At the start of today’s canadaLANDBACK, host and producer Karyn Pugliese explains that “‘Land Back’ is not just about real estate. It’s also about reclaiming who we are as Indigenous people and as Indigenous women.”
In preparation, the team made a list of about 50 women whose stories they believed would be powerful to share. Looking over at that list, however, they began to notice that nearly all of those on it had had their lives touched in some way by Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.
“I thought this would be a story about hope,” Pugliese says. “But when it all came together, it wasn’t. And that’s okay, because the truth is, we’re not at a point of hope yet. Instead, these are stories of resilience.”
The episode puts five questions to three women, whose stories tell us how they’ve confronted colonialism and violence to take back their places as life-givers, teachers, leaders, and sacred beings:
Terri Brown is a former chief of the Tahltan First Nation in British Columbia and former president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC); Dr. Beverly Jacobs, Mohawk, Six Nations, is a law professor and advisor to the president at the University of Windsor, and also a former president of NWAC; and Tori Cress, Ojibway and Pottawattami, from G’Chimnissing, is a land and water defender.
Here is an edited selection of their answers, which contain discussions of racism, residential schools and violence against women.
What was the traditional role of women in your community?
Terri Brown: We are the holders of rights to everything: rights to land, rights to fish in our area. The Crow culture, the Crow people, we are known to actually own — not own the river, in terms of Eurocentric ideas — but the river is ours to protect and to hold and to make sure that it’s there forever. And the women are the rights to where you fish and hunt, where you live, all of this. So the man would marry into the woman’s clan. Probably back then, they would be quite young, so they would stay with with the mother’s family, and then the man would learn everything, because his rights would only go as far as his wife’s.
How did colonialism change the role of women?
Beverly Jacobs: Colonialism impacted — I don’t want to say it “changed” — but there’s been impacts from colonization, the impacts of patriarchy and the impacts of violence. When colonialism came in, when that whole patriarchy came into our territory, it really impacted our men and our women and our responsibilities that we have according to our own laws. And, you know, when the colonizers came here on their ship, they came here with that Victorian rule that women didn’t have rights: they had no agency, they were property of men. That was totally different than how our culture, how our ways, how our lives were, with women being leaders and respected, and their decisions respected.
How did the issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women come into your life?
Brown: Well, I lived and worked in Vancouver for many years, after I finished university, and my kids grew up there, and there were these women missing all the time. And nobody even could wrap their minds around what could it be. I worked for women’s groups, and when we reported them, the authorities would say, “Oh, they’re probably on vacation” or “They’re probably gone to Edmonton.” And then I thought, if I’m ever in a position to make a difference, that’s an issue I would definitely bring forward. And of course I never thought I would be president of women’s organizations, national organizations. And then when I landed at NWAC, that’s exactly what I pursued. And my own sister had gone missing in Prince George and been killed there. And that was part of it as well.
But, you know, there was no one thing. It’s my life; that’s our reality. We’re never safe. I’ve never been safe as a brown-skinned person. We stuck together. Like in residential school, wherever we went, we went in a group, a group of people we trusted. We knew from a very young age we were not safe. And I actually had heard whisperings, from a very young age, of some women who disappeared or were dumped somewhere, and that just becomes a part of your being, and you think, “You know, why don’t we matter? Why can people get away with this?”
You know, we’d go to New York, and I’d give speeches on it and have little demonstrations and that. And then it just kind of rolled along slowly. And then, when we went to the [Robert] Pickton farm and started doing some publicity work, you know, communications there, people started listening a little bit more. And then when Pickton was arrested and that kind of became more, we got more notice.
Tell me about a moment where you needed to be strong, and how you found your strength.
Tori Cress: So I ended up with somebody who was violent and alcoholic, because I saw that growing up, right? I saw that in my formative years, when my parents were together. And so that was my normal, and then I repeated that, and I didn’t want that for my kids. And I knew there was better, so I had to leave him. And I mean, the guy just terrorized me, you know, anything to hurt me.
I remember someone was like, “The Office of the Children’s Lawyer. Don’t worry, they’re gonna listen to your side.” And the man walked in, and he immediately said to me, “Oh, you’re from Christian Island, are you?” And I knew I was fucked. I knew I was fucked. I was prejudged. And my stepsister was a social worker, she went to university. I phoned her about it afterwards, because I knew, “I’m gonna lose my kids. Like, something’s not right here.” Those red alarm bells are going off in your head. And the more I went to court, the more I lost.
And one day, my dad came up to Midland where I lived, and he came up to see me and he brought me a cheque. He said, “This is from Gramps. And, you know, he wants you to hire a lawyer. He said, no more public lawyers. We don’t want you using legal aid anymore.” And they brought me a crapload of money. And I went to, you know, this prestigious law firm in town and got a different lawyer and told her my story. And I got my kids back.
I gotta support them and make sure these tools, our culture, the songs, the stories, you know, even our connection to the land, to the animals, all those things — there’s the urgency to just make sure I’ve acquired enough traditional ecological knowledge to share with them, so they can share it with their kids. And we all feel safe with one another, and once we collectively get our confidence back, I’m really excited to see what we’re gonna achieve, because we have the most amazing people in our communities. My friend once told me that “hope is in the people,” and I still carry that teaching with me. And I still see it, and I always look for the hope in our people.
Was there a role model who influenced the person you are today?
Jacobs: The first one was Patricia Monture. She’s from my community, but we never met until the summer of 1991, when I attended the Native pre-law program in Saskatoon. You know, just the strength of her voice and her writing, and she taught me to have a voice. She was one of two who taught me to have a voice. (There was another Mohawk woman, Sylvia Maracle from Tyendinaga.)
When I became president of Native Women’s Association of Canada, I had asked Trish to be one of my advisors. I was never involved in politics before that at all, so I had no idea what I was getting into. And so my first event was the Kelowna Accord and participating in the first ministers’ meeting and with the prime minister, Paul Martin at the time. I was the only woman around the table. And I remember walking with Trish — and Celeste McKay was with me as well, and a couple of the elders from NWAC — walking in and seeing that the agenda didn’t have violence against women as something that needed to be addressed. And I remember looking at Trish, looking around the table. There was all kinds of media. So when I had this opportunity, I said it publicly and basically the prime minister said, “Okay, we’re gonna deal with violence against women. We’re going to fund Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. We’re gonna fund Sisters in Spirit.” So that was basically to shut me up, I guess. And that’s what they taught me, as well as to acknowledge spirit and to respect our ancestors.
canadaLANDBACK is a co-production between Canada’s National Observer and Canadaland.
Podcast artwork by Jessie Boulard.