- 27 Nov 20
DJ Shub, Raye Zaragoza, and Tanis Smither reflect on the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and gender-diverse people in Canada, and the importance of activism in art. CW: This article contains description of violence against First Nations and Indigenous peoples, and may be upsetting to some readers.
This year is the first Thanksgiving I find myself living in a different country. Though I haven’t properly celebrated the holiday since 2014, I was still hit with a wave of homesickness that I’ve rarely felt during my residency in Ireland. My relationship with Thanksgiving – like many non-Native Canadians – is a complicated one. I love cooking, and reconnecting with family and tradition. But my family’s Thanksgiving celebrations take place on the traditional territory of the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat peoples. Canadians have a shocking history to grapple with, and the reality is that settler Thanksgiving traditions often overlook a genocide.
I do not use the term ‘genocide’ lightly. Canada’s darkest history is represented in microcosmic form by the 725-kilometre stretch of road that runs between the Prince George and Prince Rupert cities of British Columbia. That particular highway has been nicknamed the ‘Highway of Tears’, for the disproportionate number of Indigenous women reported missing or murdered there.
A National Inquiry
When the Liberal Government took over in 2015, it launched a long-overdue national inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and 2SLGBTQQIA persons (MMIWG).
In June 2019, the report – titled, “Reclaiming Power and Place: The Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls” – was released. A brief summary of its most damning findings states that there is no “reliable estimate of the numbers of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA persons in Canada.”
2015 RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) reports identified “narrow and incomplete causes of homicides of Indigenous women and girls in Canada.
“Virtually no information was found,” continues the report, “with respect to either the numbers or causes of missing and murdered Métis and Inuit women and girls, and Indigenous 2SLGBTQQIA persons.”
Further, there is an “often-cited statistic that Indigenous men are responsible for 70% of murders of Indigenous women and girls”, which is not based in fact.
In essence, deaths and disappearances of Indigenous women, girls, and gender-diverse people are marked by indifference and neglect. The report states that, specifically, “prejudice, stereotypes, and inaccurate beliefs and attitudes about Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA persons negatively influence police investigations, and therefore death and disappearances are investigated and treated differently from other cases.”
Blame does not fall solely on the police. According to the report, when Indigenous people are spoken about in the media, news reports are often negative, and fail to address deep-rooted issues caused by the trauma of colonialism.
For example, when Tina Fontaine – a 15 year old girl – was found in the Red River, Manitoba in 1999, the media released information that she had drugs and alcohol in her system. This dehumanised her, and fed society stereotypes about Indigenous women, despite the fact that Fontaine was a victim.
The crisis has caused Native artists across the continent – including American folk singer Raye Zaragoza and Canadian powwow-step artist DJ Shub – to raise their voices in solidarity with Indigenous folks.
Descended from the Akimel O’odham, “River People,” or Pima tribe from Southern Arizona, Zaragoza was at an Indigenous awards event in Manitoba when someone told her not to go walking alone at night because “they’ve been finding Native women in the Red River.”
“I realise now that so many people aren’t talking about MMIWG – when I’m talking to non-Native folks, there is only a small amount of people who are even aware of the epidemic,” Zaragoza tells me, speaking from her home in California. She wrote ‘Red’, a song that calls for the protection of Indigenous women, in response to what she heard in Manitoba. “I wanted to start these conversations in America,” she says.
Zaragoza’s grandmother was adopted out of the Akimel O’odham tribe as a child, the goal of which was “to assimilate [Native children] into American culture”, says Zaragoza. The trauma was extensive enough that she used to tell her children not to reveal their Indigenous identity.
Juno Award-winning artist DJ Shub’s forthcoming album, War Club, uses both powwow-step – an offshoot of electronic dance music – and traditional Mohawk imagery to connect his art to his heritage. Known best for his work with award-winning electronic group A Tribe Called Red, who blend elements of electronic and hip-hop with First Nations drumming and chanting, Shub knew it would be important to make a statement with his solo record. War Club’s lead single, ‘The Social’, will donate all sale proceeds to the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Black Lives Matter movements.
“This has been happening in our country for such a long time, and it has been consistently put on the back-burner by the government,” he says. “I’m an artist who has a platform, and I’m trying to give voice to the unheard. I also have a daughter, so this really hits home for me. There are people who I know, friends, who have lost siblings and spouses.”
DJ Shub, who is Mohawk of the Six Nations of the Grand River, is also frustrated with the government’s continued lack of support, even after the final report was published. “It’s not something that is above and beyond Canada’s means, to take care of the original people of this land. We’re not looking for handouts, we’re looking for an ear, a voice, a space.”
The liberal government promised that one year after that final report, they would produce a National Action Plan to address the ongoing violence. That anniversary has now passed, and no such plan has been revealed to the public.
“There is no question that we were disappointed [about that]”, says Lorraine Whitman, an Elder of the Glooscap First Nation in Nova Scotia, and president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC).
“This is a time to look at what we can do together,” she continues, “with governments at all levels in Canada, to stop the violent deaths and disappearances. This is a problem with very high costs, and it demands action.”
While the Canadian federal government has started the process of obtaining input from Indigenous organisations, including the NWAC, about what needs to go into such a plan, and while the NWAC are “optimistic that one will be created by the second anniversary of the Inquiry report,” violence is still occurring.
In Quebec, on September 28, 2020, an Atikamekw woman named Joyce Echaquan died in a hospital, after she broadcast a Facebook Live video showing her being insulted and sworn at by hospital staff. One nurse tells her she is “stupid as hell”, as Echaquan screams in distress.
Importance of Indigenous Art
The introduction to the report on the missing and murdered members of Canada’s First Nations notes: “Throughout this report, and as witnesses shared, we convey truths about state actions and inactions rooted in colonialism and colonial ideologies, built on the presumption of superiority, and utilised to maintain power and control over the land and the people by oppression and, in many cases, by eliminating them.”
We, as settlers, are only just beginning to admit that the nation has the same colonial heritage as Britain, America, and Australia. The work of artists like Zaragoza, DJ Shub, Buffy Sainte Marie and Tanya Tagaq offer a crucial introductory glimpse into an unsettling truth about Canada, and on a deeper level, they help us unpack and come to terms with that truth.
First Nations Artists To Support
1. Periwinkle - ‘Columbus Had Six Sailing Ships’
2. Raye Zaragoza - ‘Red’
3. DJ Shub featuring Phoenix - ‘The Social’
4. Buffy Sainte Marie - ‘Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee’
5. Tanya Tagaq - ‘Retribution’
6. A Tribe Called Red - ‘R.E.D. ft. Yasiin Bey, Narcy and Black Bear’
7. Iskwe - ‘Soldier’
8. Willie Thrasher - ‘Spirit Child’
9. Link Wray - ‘Shawnee’
10. Robbie Robertson - ‘Ghost Dance’