By Sonya Rock, teacher, Prince George
This is a modified version of a blog post first written for the National Film Board.
Can you imagine what it would be like if your mother or sister went missing and the police waited six months or a year before responding to your missing person report? In the meantime, you can’t sleep at night. Every day you’re faced with the realization that your loved one is gone, and you re-experience the trauma. When dealing with the police, you’re subjected to discrimination and racism.
Your loved one is automatically labelled as someone who has lived a “high-risk lifestyle.” This seemingly gives those who are charged with protecting you and your loved one permission to dismiss the seriousness and urgency of your situation. Your phone calls to police are never returned or returned at a snail’s pace. You are revictimized—treated like your loved one’s life is not important enough to be a priority. You fight to have your voice heard, as society has already made up its mind about who you are.
Your mother or sister is never found. You can never have closure. You will always have a feeling of hopelessness and experience a lifetime of unresolved loss and grief. No one in this country seems to care, or they choose to turn away from the truth. Your loved one has become just another faceless statistic.
Much of society still believes that these stories are not true, or that they happened a long time ago. Some people simply don’t believe that such atrocities could be happening in their own backyard.
It is estimated that there have been more than 4,000 missing or murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) across Canada in the last 30 years.1 When I was 23, I survived an incident that could have added me to the growing list of MMIWG in Canada. I am a survivor. I have lived through everything discussed above. I have a daily fight on my hands because I am Indigenous and because I am a woman. I continue to live under the oppressive policies of colonialism.
In order to break the silence, I encourage all educators and school staff to watch the following two films. I hope they will open an avenue of understanding about what Indigenous people face across Canada, and help educate the youth in our high schools. For it is with youth that a change of heart can begin.
1 These numbers do not include Métis and Inuit women, or Indigenous women from the United States. The source for these statistics is the recent Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, as well as other reports from the House of Commons and the RCMP.
Two films for classroom viewing
Finding Dawn by Christine Welch
This feature-length documentary addresses the ongoing epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls across Canada. In the film, the family of Dawn Crey reflect on the days, weeks, and months following the discovery of Dawn’s remains on Robert Pickton’s farm, and what her life was like leading up to her death. Dawn’s DNA was one of 23 sets of women’s DNA found on the Pickton farm; however, not enough of it was found to have her listed as one of the victims at Pickton’s trial. Families of MMIWG who disappeared on the Highway of Tears and in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside also share their stories in the film. www.nfb.ca/film/finding_dawn
this river by Erika MacPherson and Katherena Vermette
Fourteen-year-old Tina Fontaine was pulled from Winnipeg’s Red River in 2014. Indigenous leaders from across Canada rallied to renew calls for an inquiry into the missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada. As a result of this tragedy, the organization Drag the Red was formed by community volunteers. These volunteers scour the river and its shores to search for clues about the missing. As members of this group Kyle Kematch and organizer Katherena Vermette share their experiences of searching for a missing loved one.
Discussing the films with your class
These films and topics are intended for high school students. We have to keep in mind that there continue to be instances of missing and murdered women and girls. Some students may have faced or may currently be facing this reality in their lives, or may know a relative who has lost a loved one in this way. In my own experience, as I watched Finding Dawn, I could see myself in the story. Horrifying memories came flooding back, and feelings of intense fear came over me, followed by sorrow, and then anger. For this reason, it is important that educators ensure there are several scaffolding and safety measures in place.
Introduce the topic in a Talking Circle, an Indigenous practice through which discussions and decision-making take place. Set the parameters of the Talking Circle by telling students that it is a safe and sacred space for them to share their thoughts and feelings, and to ask questions about missing and murdered women and girls.
It’s important to have a youth counsellor and a local Elder in the circle. Parents or caretakers should be informed ahead of time that these topics will be covered in class and told what they can do to help their child talk through any feelings that may surface during or after the discussion
As an opening activity, students can imagine that the scenario described in the first two paragraphs of this article applies to them, and write out their thoughts and feelings about how they would deal with this situation.
When discussing MMIWG, educators should address the following questions throughout their unit. They will have to go deeper into the causes that have led to these events. In answering these questions, students will gain a better understanding of the history of Indigenous people in Canada and the impact of these historical events on Indigenous women.
Questions to consider
Is the MMIWG crisis something that has just surfaced in recent years? What do you think are the reasons behind the tragic deaths of Indigenous women?
How would you describe colonialism, the Indian Act, residential schools, and the Sixties Scoop, and how have they shaped the lives of Indigenous women in Canada?
How has the ongoing removal of children from their homes by BC’s Ministry of Children and Family Development affected Indigenous women?
What can I do as a learner to change the way that I relate to Indigenous people?
I call upon my allies to open up their hearts and minds and stand beside Indigenous people as we continue to fight for the same human rights as every other citizen in this country. My hope for my Indigenous sisters is that one day we will be able to walk the streets and feel safe, and our people will no longer have to worry about their mothers, sisters, aunties, and cousins going missing.
About the author
Sonya Rock has been teaching for 24 years. Her interests and past work have involved Aboriginal rights and land titles. She has taught Gitxsan culture and language in various capacities within her community and as a teacher. She is working on language revitalization through her work as an educator. She has been involved in missing and murdered women’s awareness gatherings and events. Sonya is a residential school survivor and an MMIWG survivor.
If you are affected by the topics addressed in the films, we encourage you to reach out to someone you trust. If you’re in need of crisis support, please contact the following organizations:
The Hope for Wellness Help Line: 1-855-242-3310
Offers immediate help to all Indigenous Peoples in Canada.
Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868
A general distress hotline for children and youth, including those who may be experiencing or using violence.
Assaulted Women’s Helpline: 1-866-863-0511
A toll-free support hotline for women who have experienced gender-based violence.