Aimée Craft is an Anishinaabe/Métis law professor at the University of Ottawa. She was the Director of Research at the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls from February to November 2017.
The slogan "no justice, no peace" echoes across the prairies and fills my ears. Since the last full moon, the Canadian court system has delivered two major blows to Indigenous hopes for justice in Canada – two acquittals of non-Indigenous men following the violent loss of Indigenous youth Tina Fontaine and Colten Boushie. I wonder if we will see justice. Will we ever find peace?
As a lawyer and law professor, I understand the law, but I don't see justice in it. The truth is that there is no real justice for Indigenous people. The systems that purport to bring justice fail us over and over, time and again. Tina's case is a stark illustration of that terrible reality.
While this case will always officially be known as the Crown against Raymond Cormier, it should be remembered in our hearts as the Tina Fontaine case. Why? Because it is a painful example of how systems that are meant to keep us safe, and bring justice in the face of harm, fail us.
I once wrote Tina a letter; I've carried it around with me ever since. It starts: "I'm sorry I failed you. I'm sorry we've failed you."
For only a few short weeks, Tina was embroiled in the ugliness of an underground culture that has been allowed to persist in Winnipeg – one in which young Indigenous women are seen as disposable. Predators assume no one cares, or that the river will keep their secrets submerged.
Her death sank hearts, fuelled rage and inspired action. In Tina's pretty face and fragile body, I saw my nieces, my cousins and my friends' daughters. Even with years of legal training, research, advocacy and prayers, I'm unable to keep them safe. Indigenous women and girls in Canada are devalued by the state, by institutions, by predators and even, in some cases, by the men who are supposed to protect them. How is it that we allow this to continue?
The problem isn't just Mr. Cormier, who devalued Tina by wanting to sleep with a 15-year-old girl. It isn't just a child-welfare system that is broken and places children in unsafe environments. It isn't just a police system that fails to protect the vulnerable. And it isn't just a criminal-justice system that appears to shield wrongdoers more than victims and their families.
We can't blame our sorrow solely on circumstantial evidence or failing systems. We must call to account the angry beasts of racism, sexism, patriarchy, misogyny, capitalism and colonization that have allowed the devaluation of Indigenous women and girls.
These failing systems are rooted in deficiency models, designed around solutions aimed at "fixing" Indigenous "problems." They are not based on the aspirations of Indigenous peoples and what brings wellness to individuals, families, communities and nations.
These systems were not made for Indigenous people. These systems do not reflect Indigenous laws and values. They do not even fulfill the promises of treaties that stand for peace and the ability to live well together on this land.
Indigenous peoples have never agreed to have someone else decide what justice is for us. Nor did we give up our right to attain it for ourselves. Indigenous laws are living within Indigenous nations, all across Canada, and must be revitalized further so that injustice cannot continue to take lives.
I was reminded the other day about the largest mass hanging in Canadian history – at Battleford, Sask., in 1885, where eight Indigenous men were hanged for their participation in the North-West Rebellion. Indigenous children from the nearby Industrial School were forced to watch the hanging so that the power of the state would be burned into their memories. This was part of the overall project of the schools to "kill the Indian in the child." Today, Indigenous children are dying at the hands of people who see them as disposable and systems that are carrying on these colonial legacies.
Feb. 23 is Aboriginal Justice Awareness Day in Manitoba. Many of us will walk in honour of Tina Fontaine. And then, on the next full moon, some of us will stand on the banks the Red River, in this place of muddy water that we call Winnipeg. We will cry, sing and pray, we will make pacts to keep each other safe and we will stand against the terror that knocks at our doors. We will look to our own laws to ensure that Indigenous women and children once again assume places of prominence, honour and respect. We are, after all, the grandmothers, mothers and daughters of this land.