Loretta Saunders was last seen alive one year ago today. Her body was found nearly two weeks later alongside the Trans Canada Highway in New Brunswick.
The Labrador woman, an Inuk originally from Hopedale, was pregnant and living in Halifax, where she was studying missing and murdered Indigenous women at Saint Mary’s University.
Blake Leggette and Victoria Henneberry, a couple renting an apartment from Saunders in Halifax, have been charged with first degree murder and will stand trial in Halifax.
Saunders’ murder prompted renewed calls Canada-wide for a national public inquiry into the nearly 1,200 Indigenous women who have gone missing or been murdered since 1980. So did the murder of Tina Fontaine, a 15-year-old Indigenous teen whose body was wrapped in a bag and dumped in Winnipeg’s Red River. And so did the violent sexual assault and attempted murder of 16-year-old Rinelle Harper, who was left for dead on a riverbank along the Assiniboine River in Winnipeg but survived to tell her story. One month after her assault Harper herself called for Canada to launch a national public inquiry.
In the face of mounting pressure, however, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has flatly refused to hold an inquiry, claiming action, not further research, is needed.
Last August Harper prompted outcry after saying Fontaine’s death should be viewed as a crime, not a “sociological phenomenon”.
Then, in a year-end interview with the CBC, the Conservative PM further fuelled the fire when he casually said a national public inquiry “isn’t really high on our radar, to be honest,” followed by the comment that there’s “obviously…a lack of respect for women and girls on reserves. So you know, if the guys grow up believing that women have no rights, that is how they are treated.”
There is debate over whether or not a national public inquiry would adequately address the problem of violence against Indigenous women in Canada, though many, including the Assembly of First Nations’ new National Chief Perry Bellegarde, say it would draw widespread attention to the problem and spark a national conversation.
In their last budget Harper and the Conservative Party of Canada committed $25 million to addressing violence against Indigenous women, though critics say money alone won’t solve the problem. The Tories have also agreed to send Status of Women Minister Kellie Leitch and and Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt to a roundtable discussion on missing and murdered Indigenous women later this month in Ottawa.
The elephant in the room: Colonialism
A recent Maclean’s cover story on Winnipeg, with its string of murders of Indigenous women, becoming “Canada’s most racist city”, was widely praised for its in-depth look at the plight of Indigenous women and the Manitoba capital’s ethnic divide between white residents and people of colour.
The article, however, was also criticized for turning systemic racism into a battle of cities while barely touching on the root of the problem: settler colonialism.
“Individual acts of racism, violence, and intolerance are powerful, yes, but systemic racism is what maintains Canada’s ongoing settler colonialism (which depends on dispossessing Native people of their land and sovereignty),” Max Fineday wrote for Briarpatch Magazine.
“In an article dealing almost exclusively with racism directed toward Native people, the only mention of colonialism was a quote from the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations that put colonialism in the past tense. There was only one sentence about treaties. Maclean’s understands that racism is taking place, and that it is destructive, but it has very little understanding of why.”
Canada would be forced to acknowledge and admit it is a settler colonial country and society founded on violence against First Nations, Inuit and Metis people on Turtle Island, and that…it continues to marginalize Indigenous people and institutionalize racism.
And therein lies the problem with the Harper Government’s refusal to call a national public inquiry, critics say. At a time of heightened consciousness around racism, violence against Indigenous women, and the wider struggle for Indigenous sovereignty, Canada would be forced to acknowledge and admit it is a settler colonial country and society founded on violence against First Nations, Inuit and Metis people on Turtle Island (Indigenous peoples’ name for North America), and that, through its policies and the Indian Act, it continues to marginalize Indigenous people and institutionalize racism.
“There is no way, as Mr. Harper suggests, to see these killings as merely ‘crime’ without taking into consideration the colonial history of our country,” Samantha Sarra wrote in an article for iPolitics last year.
“When we look at the concentration of rates of violence we can’t deny that this is a manifestation of colonialism,” Rashmee Singh said in an interview with Redeye Collective on Vancouver Cooperative Radio last fall. “Residential schools were only a few decades ago, and we can’t just shut them down and think that the problems [they created] aren’t going to continue. These are legacies, and the federal government has to accept responsibility for this.”
In January the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights released a report that “strongly supports” a “nationwide inquiry into the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls,” Press Progress recently reported, in order to “fully understand” gaps in public policy, including “an analysis of deeply rooted and interrelated factors such as colonialism, racism and conditions of poverty.”
Responding to the report, Conservative MP Susan Truppe said she doesn’t understand why First Nation chiefs want an inquiry.
Ending violence against Indigenous women in NL
On Friday a vigil is being held in Happy Valley-Goose Bay to remember Loretta Saunders, Bernice Rich, a 21-year-old Innu woman who was murdered in Sheshatshiu in 2013, and all missing and murdered Indigenous women across Canada.
Saunders’ sister Delilah is organizing a St. John’s vigil, which was postponed from Friday until Feb. 25 due to inclement weather. She told The Independent on Thursday she was compelled to honour her sister and her sister’s unborn child.
“Her death affected many people in the community, so we felt it was appropriate to gather and be there for one another during a difficult time,” she said, adding she and her family have struggled in coping with the loss of their sister and daughter.
