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Days after talking to the mother, sisters and children of a woman believed to have been murdered by a serial killer, I received a disturbing voice message on my office line at the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.
The anonymous caller talked for five minutes about how “your” problem is sending women and girls on the streets.
“You need to get your girls off the street. ... Quit sending them there, you need to get them jobs so they don’t have to turn to the streets,” the caller said. “I came from a poor family and didn’t end up on the street.”
If you don’t understand the ignorance of that message, please let me try to explain in a way I hope you will all understand.
When I was 15 I moved, by choice, from Bunibonibee Cree Nation in northern Manitoba to Winnipeg for high school. I’d never lived in a city before. I came from a sheltered childhood.
Even though I’d had negative experiences growing up in an isolated reserve, I was raised in a family that loved and protected me the best they knew how. But my parents and I were naive to think Winnipeg would be a safe environment for a teenage girl like me. I stayed with families I’d never met, and that was fine. The stays were set up by a first nations education authority, and I didn’t have major issues with the families. But I was essentially on my own, and given ample freedom.
On my first transit ride to school, I showed my bus pass to everyone because I thought they could kick me off. It took three rides for me to catch on that I didn’t need to do that. I find such stories of my naiveté humorous now, but it put me in some dangerous situations, too.
On my reserve, where I knew almost everyone, I could stand on the road and hitch a ride to the other end of town simply by making eye contact with drivers.
I tried it in Winnipeg, standing on Portage Avenue and Young Street. Thankfully, no one picked me up – maybe because it was broad daylight. I went to school every day and started to make friends, many of whom I am still friends with today. But some introduced me to scary situations. One, whose boyfriend was a gang leader, took me to a house after school one day. It was not a regular house. Aside from mattresses in every room, there was no furniture and the windows were covered with black sheets. Many other young native girls were there, along with older men, sitting on the mattresses smoking pipes. I told my friend I had to leave. I can’t imagine what would have happened if I had stayed.
But the scariest moments during my first year in Winnipeg were standing at bus stops. Once, a carload of young Caucasian males followed me to my stop. They drove past me a few times and circled the block. I hid behind a planter and heard them stop momentarily on the street asking each other where I was.
After they drove away, I called a friend to come and get me.
One night I stayed too late at the roller rink and missed the last bus. As I stood on Portage Avenue, a man walked up to me and said it wasn’t safe for me to be there so I should go with him. I ran across the street and he followed. He promised me a good time, alcohol, money and safety.
I was frightened, and thankful when a driver pulled over and asked if the other man was bothering me. “Yes,” I said, and when the man said, “Get in, I’ll drive you home,” I jumped in without hesitation.
As we drove off, he turned down his blaring radio and turned to me saying, “Don’t be alarmed, but you are in a stolen car. I’m from Alberta and I’m travelling through. I just need a place to sleep for the night.”
Shocked, I told him I didn’t have a place for him to stay, that I was a guest where I lived. Outside the house, he stopped the car and said, “I do need you to give me something for the ride, though.”
As he leaned over to kiss me, I jumped out and ran into the house. I didn’t leave for three days. Getting back to the caller, who I am sure meant well in leaving me that message last month, it’s obvious she needs to understand that all first nations and aboriginal females are affected by the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women.
Even though I didn’t spend one second “on the street,” as the caller put it, I was in danger simply because of my race and gender.
I feel that my sisters and I are seen as dispensable and free to abuse. That belief was solidified a few years ago, when I was much older and established in my professional and personal life.
As I was leaving the office where I worked as an economic development officer to go home to my two young children, a truck pulled up. The driver rolled his window down just enough for me to see his eyes and tried to convince me to jump in. I ran back to the office and called a cab.
Why do some in society see women like me as targets to scoop off the street? Granted, as I did once make the mistake, there are times when we misplace trust and end up in compromising situations. But that doesn’t explain why an estimated 80 women and girls have been plucked off Manitoba streets since the 1920s and killed, raped or murdered – 600 across the country – according to the Native Women’s Association of Canada. Why is the rest of Canada not outraged and hurt by this national tragedy? It is now three years since an RCMP/Winnipeg police task force on the issue was announced. Since then, only one case has been solved and three more women have been murdered.
Sheila North Wilson lives in Winnipeg.