Loretta Saunders: The Legacy of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Continues

loretta saundersOn Feb. 13, Nova Scotia resident Loretta Saunders went missing. Her body was found on the side of a New Brunswick highway on Feb. 26. Originally from Labrador, Saunders was an Inuk woman writing her thesis on missing and murdered aboriginal women at Halifax’s Saint Mary’s University. Victoria Henneberry and Blake Leggette were charged with first-degree murder a day after.

“I was always so worried about Loretta. She presented all of the vulnerabilities to which indigenous women are prone, through no fault of her own,” wrote Darryl Laroux, supervisor to her honours degree thesis.  “I reread her thesis proposal last night and was reminded of how deeply she was aware of being a product of a Canadian society intent on destroying and eliminating indigenous peoples. That last word, ‘eliminating,’ may seem extreme to some, but it is now so charged, so raw, so very real.”

Leroux continues, saying, “What I do know is that our society has discarded indigenous women and girls in much the same manner for generations. These people were playing out a script that we all know intimately, but never acknowledge.

“It’s our doing, which Loretta articulated so clearly in her writing — theft of land base, legalized segregation and racism, residential schools for several generations, continued dispossession equals social chaos.”

“It’s not as simple as saying she was an indigenous woman,” said Emerance Baker, Chair of the First Peoples House of Learning. “All the experiences in her life were possibly similar experiences, possibly divergent experiences [to other missing or murdered women]. We never get a full accounting … What happened to her as a young Inuk woman in that community? What about the love and support of her friends and family? That’s the story that no one’s covering.”

“Over 800 documented cases of murdered and missing indigenous women and girls can be ‘validated,’” Tasha Beeds, Professor in Trent’s Indigenous Studies Deparment, wrote in a blog post responding to my questions. “Indigenous people have been validating these numbers for generations and we know there are many, many more undocumented Iskwewak, Anishinaabekwewag, indigenous women and girls who have disappeared and who have been murdered. Add indigenous men and boys—add all genders—to those numbers and they keep rising. How many children went missing and were murdered in residential schools? How many indigenous men were dropped off in -30 degree weather without jackets or shoes? The history of violence against indigenous people is woven into the colonization of our indigenous territories. Our bones and blood make up the fabric of ‘Canada.’”

Baker talked about how much money is diverted to social services instead of altering the conditions that put people in need of them. “If you actually empower people to create their own wealth, their own homes, how much money do you save?”

She explained that 20- to 40-year-old aboriginal people are highly overrepresented in the prison population and welfare programs, yet many programs are cut. “There are so many systems to create a violence bubble. That’s all they do: create that bubble of violence. Not intentionally, but they do.”

“In indigenous territories, indigenous people of all genders, like our ancestors, have become a part of the landscape, but these indigenous bodies have not been ceremoniously placed with honour and respect; instead, they have been horribly brutalized, sometimes disembodied, and always dehumanized,” Beeds reported. “Next time you are at a magazine stand in your grocery store or drugstore, see if you can find a positive representation of indigenous people—actually, any representation of indigenous people across all genders—odds are there will be none.  This continual non-indigenous production of stereotypical images matched with little representation of us as real people, contributes to the notion that we are disposable, of little value and of no consequence.”

“[Saunders] story hit a lot of people because she was pregnant, but also acceptable. She was an example of indigenous success. It resonates with people because [her life] was a successful story. One story I’ve never seen in the media is women in East Vancouver. We value a university student, value a pregnant mother. The whole conversation around missing and murdered aboriginal women is around sex trade workers,” said Baker, explaining the devaluation of certain individuals overwrites the narrative of abuse.

“If you can look at one thing that most of the missing and murdered women share, it is that they were desperately poor. Well, why? Why were they there? Why are they all lumped together as missing sex trade workers?”

Baker examined, “all the things Loretta had to keep her safe,” such as her ability to pass as non-native and her enrolment in university. “How are these not safeguards from the violence out there? If they’ve very dark skin, if they couldn’t do high school because not in the area, if they have a kid … Why would you want to be proud and go out in the world? Why would you put yourself in harm’s way? Little girls stop dancing because they don’t want to be known as the ‘Indian.’ These are the same symptoms of missing and murdered women.”

“As Amnesty International reports,” Beeds cited, “if there are 14 of us in a room and half of us are indigenous and the other half non-indigenous, the seven of us who are indigenous women are most likely to die before the other half, and die violently. … ‘Canada’ is not only built through colonization, but also through patriarchy. Add patriarchy to the racial stereotypes and notions that we are disposable, of little value, and of no consequence and we become targets for racial and gender violence.”

Baker commented that the privileged “don’t begin to understand how a woman travels down a road without a car to go find work. An act to leave your house and you end up dead.”
Baker related the issue to Hamlet’s line on “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”: “These … hurt, pierce, cause pain. And these people consuming it [through media]…. What is it doing? We eat pain. That’s what gets sold. And then we think we’ve done our part. That’s all we eat, sleep, ingest, is pain.”

“The Canadian government continues to deny the need for any kind of national movement and, thus, any kind of national empathy and sorrow,” said Beeds.

“Missing and murdered women are symptoms of government legislation, a lack of understanding and ignorance,” Baker explained. “The government doesn’t want to engage. There is federal bureaucracy that actually defines where aboriginal people live in Canada… what you are, where you are, but they won’t take responsibility [for Aboriginal Peoples]. The missing and murdered women haven’t received justice, let alone recognition. Not just the Canadian form of justice but community justice.”

Baker continued by saying, “We create laws or legislation with the intention usually for wellness. But Canada creates poverty, being separated from resources, community, family. One student explained it as ‘Harper hasn’t taken an indigenous studies course.’ Well he’s one in a string of officials. [The abuse of Aboriginal Peoples] comes out of ignorance, deep, abiding ignorance.”

In consideration of whether an inquiry or other reparations ought to be made by the government, Beeds said, “We have multiple reports and inquiries that tell us what we already know, but we continue to go missing, we continue to be murdered, people continue to be apathetic. How can we make people care? The responsibility lies with each of us; learn about indigenous people, ask us how you can help, attend talks/community meetings, give talks, listen to indigenous people, and read our books; do not, however, assume that you know what is best for us – always be an ally and ask first. “

“I don’t think reparations can be made. I don’t think it’s a possibility because the government isn’t having consultations with the people,” Baker commented. “The real challenge is to create a situation, a society in which it won’t happen again.

She also explained that the perception of unjust anger is a projection of ignorance: “Aggressiveness comes from being under attack.”

“The idea Aboriginal people are anti-government is preposterous,” Baker said, outlining that the ignorant white Canadian view that “we’re rebellious children and the government is a paternal figure.”

She continued, “The government is deciding that we are at war. They are deciding that we are an opposition. They’ve taken a position against the people. If I were the leader of this country, knowing that my laws … and the impact of them, that people die, I’d be ashamed.”

So, what can the individual do to effect change? “Become educated and educate,” said Beeds. “Work with indigenous women’s organizations and with indigenous people to develop a comprehensive national action plan to address the violence and discrimination we face.”

You can read Tasha Beeds’s full response on http://nationsrising.org/.

About Simon Semchuk 51 Articles
Simon Semchuk writes primarily on the arts and queer issues. A third-year English major, he is also interested in theatre, literature, and fluffy animals.