A Liberal MP delivered a call to action this week on behalf of indigenous women facing violence — and later translated his words to ensure they would be understood.
Robert-Falcon Ouellette, the MP for Winnipeg Centre, spoke entirely in Cree when he rose in the House of Commons Thursday to discuss acts of disturbing brutality against young women in the Prairies.
Late last month, 19-year-old Serena McKay was murdered on the Sagkeeng First Nation in Manitoba. A graphic video, reportedly showing McKay being kicked and punched repeatedly, circulated on Facebook. Two girls, aged 16 and 17, have been arrested on charges of second-degree murder.
The horrific case was reminiscent of a 2015 incident in The Pas where, according to a Winnipeg Free Press report, a teen girl was deliberately and severely burned during a house party. That attack was also caught on camera.
“These events occurred while people stood by and recorded these incidents,” Ouellette said, according to a translation he provided both to Parliament and the media. “The freedom of the violence calls into question our own humanity.”
Ouellette promoted the Moose Hide Campaign, a grassroots movement calling on men — aboriginal and non-aboriginal alike — to work together to tackle violence against women and children. According to the group’s site, wearing the hide signifies a commitment to “honour, respect and protect the women and children in your life.”
Ouellette was wearing a jacket made of moose hide as he spoke.
“My aunts, cousins, daughter, and friends are beautiful,” the MP said. “They are courageous, humble, intelligent, loving, respectful, honest, hard-working.
“They deserve additional protection of our laws so people think twice before they destroy lives.”
Tory MP suggests prior translation
Though many colleagues applauded his remarks, Manitoba Conservative MP Ted Falk later rose on a point of order to lament that he could not understand what was said.
“We heard a beautifully orated speech in a language that 98 per cent of us were unable to comprehend,” Falk said.
The Tory MP asked that a prior translation be given to interpreters in the future so that those in the House could “enjoy the content of the statement and also provide the appropriate support and response.”
Ouellette told HuffPost Canada that he spoke Cree because he wanted indigenous youth “to really hear this message” that women should be respected as sisters. And he wanted them to feel pride in their language.
"Most Parliamentarians said, you know, 'Great to hear you speaking your indigenous language but what did you say?'"
“I’m sure they’ve heard this message many times. I hope they have throughout their lives,” Ouellette said. “But if there’s another way of doing it… using our indigenous languages to make it more real... then I was going to do it.”
Ouellette said he hopes that Parliament will soon offer translation services for indigenous languages.
“Most Parliamentarians said, you know, ‘Great to hear you speaking your indigenous language but what did you say?’” he said with a laugh.
Ouellette suggested the violence he referenced — and the “impunity” some have must felt to record such acts — speaks to the work that still needs to be done.
“For so long, the laws of Canada made indigenous people, but especially indigenous women, not just second-class but third-class citizens. We need to somehow find a way of bringing greater balance to that for a period of time. To say that we hold indigenous women in esteem.”
The full translation of Ouellette's speech:
Recently in the Prairies two high profile violent events occurred where young indigenous women were killed and severely hurt.
These events occurred while people stood by and recorded these incidents. The freedom of the violence calls into question our own humanity.
I am a supporter of the Moose Hide Campaign and it is time that we raise indigenous women above our current beliefs.
My aunts, cousins, daughter, and friends are beautiful. They are courageous, humble, intelligent, loving, respectful, honest, hard-working. They deserve additional protection of our laws so people think twice before they destroy lives.