How do we approach this document as the Church?
Over the course of the summer, a group of 10–15 people from a variety of denominations met at Saint Paul’s, Fort Garry to discuss the recently published, 1,200-page document, Reclaiming Power and Place, the Report of the National Inquiry on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. It was not easy. We often buckled under the sheer magnitude of the issue, which by conservative estimates involves the murder and disappearance of over 1,100 women, girls, and LGBTQ2 Indigenous persons. We asked ourselves: What is our (i.e., the Church’s) complicity in this problem? What is our responsibility?
The Church’s complicity in the suffering of Indigenous persons in our country is less apparent than in the case of residential schools, but it is no less real. As the document traces the trajectory of colonization, it looks not only to the residential schools as sources of harm perpetrated by the church, but also to the ways in which traditional gender roles, economies, and kinship systems were dismantled by the Church in Indigenous communities, largely through the relegation of women to diminished roles, in spite of the matriarchal nature of many Indigenous cultures. As the Report puts it:
“Indigenous Peoples were economically marginalized by the dispossession of their land and resources and the related destruction of their economies. Indigenous women experienced political and social marginalization through the imposition of patriarchy by Christian churches and the Government of Canada. Colonization also gave rise to racist and ethnocentric ideas that continue to dehumanize Indigenous women and make them targets of violence. The cycles of intergenerational trauma, set in motion by colonization, are a root cause of domestic violence in Indigenous communities today.”
This sobering insight was sharpened further as the Report controversially argued that the murder and disappearance of Indigenous women constitutes a genocide. The Report defends the legal use of the term in through reference to Article II of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. According to the UN, genocide includes:
- Killing members of the group;
- Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
- Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
- Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; and
- Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
In Canada, Indigenous women and girls are subject to all these genocidal acts. From forced sterilization, to the apprehension of children, to harm, injury, murder and destruction of ways of life, Canada participates in the deliberate and ongoing genocide of Indigenous women.
Given this reality, why does the Church appear to be particularly oblivious to this issue, with the Report receiving little to no attention in our local and national conversations? In part, I believe this has to do with the Church’s historic inability to discuss sexual violence in any meaningful way. We are on the heels of over 40 years of consultations and debates around sexuality and, if General Synod is in any way instructive, we are no further along in terms of our ability to confront sexuality in its diversity, its violence, and in our own exclusionary habits in trying to regulate it. Given our vexed conversations in the Church about sex in general, is it any wonder we fail to do justice to the situation of women and girls who are being trafficked? Should anybody be surprised that the Church is silent on the targeted violence against Two-Spirited persons?
In my own research, I have become convinced by the writings of Indigenous scholars who regard the murder and disappearance of Indigenous women and girls as an indicator of their disposability within the colonial project. If colonization is predicated upon the erasure of Indigenous people from the land, what better way than to target women – for it is they who secure Indigenous posterity? The disposal of Indigenous women and girls is made most manifest in the kinds of violent deaths they faced. Many of the women’s bodies were found in dumpsters; their bodies were disposed of on the edge of town, in a river, or a garbage dump. Even the Crown in the Cindy Gladue case deemed it appropriate to admit portions of her severed vagina as evidence in court. The use of Indigenous women’s bodies and the representation of their bodies and lives as disposable are deeply embedded within the Canadian colonial imagination.
This is why it is all the more urgent that these women do not disappear in our public memory. The work of such groups as Sisters in Spirit (including many of the women in our own diocese who helped to start its Winnipeg chapter) and the family members serve to keep the women’s memories alive. Through art, ceremony, vigils, marches, walks, and searches, women have been actively countering the narrative that their loved ones are disposable. They refuse to forget them for they know that reconciliation is deferred as long as women remain missing and as long as deaths like theirs continue. For these women, the wound of their sisters’ loss is ever palpable. And as such, remembering them remains the only hope that a nation such as Canada or a church such as ours has to begin to move beyond its colonial violence.
Recommendations for the churches arising from the Reading Group on the Report of the National Inquiry on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls:
- Read the Report! Host a book study on it. Find ways to preach on the Report.
- Learn about the UN Conventions on Genocide. Study and unpack its meaning in sermons or in church gatherings.
- Challenge stereotypes and representations of Indigenous women – your own and those of your neighbour.
- Call upon the Church to learn and to work toward adopting the 231 Recommendations, particularly those pertaining to Culture, Health and Wellness Service Providers, and Educators.
- Learn and implement “The Calls for Justice for all Canadians” in all spheres of your life.
- Support the efforts of Sisters in Spirit. Participate in the Mother’s Day March.
- Pray for the missing and the murdered and their families that they may find answers and know rest.
Jane Barter is a priest in the Diocese of Rupert’s Land, who is currently serving St. Peter, Dynevor (Selkirk), St. Phillip (Hodgson), and St. Matthew (Peguis). She is also Professor of Religion and Culture at The University of Winnipeg.