Claudette Commanda, LL.B., is a member of the Kitigan Zibi Algonquin First Nation and a professor and elder-in-residence at the University of Ottawa. Louise Bradley is the president and CEO of the Mental Health Commission of Canada.
The release of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls has unleashed a maelstrom of debate. As two women who have dedicated our professional lives to mental health and promoting Indigenous culture respectively, we see an important opportunity to shift the dialogue.
The report itself – exhaustive and comprehensive – is unlikely to be read by the masses. What people will hear are the snippets excerpted by the news media largely focused on the most divisive aspects. Our goal is simple: to remind Canadians, of all beliefs, creeds and political stripes, that the colonialism and intergenerational trauma that have threatened to destroy the kinships and cultures of Indigenous communities are blind to gender.
The devastation wrought by decades of insidious and overt systemic racism have bled into Indigenous communities, poisoning the well, literally and figuratively. Both little boys and little girls – sent off to residential schools or scooped up like toy-store dolls and shipped off to white families – were equally victims of a cycle of trauma set into motion and yet to be stopped.
Before delving further, we are quick to acknowledge the resiliency and strength of Indigenous peoples; however, the high rates of suicide, homicide, incarceration and substance abuse born of colonial trauma illustrate the pain and suffering that Indigenous communities continue to experience.
To truly grasp the magnitude of the crisis, it is impossible to ignore the effects that colonialism and racism have inflicted on Indigenous men – the husbands, fathers and sons of Indigenous women and girls. Examining the disproportionate rates of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls can be better understood if we look at the equally alarming statistics in relation to Indigenous men and boys.
In their scholarly article, Canada’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous People and the Imperative for a More Inclusive Perspective, published in the January edition of the International Indigenous Policy Journal, authors John G. Hansen and Emeka E. Dim argue, “By including their male comrades, an inquiry would more likely be able to develop the knowledge necessary to properly address the problem of missing and murdered Indigenous Peoples.”
They go on to write, “In our view, there should be a follow-up inquiry that is inclusive of Indigenous men, women, girls and boys. Colonizers have long used strategies to divide Indigenous Peoples.”
Indigenous males in Canada are at the highest risk of being victims of homicide. In fact, according to Statistics Canada data, approximately 2,500 Indigenous people were murdered in Canada between 1982 and 2011, out of 15,000 total murders. Of those 2,500 murdered Indigenous people, 71 per cent were male.
Suicide and self-inflicted injuries are the leading cause of death for First Nations youth and adults up to the age of 44. The suicide rate for First Nations male youth is 126 per 100,000, compared with 24 per 100,000 for non-Indigenous male youth.
The challenge that we face collectively, then, is to draw a narrative thread through numbers that point to pain and hurt and give it a human voice. It is only by hearing the deeply personal stories told by the mothers, sisters and daughters of the missing and murdered Indigenous women that we share this trauma, as fellow human beings. But why would we not extend that same opportunity – to be heard, to be helped and to be healed – to Indigenous men, or the mothers, sisters and wives of missing or murdered Indigenous men? To ask that their views be shared only in relation to their fallen sisters is to discount their experiences.
As alarming as they are, the statistics do not tell the whole story. We believe that hearing from both sides of the divide is the only way to build a bridge of understanding that will lead to the healing of Indigenous women and men, for they both deserve a life of wellness.
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