Marion Buller doesn't understand the controversy over the charge of genocide in the report into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
Buller, the inquiry's chief commissioner, said Monday she was surprised the word came as such a shock to people, when she “thought it was obvious.”
Buller was one of the speakers at UBC's First Nations House of Learning's two-day conference on Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls: An Epidemic Crossing the Medicine Line.
It was an emotional day, marked by intense grief, some conflict — and a few moments of laughter.
Buller was the first speaker after a powerful opening ceremony by Coast Salish Elder Roberta Price, who shared her story of being taken from her mother and raised in foster care — a risk factor, the inquiry found. Price found her mother, and her culture, as an adult. But she has also lost a sister who is among the missing women.
Buller said the report was shaped by the voices of women who participated in hearings and interviews.
“Everywhere we went, families of survivors said, ‘There is a war on our women... ' ‘I don't feel safe in my own community... ' ‘the violence in my family is normal... ' ‘I thought I could trust the police... ' ‘I have no choice but to sell my body... '” she said.
“The report tells a very dark history, and this report has already started some difficult conversations,” she added.
Buller said the report, released June 3, includes recommendations for sweeping change in its 231 Calls for Justice. Decolonization is an essential part of the process, she said. Even in their approach, the inquiry team was already working in that direction — rather than forcing themselves onto people and into communities, they went only where invited.
Colonialism was a long process, Buller said, that laid the foundation that caused Indigenous women to become marginalized and vulnerable to abuse. Decolonizing will involve multiple steps, but honouring treaties and allowing First Nations governments real sovereignty are a good start, she said.
And it's critical to ensure equality for Indigenous people in every area of their lives, she said. That requires funding for programs to address decades of neglect in every area, from education to health care to housing.
Other calls for justice in the report are more focused, Buller said.
The inquiry report called on the federal government to amend the Criminal Code so courts “consider violence against Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people as an aggravating factor at sentencing.”
Buller and the commission team gathered statements from almost 2,000 Indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA people over two and a half years. That wasn't enough time, she added, but the federal government dictated the end date.
Despite all the pain she witnessed, Buller said, the people were strong, beautiful and resilient. And she feels much hope for their collective healing.
Speaker Annita Hetoevehotohke'e Lucchesi shared her work with the Sovereign Bodies Institute via Skype.
Lucchesi, of the Cheyenne Nation, is the founder of the institute, which oversees her mapping project that collects data about missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in the U.S. and Canada.
Lucchesi emphasized the importance of having a relationship with the people who are providing data. That can lead to higher quality data, she said.
And she shared some key findings from her project, such as the fact that one-third of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls are under 18, with the average age being 26.
But the day was not all smooth sailing.
After lunch, a young non-Indigenous philosophy student — he volunteered this information — took it upon himself to play devil's advocate. He had already drawn attention, asking Buller in the morning why women were the inquiry focus and not men, saying men have a higher murder rate.
Buller's response was simple. “Because that's what the government chose to do,” she said.
But in the afternoon he asked, “Why Indigenous people?” — a question that came after speaker Ruth Buffalo, a North Dakota Indigenous politician, had told the group about her experience trying to answer that very question for non-Indigenous politicians who constantly raise it.
The questions themselves weren't as much of a problem as the way the student posed them and his lack of satisfaction with the answers. As he pushed his agenda, he was finally asked to leave. But he then decided to remain in protest, until campus security and Vancouver police were called.
The conflict was upsetting for some audience members and speakers who were survivors of rape and violence or had family members who had become among the ranks of the missing or murdered. Old wounds were re-opened in what should have been a safe place.
Butterflies in Spirit — a dance and drum group led by Lorelei Williams — was waiting to perform while the drama unfolded. They cut through the soured feelings with a beautiful performance, and the young man was finally coaxed out.
Margaret Moss, director of the UBC First Nation's House of Learning, shared her take on the man's question “Why Indigenous?” at the end of the day.
“There was targeted and persistent, systemic racism and colonialism against Indigenous people for hundreds of years... Was anybody asking, ‘Why Indigenous’ then? Was anybody asking, ‘Why are you doing this to Indigenous people?’”
No one asked the question when Indigenous people were removed from their land, sent to inadequate reserves, sometimes in forced marches like the Trail of Tears, she said.
In the U.S., even Mount Rushmore is a symbol to Indigenous people of displacement and colonization, she said. The giant heads of former presidents are carved into what used to be considered sacred land. The monument is known as the “Four Horsemen of the American Indian Apocalypse” to Indigenous people, she said.
“George Washington ordered the extermination of the Iroquois Nation. Lincoln... ordered the largest mass execution on American territory,” Moss noted. “Jefferson is the architect of the Trail of Tears.... Andrew Jackson carried it out. And Theodore Roosevelt made statements in his career, ‘The only good Indian is a dead Indian,'” she said.
Guest speaker Cherrah Giles, a Muscogee/Cherokee/Rekackv activist and politician, said there will always be someone challenging the rights of Indigenous people.
“There's always going to be someone trying to distract us. But we have to move past that and remember what we are here to do,” she said.
Read more: Indigenous, Rights + Justice
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