In memory of Bella Laboucan-McLean.
In mourning with her friends and family.
Too many women. Dissent. Descent. Misattributed homonyms: a writing day filled with missteps, false starts. Thinking about a young woman’s body falling through space. Almost no one notices. Plummeting for no good reason. The rage that arises in thinking about the mystery of her descent. Or as the Prime Minister says,”It isn’t really high on our radar, to be honest.”
Those who know her climb out of immobilization and despair, writing beyond themselves to change the world.
This is Bella’s Story
In September of 2014,the Melina Laboucan-Massimo wrote a brilliant article in APTN about her 25-year-old sister’s inexplicable and tragic fall to her death from a 31-story Toronto condo in the early morning hours of July 20, 2012. The title“It felt like there was no end to the screaming sadness: one sister’s take on #mmiw” articulates her crushing loss:
“The day I found out that my sister Bella had been found dead on the terrace of a high-rise condo near Toronto’s waterfront, without an explanation of why or how she fell, was the day I understood what it feels like to grieve so deeply and so immensely that nothing else matters.
It felt like there was no end to the screaming sadness.”
Naomi Klein’s haunting tribute to Bella was first presented at a public event supporting the #mmiw (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women) and published yesterday in the Globe and Mail. Klein writes how Bella’s death went unreported and it remains a mystery undocumented by the five witnesses. A shameful absence of police protocol and documentary testimony:
Five people, other than Bella, in an 800-square-foot condo. All of her belongings still inside: Purse. Wallet. Shoes. Phone. Yet no one in the apartment calls the police. It is not until 12 hours later, when the cops are going door-to-door trying to identify the body, that one of those five people picks up the phone to report Bella missing. Everyone who was there claims they saw nothing. Knows nothing. No one will be a witness.
Despite finding these accounts questionable, the police put out no media advisory. It was two weeks before a single story about Bella’s death appeared in the local media. “I can’t make anybody talk,” the investigating detective told the Toronto Star.
Bella’s story and the title of Klein’s tribute – “How a Cree woman fell to death, and no one saw anything” – rehearses the theme of Canadian settlement with its near genocide of Indigenous peoples. The destructive historical and ongoing actions are twinned with the travesty of silence and complicity – the inaction and perpetually wilful blind eye that ignores the suffering of individuals and communities on reserves, in villages and cities.
British cultural critic Sarah Ahmed reminds us that many racialized women like the missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada live in a world where everyday life is at risk while others take for granted not having “to be inventive to survive.”
When a whole world is organised to promote your survival, from health to education, from the walls designed to keep your residence safe, from the paths that ease your travel, you do not have become so inventive to survive. You do not have to be seen as the recipient of welfare because the world has promoted your welfare. The benefits you receive are given as entitlements, perhaps even as birth rights. Racial capitalism is a health system: a drastically unequal distribution of bodily vulnerabilities. Ruth Wilson Gilmore describes racism thus: “the state-sanctioned or extra-legal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” (2007: 28) Being poor, being black, puts your life at risk. Your heath is compromised when you do not have the external resources to support a life in all of its contingencies. And then of course, you are deemed responsible for your own ill-heath, for your own failure to look after yourself better. When you refer to structures, to systems, to power relations, to walls, you are assumed to be making others responsible for the situation you have failed to get yourself out of. “You should have tried harder.” Oh, the violence and the smugness of this sentence, this sentencing.
Last spring I attended the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) Alberta National Event in Edmonton. The moving testimonials, conversations, and displays drew our attention to the hundred-year deadly history of Residential Schools. And we encountered the individual stories and collective grief in first-person accounts by the now aged survivors, once vulnerable school children, who suffered brutality and abuse often followed by many decades of traumatized silence. But we also learned there is too little funding available to complete the documentation of these events and no federal will to follow up with action. Beyond apology and story, reconciliation demands an accounting. And that takes insight and leadership. And I encountered many Indigenous people who refused to take part in the event, overwhelmed by grief and trauma of their own history and/or resistant to a collective process that did not insist on accountability and redress or an effective reconciliation.
Beyond Apology and Reconciliation
In an interview marking Columbia University anthropologist Audra Simpson’s return as alumna to McGill University to deliver the first annual Indigenous Homecoming events, she spoke about the challenges she faces as an indigenous scholar of Haudenosaunee descent:
I got a strong sense of the sorts of things mainstream people think about Native people especially after Oka. In this, that we really matter, politically but are so fundamentally unsettling we have to be further managed and in the neoliberal double-edged sword, as individuals somehow do not “deserve” the opportunities that we have earned, that we do not work, etc., or that we do not exist. Or that we are fundamentally “difficult.”
