In late 2017, three friends and I rented a car and drove out to Six Nations, about an hour and a half from Toronto. We were going to see the Walking with our Sisters exhibition, a commemorative art exhibition made up of nearly 2,000 pairs of moccasin vamps (tops) donated by Indigenous communities around Turtle Island. Each vamp represented one missing or murdered Indigenous woman, girl, or two-spirit person, and children’s vamps represented children who never returned home from residential schools. It was my first trip outside of Toronto since moving to the city a few months prior.
As I walked around the dark exhibition hall, I felt a deep sense of loss. The exhibition was a ceremony to honour those women and girls, their lives, and their loved ones. Each vamp had been lovingly beaded and created with care, sometimes accompanied by a photograph or a written memory. The grief was palpable. These women’s stories were cut short and their loved ones left without answers. I moved to Canada without knowing anything about these lost women, girls, or two-spirit people. Each person who made a vamp cared deeply, but as a country, we do not know how many women have been lost and we do not know how their stories end.
In early June, the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) Inquiry report, Reclaiming Power and Place was released. It is a powerful and moving report about the pain, truth, and ongoing healing of Indigenous families, survivors, and communities. I encourage you to read it. It is the most comprehensive document on these women and girls and the families that love them. This report offers every person in Canada the chance to hear the truth about the loss of these Indigenous women and girls. The report specifically asks us to listen and acknowledge them. As one member of the National Family Advisory Circle said, “I would love for all Canadians to think of our women as important because they were important to us.”
Following the release of the report, I read a flurry of news and opinions about it. There were many different responses to the findings and recommendations (called Calls for Justice), especially towards the finding that violence against Indigenous women and girls amounts to genocide. The use
of that word created a lot of collective and individual discomfort, confusion, and resistance.
Relevant to the criminal justice program at CFSC was the debate about policy and calls for legal change. I am committed to the principles of penal abolition and shifting the focus to healing rather than harm in our society. It is part of my work at CFSC to respond to more punitive measures in the criminal justice system and moves to put more people in prisons. In the report, the call for harsher penalties for perpetrators of violence against Indigenous women, and criticisms of Gladue reports, raised some issues for me. Do we want to increase incarceration of the Indigenous men who commit violence against Indigenous women? How do we want Indigenous women who are being sentenced in court to be treated? Is the issue of violence against non-Indigenous women, or against Indigenous men, also to be addressed with increased incarceration? These and other questions require a lot of thought and examination.
The report is incredibly powerful because it not only moves us with stories of grief and pain, it also challenges our sense of comfort and understanding about the ongoing impact of colonization. Our society is built upon particular ideas that come from colonization and can prevent us from leaning into discomfort. For instance, we have a tendency in our society to think that justice is a finite, limited resource. If we seek justice for one group of people, we worry that we are taking justice from another group. Rather than understanding justice as an outcome that should benefit all parties at once, we believe that there is only so much to go around. Another way to put it might be, if we think there are winners in the pursuit of justice, then there must also be losers.
I think that this two-sided approach comes from a deeper belief that punishment brings about justice. In a criminal justice system that seeks punishment as the pathway to justice, we must create a winner and a loser. Someone who gets an “easy” sentence is a winner, while someone who receives a “harsher” sentence is a loser. This also applies to “victims”. However, as recognised by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report, “For so many in Aboriginal communities, there’s no distinction between those who are the offenders and those who are the victims.” In a justice system that seeks punishment rather than healing, we are all losers.
Justice for MMIWG seeks truth and acknowledgement for the loss, harm and ongoing violence that Indigenous women experience because of colonial systems. These women, girls, two-spirit people, and their families cannot be overlooked, ignored, or forgotten any longer. The punitive criminal justice system is also a colonial system, and it alone cannot bring about justice for Indigenous peoples. We must transform the system to acknowledge how violence, colonisation, and punitive systems harm everyone in society. Rather than asking whether specific recommendations achieve justice, we could instead approach this report and the Calls to Justice as a broader pursuit of justice as a whole.
I think it is so important when reflecting on the MMIWG inquiry that we ask questions, but we must reflect upon whether we are asking the right ones. Some questions that I have been thinking about are: How are we as a society harmed when we allow and ignore violence against Indigenous women? How can acknowledging and protecting Indigenous women and girls also help Indigenous men? How can seeking truth and justice provide healing for communities (Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike)? What is my responsibility to acknowledge and honour the lives of these missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls?
Unlike the crowded exhibition in Toronto, the Walking with our Sisters exhibition at Six Nations was quiet, surrounded by nature and fresh air. Stepping out of the dark exhibition space, the sunlight and fresh air felt like an offering. We have been given an offering, a chance to reflect upon our collective, ongoing journey for justice and healing.
Verena Tan is CFSC’s criminal justice program coordinator. The report Reclaiming Power and Place is available at: https://www.mmiwg-ffada.ca/final-report/