Stolen Life – An Article by Joe Desjarlais

The Native Women’s Association of Canada calls a recent death of 15 year old Tina Fontaine a “blemish” on the nation. Others talk about an “epidemic of violence,” calling for a national inquiry. Perhaps Amnesty International called it best with their recent caption, “No more stolen sisters.”

Amnesty states that Canadian police and public officials have long been aware of a pattern of racist, sexist violence against First Nations, Inuit and Métis women in their homes and on the streets. Government response, according to Amnesty, has been shockingly out of step with the scale and severity of this tragedy.

True to his narrow political ideology, Prime Minister Stephen Harper would rather cast all the focus on the crime and the criminal than deepen and broaden the conversation. As we recall, this is a Prime Minister in denial. On another occasion as example, he conveniently denied that colonialism exists in Canada.

Interestingly, Amnesty International echoes the title of the award winning book, Stolen Life, the Journey of a Cree woman, acclaimed across Canada, from the great-great-granddaughter of Chief Big Bear, Yvonne Johnson, co-written with Rudy Wiebe.

When I read about this real life behind the bland statistics and detached bureaucratic-speak by indifferent politicians, another deeply disturbing story became clear: Intergenerational lateral violence. Denial and abuse in family life. Racist landlords and ignorant authority figures. Allegations of corrupt, racially motivated police. Buck passing at the highest levels. A legal system that favoured Euro-Canadians. Threats, fights and beatings on a regular basis. This book is not for the faint of heart. I was deeply unsettled when I finished this book.

This contemporary flashpoint of murdered and missing aboriginal women exposes longstanding popular stereotypes, cultural icons that function in Canadian society. Canadians have long been conditioned to think, write, and teach about ‘those’ Aboriginal people and how they ‘fit’ into Canada. The noble and ignoble savage stereotypes have a disturbing history in Canada and these myths still function today to marginalize, subjugate and dispossess aboriginal people. These ideas fed into paternalistic race based theories that they were somehow ‘different’, that they were biologically inferior. People assumed they were a less evolved race, that they had no real political systems. In effect, they were meant to die off.

For instance, in the Vancouver area, prevailing images of the downtown East-Side are tied to the “Indian” on skid row. Society has been conditioned to think of aboriginal women as promiscuous. I am sure you have encountered other labels. It’s a powerful concept when people who were meant to be objectified actually start to believe it and internalize it.

These ideas have been no accident. They have been put there for political reasons over time. People are starting to connect the historical dots and realize that systemic racism and discrimination is imbedded in our political and social institutions.

History is about power and responsibility. Whoever controls the production and telling of history controls identity formation. For Métis, the imposition of fixed identities, Indian or ‘white’, that did not suit the fluid character of ‘being Métis’ paralyzed Métis and encouraged a passivity that lingers, unresolved. The anxiety of not ‘fitting in’ created cycles of systemic poverty and social dysfunction that expressed itself in dependency, alienation, horrendous apathy, infighting, internalized oppression, lateral violence, low education completion rates and income disparities.

Lost to past and current generations of Métis were the ways in which their ancestors resisted ‘becoming Canadian’ and maintained ways of ‘being Métis’. Generations of Métis suffered because they did not have an opportunity to create a shared history with Newcomers.

Canadian governments amended the Manitoba Act 11 times in the 1870s to devastate Métis links to each other, from aboriginal ways of life, and to the land. It was a form of institutional partition. The impact was devastating and was intergenerational. As Métis lawyer Paul Chartrand once opined, economic advantage benefitted those who had political power, and the Métis were set up to be subject to poverty, criminalization and other social dysfunctions. I am convinced that the roots of dysfunction among the Métis flow from dispossession from their lands, along with the resulting dislocation of cultural and spiritual connections.

As the result of generations of similar policies, Métis identity politics across this country has been a hostile cesspool of competing ethnic interests and oppositional power struggles. Métis have been battered and prodded into often competing political identities by outside political or economic forces. Positive community formation and sharing of culture has been almost nonexistent.

In the words of Big Bear and his great granddaughter Yvonne Johnson, “words are power.” Ideas and words have consequences in families, in communities, in society, and result in intergenerational social maladaptation.

Stolen Life has power to effect great change. It deeply impacted my life. Books like this, or real life encounters can teach us if we are open. A national inquiry could only ever be an honest study in post-colonialism. It would all come out on the table.

If we were willing, we would admit that default Canadian traditions guiding the relationship to this point have not been just, and that we are responsible as an entire country to repair the breach.

If we paid attention, we could learn how humans treat others with dignity, and what it truly means to be human, to belong, to share, played out in aboriginal communities, in the corridors of power, with industry, and in Canadian society. We would discover that broader political and social justice must accompany individual healing.

I have a Métis daughter of similar age to Tina Fontaine, so this story hits close to home. Tina mattered in this world.

I for one will never forget.

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