THE BLOG

White Skin Didn't Save Loretta Saunders From Colonial Violence

03/21/2014 12:30 EDT | Updated 05/22/2014 05:59 EDT

You may have read my two previous posts about Loretta Saunders, my former honours student at Saint Mary's University. I wrote the first one in the midst of a frantic search for her two days after her family, friends, and I realized she was missing; the second came about 12 hours after finding out the devastating news of Loretta's murder.

I'm writing this current piece as a reflection on some of the responses to Loretta's murder and/or my writing about Loretta. As such, it's meant to be part of my own healing process, and also a contribution to the struggle against violence directed at indigenous women. I've added a section at the very end with a number of resources.

Since the news of her body being found along the Trans-Canada highway in New Brunswick was made public, several prominent media and political voices have argued that Loretta's murder had nothing to do with her being an indigenous woman. Whether federal Minister of Justice Peter McKay or CBC Halifax host Don Connolly, there seems to be a veritable chorus of commentators, none of whom have ever met Loretta, wanting us all to believe that Loretta's murder "was tied to a rent dispute" or better yet, "could seemingly have befallen anyone in her position, male or female, native or non-native," as one journalist suggested.

I've noticed that these claims rely on two main points: a decontextualized understanding of the origins of crime and a narrow view of social identity based on biology. Allow me to demonstrate how both are useful to deny responsibility and distract attention, neither of which supports any meaningful understanding, dialogue, or action on the issue at hand.

Taking the Easy Way Out

First, many of the commentators use a very narrow understanding of crime that provides us non-indigenous folks with an easy alibi. If we are to believe the choir, all crime is simply a matter of being in the "wrong-place-at-the-wrong time," and any attempt at explaining patterns of crime are at best hyperbole and at worst, conjecture.

Not only is this a handy strategy to deny patterned violence against indigenous women, violence due in large part to enforced poverty, but it also serves another insidious purpose -- the denial of the systematically racist operation of our laws.

In other words, the same logic that posits that the accused in Loretta's case acted randomly also supports a decontextualized reading of indigenous over-incarceration in Canada. Despite the numerous inquiries suggesting that federal and provincial courts systematically discriminate against indigenous peoples, these rates continue to skyrocket under our government's so-called "tough-on-crime" approach.

Remarkably, the last annual report of the Correctional Investigator of Canada demonstrates that the rate of incarceration of indigenous women over the past decade has increased by 109 per cent. As I demonstrate below, during the same decade that there is a notable spike in the number of missing and/or murdered indigenous women, the incarceration of indigenous women in federal institutions more than doubles.

The over-representation of indigenous women in prison and the over-representation of indigenous women among the missing and/or murdered are clearly connected. One need only read a handful of the dozens of community-based and human rights reports published in the past decade to get a picture of these connections.

Loretta herself consulted several of those reports in her research and her own rejection of the decontextualized framing I am outlining above is a testament to the everyday struggles of indigenous women who dare point to the atrocious colonial violence that they continue to face at the hands of the state and its citizens.

Without a doubt, we could highlight any number of single criminal events that could call into question an overall pattern. Does that mean the pattern is any less relevant. No, it doesn't. It does, however, raise one important question: Who stands to gain by arguing that Loretta's death had nothing do to with her indigeneity?

It doesn't matter what the accused knew about Loretta Saunders. The point I've been trying to make and Loretta is making in her work is that indigenous women are more vulnerable due to the social impacts of being both indigenous and a woman in Canada; increased levels of poverty and social isolation among them. Maryanne Pearce's recently published research confirms what indigenous women and organizations have been saying for decades.

According to Pearce's data, indigenous women represent roughly 25 per cent of all documented cases of missing and/or murdered women in Canada. Due in part to the availability of records, the large majority of the cases in her database are from the 2000-2013 period. As such, it's entirely likely that these numbers are much higher, but considering that at no point in this period have indigenous women in Canada ever represented more than 2 per cent of the total population, these figures are grossly disproportionate.

Added to this data, a disparate number of these cases occurred in urban areas, despite the fact that until very recently indigenous women mostly lived in rural areas, suggesting that it is partly their displacement from rural to urban and from indigenous to non-indigenous space that is responsible for their disappearance and/or murder. What is it about moving to the city that adds to indigenous women's vulnerability?

Before I'm misunderstood, I'm certainly not suggesting that these types of violence against indigenous women are only an urban phenomenon or only happen at the hands of non-indigenous men like myself, but I am suggesting that this is very much the pattern in our society.