As well, there are specific stereotypes and expectations that attach to us depending upon what nation we are and where we are from. As Mohawk (and in this, Haudenosaunee) people we speak from the long history of relationship to territory and to others in our homelands, and are compelled to speak clearly and truthfully, from minds unencumbered by grief or pathos. And also, to listen to others. So I always found it ridiculous that we, especially we would be perceived as people that do not act or speak according to principles of fairness and reason.
…Now that I teach in the ’States there is the overwhelming and almost hegemonic idea that we are dead! So my very presence upsets and defies that idea but my teaching and research also reveal in a scholarly manner, where these ideas come from and how they are used to undermine indigenous agency and sovereignty.
The active presence of this exceptional scholar in the university is a kind of auto-critique, a reminder of how Indigenous women are perceived and excluded. Simpson spoke about “The Two Bodies of Theresa Spence” at the fourteenth annual Critical Race Conference in Edmonton this past fall. Her talk reminds us that the response to Bella’s death, the delay, the mystery, and even indifference, is no accident no matter the cause. No one noticed. No one reported. Still there is silence. And proud public indifference on the part of our federal government. This deadly colonial nation state is maintained in part not just through the dehumanization of indigenous women, but through their disappearance and death. Simpson reminds us how indigenous governance was transformed beyond recognition when women were disqualified by the Indian Act. Cast out and diminished, they had to relinquish the leadership roles they had assumed, a leadership with key powers. And she reminds us that this early promotion of female leadership in indigenous communities that empowered women was so radically different from the exclusively male governance in colonial and European governance that is perpetuated to this day in Canada federal government where mainly white women politicians tend to be fewer in number and demeaned in the public sphere. (More on this coming soon…still writing this section.)
In a recent CBC-TV holiday interview, Stephen Harper responded to a question about a missing and murdered Indigenous women inquiry:
‘Um it, it isn’t really high on our radar, to be honest … Our ministers will continue to dialogue with those who are concerned about this.’
His evasion was rightly interpreted as disrespectful to the Indigenous women. Many groups and individuals found the Prime Minister’s comments offensive. And many have begun to work on their own healing and solutions including some Liberal Senators who are sharing legal arguments to anyone who wants to take Canada to court to establish an inquiry and raise the public profile of these deaths. Melina Laboucan-Massimo has given the government some good advice:
We need to hold those who perpetrate violence against women accountable. There are at least 1,200 Indigenous women that have been murdered or gone missing. There is no denying that if 1,200 white women were missing or had been murdered there would be uproar and Harper’s approach would be instantaneous and dramatic. … a far cry from his current response.
A better approach would be to support spaces for healing from the legacy of trauma instead of continuing the victim-blaming narrative that we see from the conservative government and the RCMP report from earlier this year.”
Investigating and accounting for Indigenous women’s deaths in this country would have to be accountable so recommendations don’t just stay on the table. And investigating and accounting for Indigenous women’s deaths in this country would have to listen to the community. Melina Laboucan-Massimo notes: “Whether called an inquiry, commission, or “action plan,” this process must first and foremost take its direction and leadership from the families of MMIW” and from “community leadership.”
[And this effort must] “not be tokenistic, as it often has been in the past….An inquiry shouldn’t just focus on confirming what we already know – that there is a problem. It is families and communities of MMIW who best understand the breadth, depth, and root causes of this issue and what solutions could and should look like.”
Indigenous governance and justice systems need to be foundational. If there is an inquiry, it is also necessary to inspect how the police are dealing with the cases of MMIW and to require that the RCMP and local police departments share their files with families, especially when cases are unsolved and are idle like my sister’s case. It is imperative that we develop and implement policies that prevent inaction on these cases, which makes the police complicit in allowing the numbers of MMIW to grow.
What we do need recognition of is that violence against Indigenous women has systemic causes that are colonial in nature. The Harper government needs to recognize the impacts government policies have had and continue to have on Indigenous communities that leave Indigenous women in precarious and vulnerable positions in society.
“Violence against Mother Earth is violence against women.”
Both Melina Laboucan-Massimo and Naomi Klein link the Harper government’s wilful blindness to more than a thousand women’s deaths with its blindness to the poisoned land and Indigenous communities. Melina writes “Violence against Mother Earth is violence against women. The two are linked” And Klein agrees:
The greatest barrier to our government’s single-minded obsession with drilling, mining and fracking the hell out of this country is the fact that indigenous communities from coast to coast are exercising their inherent and constitutional rights to say no. Indigenous strength and power is a tremendous threat to that insatiable vision. And indigenous women are, to borrow [Toronto City Councillor Adam] Vaughan’s phrase, “the heart and soul” of these movements.
Naomi Klein comments on her participation in the July 2014 Healing Walk around the Tar Sands at Fort McMurray.
Two weeks before Bella died, I had been in the tar sands with Melina at the annual Healing Walk. The gathering is like nothing I have seen anywhere: Hundreds of people walk in silence for an entire day through an unimaginably scarred landscape – by the sprawling open-pit mines, by the massive tailings ponds that kill ducks on contact. Stopping only for prayer and ceremony.
