Friday, February 13, 2015

Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women in Canada

Since coming back to work from my maternity leave, I've been working a lot on Indigenous issues and with Indigenous students on my campus. To say that it's been a learning curve, even given the fact that I grew up next to the Res in my home and my mom was interested in Aboriginal issues so I grew up with some awareness, would be putting it mildly.

In part it's been a huge learning curve because I'm dealing with an entirely different nation and traditions that go with it. In part it's been eye opening because I've come to realize how much I really didn't know (and still don't) about Indigenous issues in Canada. And in part, well it's just been amazing because I'm working with wonderful students and passionate educators and a community of people who care so much about these issues and it's awe inspiring and humbling.

But with the awe and humbling comes the heart breaking and the frustrating.

Often I find myself wanting to smack every day people I know over the head and yell "what's the matter with you? How can you be so unaware of your ignorance and prejudice and the harm they cause?"

To say that I have been angry a lot over the past few months would be putting it mildly.

So today, when this Aboriginal teen photo project came across my feed, my heart just broke a little more. It's not anything new. It's not a truth I wasn't aware of. But it's a truth, on a small minute level, I can identify with and as such, I felt a small pang of the fear that shapes these girls' reality on a very personal level.

I grew up on the wrong side of the tracks. Literally and metaphorically. I did mention that I grew up next to the Res in my hometown. And when I mean next, I mean 2 blocks away.

The neighbourhood I grew up in had prostitutes wandering the streets. And when I say that, bear in mind that it was a residential neighbourhood. The photo on the right isn't my home growing up, but trust me when I say it's not far. These are homes I walked past on a regular basis. (By the way, my family no longer lives here, which is why I'm comfortable sharing the photo).

Why am I sharing this? Because walking home in this area, at any time of the day, I could be followed or harassed. It didn't happen all the time. And I was cocky enough as a teen to feel relatively safe despite it because usually men would be more embarrassed than not when I pulled out the disgusted look or disdainful attitude and told them off for it.

Looking back, of course, I'm horrified by the risk that this attitude represented. I could have seriously gotten myself into trouble. I shudder at the thought now...

But I also recognize that on some level I was privileged, as a white, lower middle class female, to feel safe enough to pull said attitude. And that girls, 2 blocks south of me, would likely have not felt that same privilege. That 20 years ago, some of these girls might have already been hearing stories about Aboriginal girls going missing and that their realities were already so different than my own despite the fact that we were growing up in the same area. Ironic, isn't it?

However, it would be wrong to imply that I always felt this safety;  that there weren't times when I was scared. Cause there were. Despite being a relatively safe neighbourhood, in spite of the protitution, there were men who followed or harassed me who scared me. A lot. And perhaps one of the greatest ironies about that is that I wouldn't have admitted to just how much they did scare me until recently.

So when I read the above article and think about the fact that these girls (who are the same age I was when this happened to me) don't have that same privilege, my heart breaks. That they feel the need to walk home with a knife or that they don't trust the police (and they have reason to feel this), fills me with frustration. Because if my fear was nothing compared to theirs, then there aren't even enough words to express the sadness and anger I feel for them over having this as a reality in their world. Or the anger I am filled with over the fact that people think it's ok to not only treat women like this, but that these stories aren't an important commentary about racial attitudes towards Indigenous peoples in Canada.

And then I look at the girls I work with and my heart feels full of fear because as much as I'd like to think that this won't touch them, in actuality, it already has. Maybe for some of them, that fear is minimal, akin to what my was in my teens. Maybe it's less. Maybe it's more.

For their sake I feel called to be more vocal about the issue and to ask my own peers to rethink their own assumptions and ideas on Indigenous issues in Canada. Because more often than not, the story we are being told is not the full story and only sees one perspective, one that does a great deal of harm. And that harm is happening, albeit unintentionally, because, like me, we often just don't know and don't take the time to learn until we are in a position of really having to.

It's been a humbling few months. Frustrating. Angering. And eye-opening. Which is why tomorrow, for Valentine's day, I'm doing something to make the day super meaningful to me. Something more important than chocolates, hearts, and romance. I'm joining the Annual Memorial March for Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women. If it's not too cold, I'll be bringing Baby Faye with me because I want him growing up understanding that feminism and Indigenous are not dirty words, but rather words full of strength and meaning.


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