by Maggie Cywink
Is a national inquiry going to answer the question and solve the epidemic of Canada’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls? Today’s numbers are staggering at 1,200 confirmed and an additional 400 unidentified murdered females lacking the DNA testing to verify aboriginal decent. The number of women and girls who have disappeared is presently standing in the thousands as no real database has been created to accurately establish the number.
At a seminar in Winnipeg, Justice Murray Sinclair, Ojibwe-Canadian judge, First Nations rights activist and the current chair of the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Committee posed a small poll asking a crowd of approximately 200 people this question: “how many would like to see a National Inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls?” From the show of hands, 40 percent were in favor, 40 percent were opposed and 20 percent were undecided. The dichotomy whirling around this issue is not a cut and dry issue. There are many factors to take into consideration such as: those who are living on or off reserve, poverty, homelessness, drug and alcohol substance abuse, lack of safe housing, adequate education and job skills, early pregnancy, gang activity, abductions, mental issues, domestic abuse and violence, child welfare, questions about the lack of stricter sentencing, adoption, inadequate policing into the death or disappearance at all levels to name a few. How do we begin to comprehend all of these issues and begin this enormous undertaking? This problem is of epic proportions and the answers are not going to be easy to unearth.
I have been performing my own research for the past five years. The first documented case found was in 1929, when a 10-year-old girl was murdered at the Pelican Lake Residential School. The issue is not new and has been going on since the first ship landed on the shores of Turtle Island more than 500 years ago. This is not acceptable.
In 2010, the Sisters in Spirit database project was slashed by the federal government and new initiatives were announced, including another database on missing persons run by the RCMP. As part of the backlash, Native groups, human rights organizations and other critics called the policy change misleading and detrimental, noting that the new missing persons database would no longer focus on aboriginal women, thereby skirting the initial issue. In October 2010, Canada’s Minister for Status of Women, Rona Ambrose, announced a number of changes that would affect how the government would address the crisis. The funding of $5 million for five years for the Sisters in Spirit database was terminated and funds were diverted to other departments. If we are seeking answers to our questions about what happened to our loved ones, how has this fiscal cut helped? This needs some investigation. What happened to the federal government funding? It has not been reported to date.
$237 million tax dollars from 1969 to date have been spent to answer some of the questions surrounding the legitimate problems and longstanding issues facing Canada’s First Nations people. How many recommendations of past inquiries have been implemented and used to restructure the lives of those affected? How better could the money have been spent? Who determines the direction of the inquiries, the government, First Nations representatives, lawyers and judges overseeing the inquiry? Or do those who have been directly affected and those whose lives have been changed and know the answers to some of the questions have an opportunity to form and shape the inquiry?
In order for this epidemic to end, we as First Nations must own it. We must be the caretakers of our women and girls. It has never, nor will it ever be the responsibility of the federal government or the Canadian taxpayers. It starts with us, we the First Nations people who are giving birth and it is up us to us to provide safe, healthy, nurturing and well guided homes and communities for our girls to grow up in and to prepare them for the world.
The media frenzy surrounding this issue is appalling at best, sensationalizing all the negative issues. The news media never seems to focus on the lives of the women or girls. A single line may describe who they were prior to the event surrounding their death and this portrayal is a devastating blow to families already grappling with a tragic loss. My sister, Sonya Nadine Mae, set the sisterhood bar high, she was intelligent, honest, kind, gentle, and funny. She has taught me to love deeply, to forgive others often and help our sisters in need. I miss her every day.
Money today is the issue faced by every country around the world and Canada is no different.
Who is going to foot the bill for the inquiry if that’s the road we are going to take? For argument’s sake, let’s say it will cost 200 million and that is a conservative number, seeing as the Pickton Inquiry cost the province of British Columbia $100 million. If we as First Nations People really want to solve this crisis, we need to literally buy into it. We need to take a percentage of the fiscal responsibility. So how are we going to do that? We as a People need to take ownership. No one else, including the government, will take full responsibility.
In conclusion, the idea of a Community Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls would be lead by women leaders across Canada and designed or coordinated by the families who have been directly impacted rather than a national inquiry which will be built upon First Nations traditional laws and culture.
Thereby the discussion and implementation of a practical strategy to end the epidemic will take place immediately and swiftly. This will bring the issue right down to the grassroots level. It might look like a locally organized effort within each province and territory in Canada focusing on the local issues and bringing families in communities together. The effort would have to be done both on and off reserve due to the large number of First Nations citizens living in Canada’s cities. When answers have been found to these longstanding questions, creating legislation on a national level would be the final step. We would be at our First Nations with our elders, medicine people, language, mental health workers, songs and drums, sacred fires and medicines, healing circles in order to share our combined stories and discuss how better to solve the issue. To think that politicians or the government could solve these issues is a complete misnomer and would be a complete disaster. We must be allowed to use the funding dollars and the traditional stories to guide us to begin healing the fractured communities and get us on track to end the violence.
Maggie Cywink is one of 13 siblings born and raised prior to the government regulations of Bill C-31 at Birch Island. It was through the guidance and direction of her parents Estelle and Wilfred Cywink, Sr. that she pursued her post secondary education out of the country. Shortly after the murder of my sister Sonya Nadine Mae, Ms. Cywink met my husband Tom Wopperer in 1995. She and her husband actively seek justice for Sonya and all the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW). Their work keeps us in direct contact with the OPP and RCMP as well as women’s organizations. She is currently working with Sing Our Rivers Red in the United States, a national organization uniting the efforts of the US with Canada’s MMIW. She also volunteers with It Starts With Us a Toronto community-run initiative, honouring the lives of our stolen sisters. To view a tribute page in honour of Sonya please go to www.itstartswithus.com/sonya.