The fifth annual Healing Walk this past summer like all the others that have come before maps out a dead zone in the embodied time of footsteps, a putrid sensual immersion in a poisonous dump of chemicals and unreclaimable wasteland. This annual walk transforms our understanding of this place that is often represented by aerial photographs that accompany popular news and magazine stories of the Oil Sands/Tar Sands.
For this industrial site is often appreciated from afar in popular media stories that hire fly over photographer’s at work. The gorgeous large-format camera landscapes of Edward Burtynsky have been widely admired for their visual power. And they work to envision a vision of aesthetically beautiful patterns at a distance from the The artist writes:
“these images are meant as metaphors to the dilemma of our modern existence; they search for a dialogue between attraction and repulsion, seduction and fear. We are drawn by desire – a chance at good living, yet we are consciously or unconsciously aware that the world is suffering for our success. Our dependence on nature to provide the materials for our consumption and our concern for the health of our planet sets us into an uneasy contradiction. For me, these images function as reflecting pools of our times.
However some have noted the limits of this bird’s eye aestheticization of this wasteland into Burtynsky’s artistic image of “reflecting pools of our times” that abstracts us from the embodied experience of the place. The Healing Walk of lung-filled stench and dystopian apocalyptic visual field up close are a counterpoint to the photograph’s “remote sensing and setting up an aesthetic encounter of ‘disinterested contemplation'” (Karen Lang quoted in “Reframing the Canadian Oil Sands.”)
The Healing Walk and the kind of public inquiry into the Missing and Murdered Women envisioned by Melanie both refuse “disinterested contemplation” at a distance. The Idle No More movement invited us to public healing circles and demonstrations in shopping malls and city squares in the dead of winter. Chief Theresa Spence who maintained a diet of fish broth for weeks made her own body vulnerable in our names in her unanswered plea for dialogue with the Prime Minister.
Each of these actions, Healing Walk, hunger strike, inquiry linked to accountability and action, requires us to not only empathize with the trauma and narrative line of Indigenous women’s deaths and impoverished communities but to link our embodied witnessing with investigations and actions that change the world and all our relations.
Five witnesses continue to refuse to speak about the indigenous woman’s body falling from a Toronto condo balcony. Disinterested and distant, their silence seems cynical and even culpable. Our collective refusal to join with the family’s of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women echoes a similar comfortable disinterested distance that projects the trauma and suffering elsewhere rather than on our complicit silence. Similarly Canadians disengagement and distance from an awareness of the devastation at the source of our Tar Sand’s energy plan The political voice of Idle No More has identified over and over again the struggle. And we murmur agreement or turn our wilfully blind eyes.
#WomensLivesMatterButSomeLessThanOthers #BlackLivesMatter #PalestinianLivesMatter #IndigenousLivesMatter #BlackLivesMatter#PalestinianLivesMatter
#IndigenousLivesMatter #BlackLivesMatter #PalestinianLivesMatter
Investigating and accounting for Indigenous women’s deaths in this country would have to come to terms with “root causes” – a concept that our Prime Minister disregards as “doing sociology.” Like George Bush, Stephen Harper likes to think with his gut – an anatomical organ that other Stephen – Colbert – reminds us has its own lethal illogic. In his brilliant in character evisceration of George Bush in his presence at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner, Colbert developed this theory in relation to Bush’s record:
We go straight from the gut, right sir? That’s where the truth lies, right down here in the gut. Do you know you have more nerve endings in your gut than you have in your head? You can look it up. I know some of you are going to say “I did look it up, and that’s not true.” That’s ’cause you looked it up in a book.
Next time, look it up in your gut. I did. My gut tells me that’s how our nervous system works. Every night on my show, the Colbert Report, I speak straight from the gut, OK? I give people the truth, unfiltered by rational argument. I call it the “No Fact Zone.” Fox News, I hold a copyright on that term.
And here we are reminded that our Prime Minister Harper eschews any facts in favour of fiction, ideology in lieu of scientific evidence, wishful thinking in lieu of thoughtful policy.
How many hands do you have to hold over your ears to make yourself deaf to the voices. Our federal government’s law and order policies and policies are not just ideologically misguided, they are lethal.
Investigating and accounting for Indigenous women’s deaths in this country would have to come to terms with the misery of increasing numbers of women’s lives spent in prison – 24% of Canadian prisoners are Indigenous though they make up 4% of the population. (And the stats in the prairie provinces are especially appalling: 80% in Manitoba, 60% in Saskatchewan, and 50% in Alberta.) Ask Omar Khadr, another racialized Canadian citizen, imprisoned unjustly over more than a dozen years since his capture, imprisonment and torture in Bagram, Guantanamo and a series of maximum and medium-security federal prisons in Canada.
