The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls is in New Brunswick this week, with hearings in Moncton Tuesday and Wednesday.
On a panel that extended into mid-afternoon Tuesday three elders and knowledge keepers situated the epidemic of gender-based violence against Mi’kmaw and Wolastoqiyik women and girls in the context of local Indigenous and colonial history.
They said the colonization of their traditional and unceded lands, coupled with the imposition of colonial values and laws on their people, have stripped people of their identities, divided families and communities and impeded Mi’kmaq and Wolastoqiyik sovereignty.
“We are the lawmakers. We are the lifegivers. And we understand the land to be part of us,” said Miigam’agan, a Mi’kmaw knowledge keeper and Elder-in-Residence at St. Thomas University in Fredericton. “And so now we’re operating from somebody’s perspectives, someone’s values, someone’s principles.”
The knowledge keepers pointed to patriarchy as one of the most destructive colonial impositions on their people, arguing it has come in the form of Canadian laws, through the forced assimilation of Indigenous peoples, including the loss of language, and via the dominant form of economy.
University of P.E.I. Elder-in-Residence Judy Clark said she was forced to choose between marrying the man she loved, who was not Indigenous, and giving up her Indian status.
“I knew as soon as I said ‘I do’, that I wasn’t going to have my status. And some people said what difference does it make? It’s just a number. But it’s also the loss of community, it is the loss of your family,” said Clark.
Federal laws at the time forced women who married non-Indigenous men to relinquish their status, though it didn’t do the same to men who married non-Indigenous women.
Clark said the result was devastating for her family. She said she was no longer welcome in her community, because of the ingrained belief that Canada’s determination of Indian status determined a person’s worthiness of citizenship.
She internalized that belief, she said, and didn’t tell her children they were Indigenous until they were eight and 10 years of age.
Miigam’agan said the introduction of capitalism to Indigenous peoples and cultures has also had devastating consequences for women.
“Like any woman in a patriarchal system, we have to become the best men to be able to succeed — and so therefore putting our own nature and our own wisdom aside to accommodate capitalism, and to survive or be successful in a capitalistic world,” she said.
Setting the tone for the rest of the Moncton hearings, the elders said the ongoing violence against Mi’kmaw and Wolastoqiyik women and girls in what are now New Brunswick and P.E.I. can’t be addressed without understanding how women and their crucial roles in their communities and cultures have been undermined by colonialism and patriarchy.
Tomorrow a number of families and survivors will share their testimonies with the inquiry in public and private hearings.