We all share responsibility for fate of Indigenous women

By Glen Argan

(Originally published in The Catholic Register, June 16, 2019)

In our liturgy, Catholics confess that we have “greatly sinned, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do.” Sin takes more than one form, and often what we fail to do makes as much space for evil to grow as do our overtly sinful actions.

Power and PlaceKeeping this in mind is crucial to understanding the recently released Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (Reclaiming Power and Place). Much of the media attention around the report has focused on the commission’s use of the word “genocide” to describe the relationship between white society and the female victims of violence. That discussion inevitably led to speculation – since no hard data exists – about what percentage of the indigenous victims were murdered by indigenous men.

Such discussions draw attention away from the systemic denigration of the humanity of indigenous people, especially women and girls, in Canadian society. Often, institutional failures to respond appropriately to situations of potential violence have created fertile ground for violence to occur. Too often, institutional indifference reflects indifference in the wider society.

Over and over, Reclaiming Power and Place notes that reports of girls and women in peril have been ignored or tied up in red tape by police, child welfare agencies, politicians and other societal actors. Indigenous women in remote areas are killed when no services exist to protect them; they die on city streets when, due to lack of housing, they end up in the sex trade; police indifference to reports of missing indigenous women means killers are not charged or convicted. The sources of societal neglect of indigenous women abound.

The report tells of Barbara H. who visited a child welfare officer to tell about her 17-year-old daughter Cherisse who was addicted to drugs and lived on the street. Cherisse was seeking help to get off the street so she might eventually reclaim custody of her son.

Barbara was advised to apply to have Cherisse placed in a locked-up rehabilitation facility so she would not return to the street to get drugs. However, no spaces were available, and Cherisse returned to life on the street. A couple of weeks later, construction workers discovered her murdered body.

Who was responsible for her death? Obviously, the killer. Perhaps also governments which failed to provide enough places of sanctuary for women and girls in dangerous situations.

Cherisse’s death should not be viewed as an isolated incident, as but one murder unconnected with so many others. It is also wrong to ignore that indigenous women and girls are far more likely to die violently than are women of European descent.

Individuals suffer trauma. But whole societies can be traumatized through loss of their land, culture and language, forced relocations, social and economic marginalization, chronic unemployment, the removal of children from their families to attend residential schools or be placed in “care,” sexual abuse of those children, and the lack of necessities such as adequate housing and potable water. The trauma suffered by one generation will repeat and multiply itself over the following decades.

Whether this and the culture of violence that flows from this oppression should be called genocide is a side issue. Most importantly, the situation calls for a response. The assumption that violence against indigenous women and children can be tolerated while our institutions attend to supposedly more important matters is shameful. Each person is born with equal dignity. But a person’s dignity is also earned through our treatment of others, especially those who are weakest and most marginalized. So too with the dignity of a society. We reduce our dignity by treating others harshly; we also reduce it by turning a blind eye to the suffering and oppressed.

Oppression mostly continues because it is invisible to us. We do not believe it exists, or if we do, we do not see ourselves as causing it. Just as societal trauma is multi-generational so is our moral obliviousness to it.

Reclaiming Power and Place offers 231 “calls for justice,” recommendations aimed at reducing the violence against indigenous women. The recommendations are important. So too is the broadening of our own vision in order to end the illusion that because we are not directly responsible for the murders, we are morally innocent. I am part of the “we” who make the disproportionate violence against indigenous women possible.

(For more articles by Glen Argan, see On the Threshold)

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