Eyes Wide Open
I started writing this post several times. Started and then stopped and started again. Delete button denial of an epidemic that seems to have no end in sight.
Staring at the blinking cursor on a still empty page, I thought to myself: where do I begin? How does one address the rage and sadness, fear and pain, hopelessness and urgency, alongside a tremendous will to fight back, that comes rushing to the surface when learning that the body of Loretta Saunders was found lying against the frozen earth in New Brunswick? Yet another insidious act of gender violence, another horrific example of ongoing colonial sickness with roots that run deep and wide—roots that strangle life and sanction the invisibility of violence if you are an indigenous woman or girl.
Resistance and survival are keywords in a lexicon of conquest where gender violence is the cornerstone of domination.
I told a friend of mine I was having trouble making my words stick. “It is not as though I don’t have things to say,” I told him, “all of us should (and must) have things to say—there are lines of accountability to be drawn, counter-narratives to circulate, political strategies to employ both systemically and in everyday acts.” He told me to drop my guard and write from my heart, from a place of instinctive territory—the opposite of how I have been taught to write as an academic. So that is what you will find in the paragraphs below. My attempt to collapse the distance between myself and the hard and painful facts that make up the lived realities for so many indigenous women and girls in the settler nation-state we have come to know as Canada. My attempt to reveal the profound sense of responsibility I have inherited as someone who carries a Canadian passport and calls Canada home.
As a nation, we are masters of historical erasure, experts of institutional cover-up.
I write this a human being who still believes (regardless of how lofty a goal it may seem to some) in the vision of a more just world, a world where shared humanity rises above capitalist accumulation and greed, conquest, material and symbolic appropriation, and interlocking forms of oppression that bind race, gender, class, and sexuality so tightly together that they cannot be torn apart from one another. I write this from the complicated position of a woman born and raised on the plains of Saskatchewan, the daughter of immigrant parents fleeing from their own colonial inheritance in Northern India. And I write this from the position of someone who knows that inaction is complicity within the context of unequal power relations regardless of how much you try to convince yourself otherwise. Brutal assaults on the lives of indigenous women and girls continue while many of us willfully ignore what is happening. The isolation persists. The exploitation and murder continues to be positioned, strategically, as a problem of their own making.
The illusion of innocence is more than dangerous; it impedes our ability to imagine anything beyond the status quo. It masks our own culpability.
As someone who has spent a good portion of her adult life advocating for girls living with the abhorrent consequences of structural, colonial violence, I know that the story of Loretta Saunders has been happening for centuries, Hers, very sadly, is a story in a long line of stories emerging from the historical disempowerment of indigenous women since the point of first contact. State omissions also led to this murder—the complete and utter failure of the criminal justice system to respond to violence against indigenous girls and women has created a culture of impunity for men to rape and murder at will.
State actions (including violence) work in concert with targeted acts of male violence that are effectively borne of state neglect and complicity.
Through my work with Justice for Girls, a Vancouver based NGO, and in youth organizations in Saskatoon, I have listened to numerous accounts of institutional neglect and exclusion, of cumulative sexual violence, commodification, and piercing emotional and spiritual harm. I have listened to indigenous girls speak about the ways they have been made to feel inferior, dirty, worthless. Their words ring as contemporary expressions of the colonial tactics of gender violence and patriarchy that continue to be used to legitimate relentless acquisition of indigenous land, and ongoing entitlement to it, as well the environmental destruction of that land. And it is not only these girls who are threatened and unsafe. Indigenous women and girls who stand in public opposition to colonialism, who courageously speak out against the atrocities perpetrated against them, are also under attack. Their voices too echo a grave warning about how the continuum of gender violence has a strong chance of ending with the extinguishment of life itself—the bodies of indigenous women and girls house the ultimate threat to settler sovereignty.
Murder is the state’s most concrete triumph over indigenous resurgence.
I understand what
is at stake if we don’t find a way to end this madness—a cycle that continues unabated, colonial state power that reaches its endpoint. I woke up this past weekend to a media frenzy celebrating International Women’s Day. Facebook posts, twitter feeds, symposia, and a steady stream of text messages lauding how far we have come in the quest for gender equality. All of this was strangely at odds with how I felt. I felt torn, an uneasiness in the pit of my stomach. Yes, of course, we should celebrate the lives and contributions of those women and girls who have worked long and hard to move an agenda of change forward. There are women and girls all over the planet who set examples of what is possible. Yet, I wonder about all of those who go unnoticed and continue to battle against unthinkable odds, Indigenous women and girls who are not taken up within the framework of a white feminist struggle.
Where do Indigenous women and girls whose existence and loss is never registered in the public domain find recognition?
I am concerned that those of us who are reading this series already strongly believe in many of the critiques that have been set forth and are already actively working on the change that we so desperately need. We move in small circles of hope someone once told me, and I think there is some truth to that. How will we reach those who choose to deny? Those whose lives, in fact, depend on colonialism and settler colonialism to enact gender violence against indigenous women and girls? Those who authorize silence?
What actions will you take?
I challenge you, as I challenge myself, to use the privileged and multiple spaces we inhabit to work in real solidarity with indigenous communities as thoughtful and reflective allies. Collectively, we must obliterate the structures of colonial gender violence that sustain the ground on which all of us walk—the institutions we rely on to protect us, to keep us healthy, and to educate our children and youth are all implicated in (re)producing a larger culture of colonial violence that makes possible individual acts of gender violence without notions of responsibility, culpability, or justice ever entering the picture. This is a solidarity that must be lived in our everyday directed actions and our strategies of defense. I challenge us all to act with humility, integrity, and respect as we do this work. To listen with a genuine openness and to fight with whatever tools we have at our disposal. I challenge us to (re)educate ourselves and others. This is not an easy path, but I would argue it is a path that we must travel if we ever hope to achieve justice in the form of decolonization.
All systems of oppression in Canada are organized around colonialism. Our lives are bound together.
For those of us who stand in solidarity to end this colonial legacy, the pain of Loretta Saunders’ murder conjures up the sensation of a steel-toed boot coming down on one’s throat. If you care about the fact that this young woman is only one of countless indigenous women and girls who have died at the hands of colonial rule, this feeling will last for a long while and it may never go away. For those who think I am being heavy handed with my claims, I urge you to consider that our indigenous sisters live with this sensation every single day; they don’t have the luxury of disputing the severity of what I have written here. I urge you to pay heed to the wise words in the posts that have come before this one. To adopt a redefined view of indigenous women as “strong, powerful, intelligent, beloved human beings” as Siku Allooloo rightfully asserts. To offer allied support for Leanne Simpson’s fundamental call to “take on gender violence as a core resurgence project, a core decolonization project, a core of any Indigenous mobilization.” And to take seriously the essential insight of Tara Williamson who says “independent acts of activism are useless when they are not grounded in community and contextualized by a broader goal of dismantling colonial state power.”
I challenge us to learn from the powerful indigenous women who are leading the way.
The time to place colonial gender violence at the center of our political efforts toward justice and decolonization in Canada is right now. And so it should have always been.
My deep thanks to Annabel Webb for editing previous drafts of this post.
Jaskiran Dhillon is a first generation advocate and academic who grew up on Cree Territory in Saskatchewan. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Global Studies and Anthropology at The New School University in New York City. Her first book, Prairie Rising: Youth, Indigenous Sovereignty, and the Politics of Social Reform, is forthcoming with the University of Toronto Press.