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Rights + Justice

'I Had to Break the Rules'

Angela Sterritt on ‘Unbroken,’ and seeking justice for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. A Tyee Q&A.

Solana Pasqual 1 Jun 2023The Tyee

Solana Pasqual is an intern with The Tyee.

[Editor’s note: This article discusses missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, sexual violence and police violence.]

Angela Sterritt’s new book Unbroken: My Fight for Survival, Hope and Justice for Indigenous Women and Girls blends the narrative of her early life living homeless in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside with that of how she came to provide, through her journalism, a safe place for the stories of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

“I too, as a woman who is part white and part Gitxsan, carry the burden of responsibility for what happened on these lands,” Sterritt writes. “Rather than move through the world like a chameleon using my white or Indigenous identity to my advantage, I’ve chosen to use both as a point of responsibility.”

Unbroken portrays the grief of a father and stepmother combing through logging roads, deserted stretches of highway and ditches, looking for their child. It chronicles the fist-clenching anger of Indigenous girls standing before a judge that sexually assaulted them as he made decisions about their freedom and futures. It sheds light on families and community members learning how to drag rivers to try and recover bodies because police deemed their children’s behaviour “high risk” and therefore, blameworthy and unimportant.

Unbroken also implicates the Canadian media in its role in the public’s apathetic, or antagonistic, view on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Even as she has won awards for her work, Sterritt had to continue to fight to make space for these stories in newsrooms still dominated by a white colonial lens.

“Concealing my past with blazers and blush and decorative words and the emotionless flair of a journalist forced all that pain down to a point where I’d forget all that I had survived,” wrote Sterritt. “[However], as I chronicled my struggles, my strength and survival were proof: the colonials had failed.”

The Tyee interviewed Sterritt about her book, her art, and her experiences as an Indigenous journalist working in an industry that has so often been responsible for inflicting harm on vulnerable communities. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What does the book’s title, Unbroken, mean?

There’s a phrase in the book that says, “Our spirit is not broken.” I remember growing up as a teenager or maybe even younger, and Elders and Indigenous leaders would always say, “You know, they took everything away from us. They took our land, they took our culture, they took our language, but our spirit is not broken.” I’m an artist as well, and a lot of my paintings have a yellow background to show that our people are strong, courageous, tenacious and powerful. That we’re not broken.

The title, Unbroken, is kind of synonymous with the spirit of the entire book. The Highway of Tears, for example, is portrayed as this dark and dreary place, and it’s like no, it’s beautiful, it’s like one of the most gorgeous places on Earth. So are the people. The people are beautiful and loving and generous and kind and adaptable and creative. It’s freakin’ incredible. There’s snow-capped mountains and eagles and ravens and totem poles and longhouses and it’s incredibly captivating. The last thing on my mind is “This is so dark and depressing.” So yeah, the book title is really important to me and I love it. Our spirit is not broken. Nothing is broken.

The book’s cover features a painting with a young woman holding up a feather, another woman with a wooden spoon and an Elder with a flower. There’s an expression of resilience on their faces. Can you talk about your artwork and what it means to you?

With the feather, the youth gives us hope. The woman feeds us, and the Elder helps us grow. It means: lead us, feed us, heal us. The painting in the book is actually the first piece that I did about missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. It’s about their remaining family members, and it’s called “Honour the Dead, Fight for the Living, Honour the Living, Fight for the Dead.” That’s something that I want people to take away from this book. Honour murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls, but also honour those who are alive today.

Unbroken features a unique combination of a memoir and investigative journalism; you intertwine your personal experiences with an analysis of the structure of the Canadian media industry. How did you navigate that world of identity and career?

When I began the book in 2015, being a journalist putting yourself in the story was something you just didn’t do. In journalism, we’re always told not to navel gaze, but then the pandemic happened, George Floyd was murdered, and Chantel Moore was murdered. This forced us to take a look at how our industry, and how the media as an institution — an instrument of colonial violence and colonization and empire building — has manipulated the narrative about Indigenous people and in this case, Indigenous women, girls and Two-Spirit people.

I thought, let’s take this further and look at myself as an Indigenous woman within and outside this institution who was experiencing colonial violence every day. It was a really hard journey because I didn’t want to be part of the story at all. My training as a journalist had taught me that you never put yourself inside the story — you always have to have this tremendous level of distance.

But I think after the pandemic, we started to realize our industry is incredibly biased. It is incredibly white, and we consider white to be the norm. Anything outside of that is deemed biased. During [the book’s] competitive auction, I had a large international publisher offer quite a bit of money and say, “We’ll do this with you as long as you take out all the family members’ [victims’ families] voices so that it’s just a memoir.” I said, “Absolutely not.”

Throughout the book, you navigate very complex feelings about situating yourself in trauma and colonial violence, but also in privilege. How did this inform your storytelling?

I read about one residential school survivor being treated on a live radio show as if she was lying. They were questioning her experiences, asking if it was real. She was bawling her eyes out. It was horrific. It was a hard pill to swallow to know that I was working alongside people who were not giving care and respect to survivors. Even in 2017, 2018, we were told that having compassion makes you biased. I felt like at one point, I really had become a robot with people.

Navigating and changing this meant I had to break the rules. It meant that I was going to have compassion for people, I was going to have care, and I was going to have basic human dignity and respect when I’m talking to anyone in my story. An accountability interview with a politician is not the same as an interview with a residential school survivor, and yet, colonial rules say that we’re supposed to treat everyone the same. Well, everybody is not the same. We live in a country where there is the colonized and there is the colonizer. I’m not about to treat everyone as if they have had the same set of circumstances to contend with.

