing; people listened, asked questions, challenged me, talked about ideas for what more could be done. For a few days afterwards, I truly felt positive, felt that change was happening. Then word came that Loretta Saunders, an Inuk woman from Labrador, living and studying in Halifax, had disappeared. Loretta, whose research was on the topic of missing and murdered Indigenous women, had not been seen since February 13th.
By now, we know how this story goes. Loretta’s body was found less than two weeks later, on February 26th, beside the Trans-Canada Highway in New Brunswick. She had been studying missing and murdered Indigenous women; then, suddenly, she became one. But it is not Loretta Saunders that I am writing about today; or, at least, not just Loretta Saunders. She is only the latest in an ongoing epidemic of violence against Indigenous women.
Let me back up. Let’s revisit the basics. Colonization, the act that brought Settler people to these lands and that attacked, subverted, and dispossessed Indigenous nations as part of building our now-familiar settler states, has always been gendered. Indigenous women have been one of the key fulcrums of settler colonialism; women, as knowledge keepers, as political leaders, as mothers and daughters, have been targeted for violence almost since the start. To dispossess a people of their land, settler colonizers had to believe those people were less than human; men became ‘noble savages’ or ‘fierce warriors’, caricatured as violent and wild. Women, though, were regarded as objects, as powerless, as something to be used and disposed of. This denigration of the complex and powerful roles of Indigenous women justified raping, terrorizing and murdering women and girls, physically and conceptually erasing them from the land. These acts have never ended, and remain foundational to our societies, yet they rarely figure into our official histories or cultural narratives.
Clearly, we Settler Canadians have a memory problem. But we also have a perception problem: we neither see the women we are abusing as women, or ourselves as perpetrators.
Before I heard the news on February 26th that Loretta Saunders was no longer missing, that her case was now a homicide, and then later that her body had been found, I had spoken to several different Settler people about her disappearance. Not a one was familiar with it, despite the story being plastered all over CBC and social media. This is typical. The invisibility of Indigenous women; the assumption that it’s just another one, another statistic; the expectation that this violence is inevitable: that makes us all complicit. This assault on Indigenous womanhood is tacitly endorsed by every police organization that can’t be bothered to investigate, by every social service that treats all Indigenous women as casualties waiting to happen, and by every government that would rather ignore or actively cover up this epidemic than confront it. Research and reports, time and again, have not only described the extent of the problem, but also explicitly called out law enforcement and government for its role in the systematic assault on Indigenous women. And yet here we area: Loretta Saunders is still dead, and most Canadians continue to live their lives as if they bear no responsibility.
If this denial of responsibility is rooted in ignorance, it is a willful ignorance. The research, the facts, the reports are there for everyone to see. The most recent research indicates that more than 800 Indigenous women have been murdered or disappeared in Canada in the last two decades. This number is probably higher, because we also know that the state and law enforcement have been complicit in these deaths, either tacitly through their foot-dragging refusal to investigate the death or disappearance of Indigenous woman, or actively, as police have gained an insidious reputation for themselves abusing Indigenous women and covering up the consequences. But this is not a case of rogue psychotics or ‘bad apple’ cops; this is a symptom of the wider violence that Canadian and American societies inflict on Indigenous women every day. Despite making up only 2% of the population, Indigenous women experience a quarter of all violent crimes against women; and somehow, they also make up a third of all female federal prison inmates, evidence of the pervasive structural violence that accompanies the more blatant acts of individual violence. At least 75% of Indigenous women who experience violence do not report it; there are many reasons for this, but at least one is the unmistakable truth that ‘the authorities’ are part of the problem. When Jodi Roberts went missing in Saskatchewan, her community combed the woods for many days, but the RCMP barely showed up for one. When three Indigenous women in Toronto – Cheyenne Santana Marie Fox, Terra-Janine Gardner, and Bella Laboucan-McLean – all died violently within months of each other, investigations quickly petered out; no explanations, no arrests.
But it goes deeper.
Indigenous women are actively erased from our history just as they’re physically shoved out of or ‘disappeared’ from our society. We see it in the ‘Pocahotties’ that appear every Halloween, contrasted with Indigenous women in literature and movies who are almost always props (at best), without voice or agency. Meanwhile, real Indigenous women who fight for their lives and their lands – like the women in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side who have for years fought to protect vulnerable Indigenous women and to seek justice for those who have been killed – are forgotten, ignored or disregarded. We see it in the vivid social memory of the murders of Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy in the early ‘90s, that somehow forgets the murders of Mary Jane Serloin, Shelley Napope, Eva Taysup and Calinda Waterhen – all Indigenous women – at the same time. We may all remember Robert Picton, who intentionally chose women he knew would be ignored – primarily sex workers and Indigenous women – but we forget that the inquest into the failings of the justice system following Picton’s arrest and trial, which took the police and government to task, was almost completely ignored, its recommendations never implemented. Books, reports, endless press conferences have come from these sad events, but no lasting impacts on Settler society. We cannot seem to remember the names of the Indigenous women at the centre of the stories, if we even remember these events or their outcomes at all.
This amnesia and denial cannot be allowed to stand. If anyone cannot see that this is an immediate problem that must be confronted – especially by those of us who are most responsible, the Settler men whose culture of colonial gender violence is our most profound legacy – then we simply are not on the same side.
So consider this a line in the sand.
There is a palpable, visceral anger over the death of Loretta Saunders; it is the same anger that is felt in Indigenous communities every time a woman disappears or, like Loretta, is found too late. But perhaps because of the proximity to the February 14th Memorial Marches – now in their 23rd year – or because of the growing, vocal demands of groups like Save Wiyabi and the for accountability from Settler society, this anger is spreading. Loretta Saunders, like every Indigenous woman who is abused, assaulted, disappeared or killed, did not deserve this. But her death marks a day for me – February 13th, the day before the Memorial Marches, the day of a fast to confront this epidemic of violence, the last day anyone saw her alive – that is a point of no return. That is why we have to say, no more; not one more. This isn’t about another inquiry; this is about fundamental social change. We must hold ourselves and each other to account; we must have the courage to admit our complicity, to demand that admission from each other, from our institutions, from our cultural icons and political leaders. We must commit to confronting this violence throughout our society in whatever form it takes and not sit back and wait for the next assault, the next disappearance, the next murder, the next inquest. We must step to that line in the sand and declare “It Ends Here.”
Thanks to Adam Gaudry and Kirstin Scansen for editing previous drafts of this post.
Adam J. Barker is a Settler Canadian activist and academic living on unceded land in the territory of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, near Hamilton, Ontario. He is a graduate of the Indigenous Governance Program and holds a PhD from the University of Leicester, UK. Follow him on Twitter: @AdamOutside