My shift to another story of injustice with international dimensions is intended to expand our understanding of what is at stake not to avoid a national conversation demanding a response to the missing and murdered indigenous women here. But the worst federal government in our history has a single virtue – a transparent consistency of the most deadly dimensions. And we need to make links between the local and the global to understand the underpinning principles and bigotry that guides our government here and abroad.
Last summer we witnessed the bombardment of the Palestinians in Gaza – another Indigenous people – by a government championed by our own federal officials. While missile guidance systems targeted children in UN safe zones in the most densely populated urban area in the world, the landscape was reduced to uninhabitable rubble. While the cries sound over Palestine, our government leaders clink glasses and reaped awards at elite gatherings with Israel state officials – our leaders symbolic public legitimation of the Israeli assault. These gilt chambered events gave us a vivid glimpse of the radical chasm that separates us from the shattered destitution of city as bomb site.
During the bombing of Gaza, a Mohamed Omar, an editor at Huffington Post Canada asked about the silence of Stephen Harper and John Baird: “Why Aren’t Harper And Baird Angry About Dead Babies In Gaza?” The answer is that Palestinian lives matter less. Philosopher Judith Butler opens her study Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? with this telling observation: “specific lives cannot be apprehended as injured or lost if they are not first apprehended as living.” Their lives are less grievable like the missing and murdered indigenous women who are always already more zombie-like living dead than fully human. Facebook cats command more interest.
And the powerful movement that emerged after the recent police killings of black men in the U.S. led to the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Hundreds of thousands of people raised their hands saying I testify – I stand in this place bearing witness to injustice and demanding change.
None of us escape the lethal plot of murdered/missing women and environmental destruction. We suffer the shame of silence. Too many Canadians remain unengaged and apathetic, complicit. Or outraged and stymied about what to do. Our inaction seals our collective fate.
Last month the Burnaby Mountain gatherings risked arrest and caught international attention. And it stopped the drilling by Kinder Morgan – a blow to the pipeline plans of the government. We need hundreds of thousands of Canadians raising our hands in solidarity with the Indigenous people in our country. We need to forge alliances and engage in the coalition politics and thinking that link up our individual local interests with larger interrelated networks of connection so that all Canadians see the big picture of international connections and domestic atrocities.
I was spurred on to write this short essay by a number of events including:
- Attendance at the 14th Critical Race Conference in Edmonton a few months ago while listening to faculty, students and other young people recount their encounters with racism. And I was reminded again of Audra Simpson‘s “The Two Body of Theresa Spence” outlining how Bella’s death is symptomatic of a lethal pattern, no matter the cause. No one in the condo noticed, it was alleged. No one reported for some time. Still there is silence. The colonial nation statemaintained in part not just through the dehumanization of indigenous women, but their disappearance, demonstrates a lethal indifference.
- Reading about the case of Steven Salaita – a young Palestinian American scholar denied his job at the University of Illinois ostensibly because his twitter feed during the Israeli bombardment of Gaza was “uncivil”. Salaita works on Indigeneous people and settler narratives in North America and Palestine. Thinking about the silencing of dissent reminds us that settlement stories on many continents connect us with the violent dispossession, the incarceration and violence against African Americans, the regular intermittent bombardment of Palestinians, and the unmarked category of Whiteness that enables some of us to feel safe and above the fray.
- And my own contribution to the #beenrapedneverreported twitter storm following the CBC-Radio host Jian Ghomeshi harrassment and violence against women scandal.
I composed a series of tweets with the #beenrapedneverreported hashtag one late afternoon and called it “writing what matters for our daughters. Before I even finished sending out each individual tweet, a journalist called to see if he could interview me. What a powerful technology and what a quick response was my first thought. And then I reflected on who wasn’t tweeting and who might not be listened to.
A few weeks later, an Edmonton Journal journalist followed up with a short article about local twitter stories. As well as my story, the reporter featured the #beenrapedneverreported tweets of a police woman whose silence was informed by her inside knowledge of how rape victims who report are treated in court: “They’re the ones on trial….So you can see the reluctance of a lot of women to put themselves through that.” The article ended with this:
“Bringing rape to light is a good thing, Williamson says, but she really worries about those voices that aren’t being heard on Twitter. It’s partly why she has used her experience to continue the call for an inquiry into missing aboriginal women.
“Who is doing the tweeting, and who is not doing the tweeting,” she asked. “The women who are definitely not tweeting are those missing indigenous women.”
Today’s writing is provisional and ongoing. A sketch really after a dry spell of teaching and doing other work. So much more to to listen to, to say, to read, to write. Please reply with suggestions, responses, objections and corrections. Dialogue keeps us in community.
For further information, see THIS IS BELLA’S STORY on The Support for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s website.