Let's move onto the second argument I observed.

BLOG CONTINUES BELOW SLIDESHOW:

Vigil On Parliament Hill For Loretta Saunders

Race and Racism Have Nothing to Do With it: A Canadian Pastime

There here have been numerous mentions of Loretta's fair skin and European facial features as evidence that her murder had nothing to do with her indigeneity. I've been surprised at the scope of these arguments, since they have run the gamut of Conservative politicians, centrist media pundits, and radical leftist academics.

It's certainly strange to witness so many people who adhere strongly to the Canadian ideology of "colour-blindess," i.e., one must always ignore race as a possibility for any social inequality, suddenly talking openly about race and racism. As one commentator put it plainly, "Pictures of her I've seen depict an attractive young woman who could conceivably pass for virtually any European ancestry. She's blonde in some photos, an attribute that hardly screams Inuit."

It's no wonder that the biological continues to have a hold on our imagination when it comes to questions of identity, community, and belonging. We have inherited a long tradition of what we now call "scientific racism" from the Enlightenment, one that sought to bolster European supremacy and justify European imperialism over inferior "races". Yet, through the latter half of the 1940s the international community got together and decided to move away from the categorization of people according to innate biological characteristics, in no small measure a response to the horrors that struck at the heart of Europe.

The UNESCO Statement on Race, proclaimed on July 20, 1950, pointed to a new era in understandings of race and difference, one largely ignored since then. Interestingly, in her dissertation, Pearce refuses to identify women's ethnicity and/or race through photos, due precisely to the complicated cultural, social, and political history of the concept of race.

Loretta has light skin and blue eyes. Most of her facial features could suggest that she is a white woman. What I'm refuting is the claim that her skin colour and facial features are the defining feature of her or anybody's indigeneity. This is certainly not the case in contemporary indigenous societies, which are constantly adapting to changing social and cultural landscapes.

Whether or not she "looks" indigenous is much less relevant than whether or not her community embraces her.

Having spoken with six of her family members regularly over the course of the past four weeks, as well as having spoken extensively with Loretta about her strong sense of belonging to Nunatsiavut, it is plainly evident that Loretta's appearance played at best an insignificant role in her sense of belonging to her community.

Let's keep in mind that the Indian Act continues to depend on blood quantum and thus, biological characteristics, to define who is an "Indian." The federal government is in the business of limiting the number of "Indians" so as to eliminate any treaty responsibilities. It's no wonder that many of us turn to these same questions of biology to refute claims being made largely by indigenous women.

All of Loretta's experiences prior to leaving Nunatsiavut for Halifax to attend university are based in her strong relationship to her family, community, and territory, despite the Canadian government's continued attempts to eliminate those relationships through any number of laws and policies (e.g., residential schools).

How to Eliminate our Settler Problem?

Given all of the predictable attempts to discount Loretta's actual experiences as an indigenous woman, I insist on centering what we do know about her: Loretta is a passionate advocate for justice for indigenous women like herself, outspoken in her pride about being Inuk, and a tireless researcher on these topics. That the accused understood that Loretta was indigenous − while immaterial − is quite clear.

Tragically, on several occasions in her work, Loretta identifies herself as being at risk of the same fate that has befallen so many indigenous women before her. And she insists that she will no longer be silenced by the vicious circle of violence that entangles her. My interest is in honouring Loretta and other indigenous women who have spoken out about the ways in which colonialism continues to eliminate them from society.

As such, attempts to silence Loretta and those indigenous women calling for fundamental change in Canadian society must be viewed as desperate efforts to support the colonial status quo that rely on a decontextualized understanding of crime, a narrowly racist understanding of identity, and a complete disregard for Loretta's own passion and personality.

We must not stand idly by as Loretta's experiences as an indigenous woman are trivialized, denied, misrepresented, or eliminated.

We don't have an Indian problem in Canada. We have a settler problem. A problem with white people like myself.

And it's white people like me who must have those difficult conversations with family and friends, must teach ourselves what we were never taught, must be ready to feel uncomfortable, must be ready to stand side-by-side with and take the lead from the same indigenous peoples who we have been taught to disregard, devalue, and dehumanize. It's time to stop wringing our hands and looking to the authorities to make change. We have seen the devastation that our governments have wrought on indigenous communities, too often with our (silent) support.

What will we do to stop the violence?

#ItEndsHere. #ItStartswithUs.

*Visit the Halifax Media Co-op site for a list of resources on how to support indigenous women.

Darryl Leroux works and lives in Mi'kma'ki. You can access his academic work here.