The upcoming 7th annual Ottawa Sisters in Spirit (SIS) vigil is a special event for me as a recent immigrant to Canada. It offers me the opportunity to reflect on what it means for my adopted country to embrace and heal me, while neglecting the perennial issue of the missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls. The Native Women's Association of Canada estimates that more than 600 have either gone missing or been murdered since 1990.
The vigil, spearheaded by the Families of Sisters in Spirit and partners, is one the hundreds of SIS vigils happening across the country on October 4. The vigils bring together concerned Canadians and Aboriginal communities to honour the victims' lives, and support the families touched by the racialized and sexualized violence.
Here are three reasons why I care:
First, I've lived and witnessed the horror the families of the victims endure every day. As I was growing up in the Zimbabwean village in the 1970s, my father assaulted my mother almost every day, always for no apparent reason. She'd eventually die from internal injuries sustained from the violence.
Second, Canada cares for me, an immigrant, more than it cares for Aboriginal people. If there is another western country that has so many people from one racialized group missing or murdered and still has neither the political will nor strategy to find lasting a solution, please let me know.
I washed up on Canada's shores as a political refugee in the summer of 2003, mutilated by the violence I'd experienced and witnessed in Zimbabwe. Canada embraced, nursed and healed me. Canada restored that which Zimbabwe denied me for the first 32 years of my life: human dignity.
Canada believed in me as an equal and able member of the human race. Between 2004 and 2010, I volunteered for the late NDP leader Jack Layton's 2004 campaign, attended the University of Toronto and managed a CIDA-funded registered Canadian charity that supported HIV/AIDS work in Africa. Over the years, I've carved a unique Canadian identity as an activism-oriented progressive political blogger with a passion for federal politics and social justice.
Very few Aboriginal people are afforded half the opportunities I've had in nine years in their entire lifetimes.
Last December, James Anaya, the United Nations special rapporteur on indigenous peoples, noted that aboriginal communities in Canada face grinding poverty, poor health, low education standards and high unemployment rates. Then there is the tragedy and shame of third-world conditions at Attawapiskat and other First Nations communities, where people live in unheated shacks or trailers lacking running water and toilets. In fact, the school I attended in the Zimbabwe village in the 1980s is many times better than Attawapiskat's J.R. Nakogee elementary school, now condemned and closed due to contamination.
Third, as a social justice activist, it troubles me greatly that both the Canadian government and society lacks the will to end the violence against Aboriginal women, which is a result of poverty, economic inequality, lack of opportunity, inadequate social services and historical prejudice.
Racial caste is alive and well in Canada. There's a disturbing triumphant racial narrative in our national conversation. We rarely, if ever, discuss racism. Even as stats beg us to. The 2004 General Social Survey noted that Aboriginal women 15 years and older are three and a half times more likely to experience violence than non-Aboriginal women.
Both Amnesty International and the United Nations have called upon the federal government to investigate the deaths and disappearances. If the federal government cared at all, there would be a well-funded national inquiry, and a comprehensive Aboriginal-driven strategy to end the violence.
Instead, the government seems pre-occupied with creating legislation that further punishes vulnerable communities. A recent report commissioned by the Department of Public Safety noted that, while Aboriginal peoples constitute 4 per cent of the Canadian population, Aboriginal women accounted for 32.6 per cent of the total female offender population as of April 2010. The New Jim Crow-style Safe Streets and Communities Act (crime Bill C-10), will send more Aboriginal women to jail.
As a society, we're as complicit in this disgrace as my village was when I was growing up in the 70s and 80s. The village tolerated my father's violence. Violence against my mother and other women was a private matter, an unchangeable fact of life.
In July, the Ottawa Citizen published the story of acclaimed Inuit artist Annie Pootoogook, who was pregnant and homeless, living on the street in Ottawa. To my early friends, Aboriginal women like Annie were bad people who did drugs, engaged in prostitution and deserved no second chance in life.
From March 14 to June 6, I engaged in a hunger strike against crime Bill C-10. I demanded a national inquiry for the missing and murdered Aboriginal women. I protested because the victims are my daughters, sisters, mothers and grandmothers. If they were still with us, they would be our leaders, teachers, friends, nurturers and lovers.
The hundreds of people who responded to the peaceful protest, including fellow activists, government officials, senators, MPs and friends were more concerned about my health and future ability to contribute to the democratic process, and less about the issues I raised.
The 2012 vigils call on us to muster the courage to demand action to end of the neglect, abuse and exploitation of vulnerable women and girls in Canada.