In its editorial published this past Friday, the Winnipeg Sun argued that there is no need for a national inquiry on Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women, suggesting that it would amount to a complete and massive waste of time. This is a long (though I hope not rambling) counter-analysis to the Sun’s assertion that the real culprit of missing and murdered Aboriginal women is…wait for it….wait for it….corruption on reserves.
Having written on the role of public inquiries in reaffirming the legitimacy of nation-states – in Canada as elsewhere – the editors and I agree on the fact that public inquiries can be useless. However, we part ways in two significant respects. First – and more briefly – I argue that they are not inherently useless. Instead, their relative worth is the result of a complex mix of mandate, the force of personality of their champions and the level of buy-in from different sectors of society. Public inquiries can be meaningless, but this is an empirical question rather than a pre-ordained fate.
The Winnipeg Sun’s editorial team follows up this assertion with a whopper, though, by arguing that that a national inquiry on missing and murdered Aboriginal women would be useless because none of the women are missing or murdered due to their “race” but rather, because their poverty and high risk lifestyles. To quote them directly:
- most of these women aren’t being murdered because of the colour of their skin, nor does their race factor into why so many of these killings go unsolved. No, this is a problem of poverty and lifestyle, not race (Winnipeg Sun, Friday June 29th, 2012 – online edition).
There is a couple of different ways to try and make sense of their logic (or lack thereof). First, notice the binaries they set up: this important issue isn’t about race, they suggest, but is instead, about poverty and lifestyle. The question we might ask though, is since when, in a Canadian context, are these three elements not connected? The Sun editorial uses a fairly commonsensical definition of race as being linked to physical appearance (“most of these women aren’t being murdered because of the colour of their skin”). A quick glance at the pictures of the missing and murdered Aboriginal grandmothers, mothers, daughters, sisters and aunties will confirm this assertion. A wide range of physical features have suffered the effects of this violence. But does this actually mean this isn’t about race?
Of course it doesn’t. Not least, because race has never – anywhere – been just about physical features, as much as the Winnipeg Sun seems to want to contain it in such narrow parameters. As numerous scholars have argued, race the world over has always been connected to a wide – and unstable (meaning they changed over time and context) – array of elements otherwise unconnected to physicality. Since physical features have never been useful benchmarks for determining race, even in Canada they have always been accompanied by decisions that linked “race” to cultural and religious choices, lifestyle and even, in many cases, moral comportment. Biologically “mixed” Aboriginal individuals, for example, have variously been legally/racially defined as “Indian” and/or “Half-breed” and in many cases, individuals and families have hopped back and forth between such racial dividing lines like the Indian Act precisely because colonial authorities could not come to firm decisions about who they were solely with respect to their biological signs of race.
Secondly and more specifically, race has never been separated from lifestyle in Canada or any colonial locale. Ever. Which is why there are various instances in northern Alberta and Saskatchewan of one brother living and “Indian” lifestyle took treaty while another, in the same family, might live a “half-breed” lifestyle (for example, in a wage economy) leading him and his family to take Half-breed “scrip”. Lifestyle has always been a powerful factor for making sense of race in Canada, and this remains as true now as it was then. Thus, as poor as existing statistics are, it would not surprise any of us to learn that Aboriginal women are more likely to suffer violence and more likely to be involved in so-called “high risk” lifestyles.
In making this point, let’s be clear about two things, however: first, most Aboriginal women are not involved in “high risk” lifestyles that increase the dangers of such violence being committed against them; second and perhaps more pertinently, these lifestyles are not higher risk in and of themselves. If alcohol or drug use was inherently risky, the middle class housewives who prop up the North American wine and pharmaceutical industry would demonstrate similar rates of violence committed against them. The don’t, and there’s no reason to think victimization surveys would be less likely to capture this victimization than that committed against Aboriginal women. Aboriginal women suffer this violence because they live lifestyles that put them into contact with men who perceive them in particular ways – as “available Brown bodies” as one of my colleagues put it – that middle class white women don’t need to worry about to the same degree. And, less we tuck this away as the result of “deranged scumbags” as the Winnipeg Sun editorial suggests, violence committed against Aboriginal women is far more pernicious and ubiquitous, occurring at the hands of partners and strangers, Aboriginal and non-.
But all of this tells us little about why this is about race. Lifestyle was involved in historical decisions about race but does that mean this is still the case today? It most definitely is, though not for reasons that are immediately apparent for readers of the Winnipeg Sun’s editorials. To trace this complexity, we need look no further than the case of Pamela George. Pamela George, an impoverished (i.e. broke) Saulteaux women who worked part time in the sex trade, was beaten to death by two white, middle class university students, Steven Kummerfield and Alexander Ternowetsky, otherwise hardly the “deranged scumbags” who the Winnipeg Sun blames for this violence against Aboriginal women.
(Incidentally, an excellent overview of these events can be read in Sherene Razack’s academic article “The Murder of Pamela George”. A more accessible view can be had at Amnesty International’s Stolen Sister’s site: http://www.amnesty.ca/campaigns/sisters_pamela_jean_george.php)
The Winnipeg Sun editors suggest that the federal government has to shoulder its share of blame for these missing and murdered women. But what does that mean? They likely meant it to suggest that the government needs to “do more”. From a perspective of linking race to lifestyle, however, we can understand how the Indian Act – an explicitly racial instrument – lead to the creation of circumstances under which women like Pamela George were forced to move to the cities and the circumstances they found themselves in once they arrived: few employable job skills and a general hostility that have greeted thousands of urban Aboriginal migrants before her. In Ms. George’s specific case, parts of her First Nations were flooded and farmland opened up for (need I say white) farmers, destabilizing longstanding local economies for the First Nation and forcing many to move off the reserve, into the city – a scenario that, though for different reasons, has been replicated on a national scale.
More broadly, like the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples before it, the ongoing Truth and Reconciliation Commission has documented the powerful impact of residential schools on the well-being of multiple generations of Aboriginal “residents” in terms of the violence and degradation committed against them and with it, the loss of self-esteem and feelings of self-worth and, in a story repeated the Indigenous world over, the eventual impact of alcohol and drugs into their communities and, with it, the endemic poverty that has come to be so stereotypically associated with Aboriginal communities.
For the editors of the Winnipeg Sun, however, the impact of the Indian Act on First Nations people – both in terms of loss of land and the attempted destruction of their society – pales in comparison to the real culprit of these missing and murdered Aboriginal women. Corruption on reserves. That’s right – not racism, not intensive resource extraction that has decimated traditional economies and ways of life, and not residential school that has exerted its powerful and negative impacts on these communities. To quote the editorial:
- Many of these women that have tragically disappeared came from reserves where corruption is rampant. They lived in poverty while woefully inadequate chiefs and band councillors made preposterously huge salaries. Home ownership was never an option for these women, as every piece of land on the reserve is controlled by the band. And there was little incentive to get an education, as far too many chiefs gave jobs based on loyalty, nepotism, and friendship, not skill.
- The broken communities many of these women came from might improve over a long period of time if these problems were addressed. And if that happened, they might be better equipped to handle living in major urban centres such as Winnipeg.
- That’s the reality. Some of the answers are in plain sight.