As you reported on various Indigenous stories, you often were labelled an “advocacy journalist.” Anyone in the industry knows this is not a term of endearment — it’s a way to accuse someone of having an agenda. What would you say to new journalists trying to navigate these social structures today?

When I’m doing an Indigenous story, I’m an advocate. When I’m doing a non-Indigenous story, I’m told to stay in my lane. That’s 2023. Sometimes I give workshops and people ask me how long ago my negative experiences were, and I have to say, “That was yesterday.”

I think people of colour who are reporting on our own communities and reporting on underreported stories are going to be called “advocates” because again, the baseline in journalism is white, the norm is white. When I pitched the story about Maxwell Johnson and his granddaughter put in handcuffs for trying to open a bank account, that story was initially denied. I was told it was just too complicated. Thank goodness I have tenacity, and just went to another producer, and she flew with it. And it was the top story for like a year.

Your sense of belonging in a newsroom, no matter what newsroom, is chipped away at all the time. You’re constantly told you don’t belong, or that you’re not the norm. That’s really traumatizing because that’s what colonization did. It literally created systems to keep us away from the settler population so that we couldn’t cause problems for them — so that the settler population could continue to proliferate and settle.

It’s like an incredibly difficult institution to navigate as a person of colour who would like to see their people accurately represented on the news. People don’t want to hear about racism all the time. People don’t want their behaviour to be addressed. People don’t want to face themselves.

How would you like to see settlers reframe their conceptions of colonization and victims of colonization?

I think settlers need to deeply investigate their ancestry, and how they got here today, so that they can build compassion for Indigenous people. You didn’t just show up here. Taking ownership is very important to me because I have privilege in my race and my skin colour, but I also have privilege in the sense of the longevity of my career. When I speak out, I don’t hold back.

What I find really disturbing is that sometimes I’m in a room speaking about racism and violence, and no one else says anything. I want settlers to speak up. You’re not speaking for Indigenous people; you’re speaking up against your people’s racism. Indigenous people are just so exhausted. I don’t want to be the only one speaking out in my workplace among people who have been there longer than me.

In some cases, you talk to generations of people who went to residential school and they are all carrying shame. Why? It’s the old institutions who should be held accountable. It’s always positioned as something in the past, but the practice of colonization and oppression continues to this day. We still answer to a king. We’re still wards of the court. I still have a status card. You know, I’m not Canadian. In terms of how the government sees me, I’m Indian.

There’s massive structures, attitudes and behaviours in Canada that continue to instill the reality of being a colonized and colonizer society. The way that we’re going to change that is by doing what we do as journalists — hold truth to power and give Indigenous stories the energy, rigour and investigation that we give other stories.

In the book, you write, “I am also witnessing us taking back joy, as the burden of addressing systemic racism and violence is shared more widely.” Can you speak on the importance of joy, and ensuring that the media shows multifaceted Indigenous people and issues?

It’s important that we’re depicted as who we are — multidimensional people. In terms of understanding complexities a little bit better, I think we’re getting better at it, but I think when it comes to missing and murdered Indigenous women, it just still feels like there’s a lack of care.

A lot of the Indigenous people that I speak with will ask me, “Can you write this in a way that’s strength-based rather than just all the hardships that are surrounding this story?” As a journalist, taking cues from the person that you’re interviewing about how to tell the story is a huge no. I wouldn’t do that with everyone, but it’s about not treating everyone the same. It may be against journalistic standards and practices, but maybe you need to go outside of those laws to show compassion.

Racism and stereotypes are embedded in us and really aren’t serving our readership and media. It’s time to listen, and it’s time to do things in a different way. It’s hard when you have a culture that is so deeply embedded in the colonial foundations on which it was built upon.

It’s going to take what I’m seeing right now — women, in particular, women of colour in leadership roles, who are committed to making a difference and combatting racism — and it’s going to need consequences for people who are racist. We need to change the culture in significant ways where being an Indigenous person, being a person of colour, in your full multidimensional self is acceptable and the norm.

Journalists are often required to file government documents asking for access to basic information from police, who are notoriously opaque about their investigations. While writing Unbroken, you had to file these documents to get a sense of even just how many police officers are currently assigned to investigate the cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. How do these systems affect your ability to do your work and bring power to people?

The system we have right now for accessing justice is incredibly difficult. I think many journalists will agree with me when I say that getting access to basic information is becoming more and more difficult. The system is becoming very opaque.

I was helping a young woman who wanted to file a sexual assault charge. I’m an investigative journalist, and she’s a professional person. We’re both heavily resourced people in terms of community and understanding the system and the barriers at play. However, it’s been a month and we are still not sure where to file this. We’ve gone to so many different people, the police, lawyers, advocacy organizations. We just keep getting bounced around.

I think back to being younger, being a teenager with no fixed address, being on the streets, people not caring, not believing you. I’m still told to this day by family members, like literally a week ago, that the police don’t believe them, and their family members have been murdered or been missing for weeks.

There are all these stereotypes — being transient, having a non-white lifestyle, a non-middle-class lifestyle, being “high-risk.” We’ve seen the reports where the police are criticized, and they are promising to do better. But we’re still at square one where the family members are echoing the exact same problems with the police. Accessing information is one thing, accessing justice is another.

Keep an eye out tomorrow for an excerpt of ‘Unbroken: My Fight for Survival, Hope and Justice for Indigenous Women and Girls.’  [Tyee]

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