“I’ve had many ups and downs in the last year,” she said. “Grief, in my opinion, is like a pendulum and not clear cut stages that eventually end. I think my family would be able to attest to that.”
Delilah has been dealing with her own grief by writing. She’s been working on a book, blogging, writing short stories, and plans to write a column for The Independent in the near future.
“Writing has been an amazing healing tool for me, and I’ve happened upon many great opportunities and friends in the process. I’ve learned how to be comfortable with my truth and experience, which is something I hadn’t been able to feel before. I’ve also learned from writing, and from Loretta, to follow my heart and pour it into something I believe in.”
She is glad people are attending vigils and educating themselves “on the tragic and ironic death” of her sister, and on “the bigger picture of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada,” she said. “I thank them for taking the time to attain information and acknowledge this is a very real issue that needs to be addressed and resolved,” she continued. “I’d also like to encourage them to continue their support.
“Loretta’s death has been extremely traumatic and life changing, but the silver lining has been reflecting on the time we spent together and my new found ability to absorb the things she tried to teach me. I feel her spirit within me, but in a weird way I’m coming into my own. I’ve learned to live more fearlessly in respect to my aspirations and goals, but that was how she lived her life.”
Amelia Reimer, a women’s outreach worker at the St. John’s Native Friendship Centre (SJNFC), said Thursday that while the federal government doesn’t seem interested in launching a national public inquiry, and while Aboriginal groups in Canada debate the need for one, she thinks a national inquiry “would be the catalyst to get action started.
“Aboriginal populations and allies have no doubt that [the problem of] missing and murdered Indigenous women is very real and very serious. The act of a national inquiry would hopefully bring it more to light in the minds of non-Aboriginal Canadians,” she said.
Reimer also said rather than waiting for the federal government to act, there’s much to be done at the local and provincial levels.
“Grassroots efforts are needed to build up a woman’s safety and self-assurance to ask for help. Aboriginal women carry generations of pain of being ignored, belittled, and denied,” she said. “Law enforcement continues to either underserve or completely ignore complaints of abuse.”
Reimer said the province’s axing of the Family Violence Intervention Court in 2013 was “a blow to the province.”
There also needs to be an increase in funding to services for women in both rural and urban parts of the province.
“Most of all, women need to be believed when they report abuse,” she said. “Women don’t ask to be raped. They don’t ask to be abused. They certainly don’t ask to be murdered. Significant efforts need to be made to stop men from perpetrating the violence.
“The biggest changes need to be in community education against victim shaming, more effective law enforcement response to violence against women, and efforts to educate men to not be violent.
Reimer said the SJNFC provides violence prevention programs for women, and now also has a men’s drum group, which provides a setting for “healthy discussion and community among men.”
“Other resources, such as the Status of Women Council (Marguerite’s Place) and the Sexual Assault Crisis and Prevention Centre are also available to women. Ask for help if you are abused,” she said. “Ask for help if you see the abuse coming.”
Colonialism in Newfoundland and Labrador
“I reread [Loretta’s] 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,” Saunders’ thesis supervisor Darryl Leroux wrote in an emotional essay the day after Loretta’s body was found. “I refuse to speculate about Loretta’s death,” he continued:
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 = social chaos.
It is a recipe for disaster for indigenous peoples, and especially indigenous women. Who suffers most when access to land, to the ecological order at the basis of most indigenous societies, is limited, controlled, or outright eliminated? Is that not what’s at the basis of a settler society like our own, eliminating indigenous peoples’ relationship to the land (and/or their actual bodies), so that can we plunder it for our gain?
Canada and Newfoundland’s colonial legacies continue today in Newfoundland and Labrador.
In our province the Inuit of Nunatsiavut have a land claim agreement with Canada, though they are presently fighting the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador over Muskrat Falls, which Nunatsiavut claims is likely to poison the fish, seals, seabirds and other wildlife the Inuit living downstream from the controversial mega-dam depend on for food.
Meanwhile, the Labrador Innu Nation ratified a land claim agreement with Canada in 2011, though it conceded to the destruction of Muskrat Falls as part of the deal. Indigenous rights activists in Labrador continue to fight the project, claiming the falls are a sacred site for Indigenous groups who have fished, hunted, travelled and lived there for thousands of years. In the early part of the dam’s construction, tens of thousands of Indigenous artifacts were discovered, reaffirming the falls’ spiritual significance to the Innu and Inuit.
NunatuKavut, the body representing the Southern Labrador Inuit, or Inuit-Metis, is still fighting for recognition by the Canadian government, and for the rights to their traditional lands.
On the Island, the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation band was recognized by Canada in 2011, though the federal government refused to give the Mi’kmaq land as part of the deal.
In Happy Valley-Goose Bay, a vigil will be held for Loretta at the Moravian Church on Hamilton River Road at 6 p.m. this evening.
The St. John’s vigil for Loretta and missing and murdered Indigenous women was postponed due to inclement weather. A tentative new date is Feb. 25 with more info soon to be announced.
There was also an information session at the Dalhousie University Student Union Building in Halifax today on missing and murdered Indigenous women and the Loretta Saunders Scholarship Fund. The scholarship fund supports Indigenous women in completing their chosen field of study and has so far given two awards to Labrador students.
Feb. 14 marks a National Day of Action across Turtle Island for missing and murdered Indigenous women. The annual events, primarily vigils, marches and demonstrations, began in 1991.
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