‘It starts with everybody taking responsibility,’ says author of inquiry’s final report
WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
CBC News: Lorelei Williams is exhausted.
The Coast Salish woman has been on the frontlines of the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls crisis in Vancouver since 2012, when she founded Butterflies in Spirit to raise awareness about the problem. Williams also knows the ripple effects of the crisis first-hand. Her aunt, Belinda Williams, went missing in 1978, and her cousin, Tanya Holyk, was a victim of Robert Pickton in 1996.
Today, Williams’ advocacy has shifted from raising awareness through dance to supporting families of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people in any way she can. This includes organizing rallies, being with families when they speak to police, searching for missing loved ones and holding candlelight vigils when someone is found dead. “This is my life now,” Williams told Unreserved host Rosanna Deerchild
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Despite her work over the past decade and the attention the crisis gained because of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, Williams says it feels like nothing is changing.
The past year has been difficult for Indigenous communities — in particular in Manitoba and British Columbia. In December, Winnipeg police charged a man with first-degree murder in the deaths of four Indigenous women: Morgan Beatrice Harris, Marcedes Myran, Rebecca Contois and Buffalo Woman, who police have not been able to identify.
Families in Vancouver are mourning the losses of Chelsea Poorman, Tatyanna Harrison and Noelle O’Soup, whose bodies were all found in 2022.
“I feel like we’re doing as much as we can to be heard. I’m always saying the same things over and over again,” Williams noted. “I feel like I’m always hitting my head against the wall. Like, why can’t we make these changes? What do we gotta do?”
The National Inquiry’s final report was released in 2019 and considers violence against Indigenous women, girls and gender diverse people to be genocide. According to the inquiry, Indigenous women and girls are 16 times more likely to be murdered or to disappear than white women. As a document with over 1,000 pages and more than 200 calls for justice — changes that must be made in many areas of Canadian society, the inquiry states, to end the crisis — getting a handle on the problem can seem like a daunting task.
But people like Williams who’ve been working on this issue for years say there are many things Canadians can do to tackle the crisis and help them do the heavy lifting. And, advocates say, it isn’t just governments and institutions like policing that need to make changes. It’s the responsibility of all Canadians to take these steps.
Indigenous leaders and advocates in Winnipeg say the MMIWG crisis is a national state of emergency
‘It starts with everybody’
“I don’t think in Canada, not one Canadian can say, ‘Not my job,’ right? Because it’s everyone’s job,” said Karine Duhamel. “Whether you’re a teller at the bank or you work in a Dollarama or … you’re a teacher or you’re in government, you’re always in a position to create good moments of relationship-building to create healing encounters.”
Duhamel, who is a member of Red Rock First Nation in northwestern Ontario, is the former director of research for the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and authored the inquiry’s final report.
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“There’s just so much that people can do. I just always encourage people to expand their imagination about what is helpful,” Duhamel continued. “This issue … is over 500 years in the making and it’s going to take an awful lot to undo what has been done, but it starts with everybody taking responsibility.”
First and foremost, she said, it’s important that non-Indigenous Canadians learn about the issue. This doesn’t mean they need to memorize statistics, but to learn about a missing or murdered person. Read the final report or find the stories of Indigenous women, girls and gender diverse people from other sources.
Non-Indigenous Canadians can support Indigenous-owned businesses or restaurants or purchase artwork or jewelry from an Indigenous artisan, she said. “Are there other people in your circle who you feel could benefit from some more knowledge on this issue?” Duhamel asked. “How can you be an advocate, just in your everyday conversations, for the dignity of Indigenous people and families and communities …through countering negative stereotypes and racism?”
Small, simple acts
Williams used to suggest that people who want to help end violence against Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people show up at events and rallies, and make donations to Butterflies in Spirit and other organizations. And those actions are still valuable.
These days, though, she recognizes that people might not have money to give or the time to come to a rally. But they all have something they can contribute, Williams said. “Everybody has their own special gifts,” she explained. “If they want to help with posters or if they’re lawyers, they could support us that way because sometimes we need lawyers. Just anything.”
Both Williams and Bernadette Smith, who lives in Winnipeg, have seen people offer food to volunteers, advocates and families. Those kinds of small, simple acts can help people know that others care about them, Smith said.
Smith is the MLA for the Point Douglas riding in Manitoba’s legislature. Before working in the political realm, she was advocating for change on the MMIWG2S+ issue in Winnipeg and co-creating groups such as Drag the Red and the Coalition of Families of Missing and Murdered Women in Manitoba. Like Williams, Smith has a personal connection to the crisis. Her sister, Claudette Osborne, disappeared in 2008. To this day, Osborne’s case remains open.
In terms of simple actions anyone can take to end the crisis, Smith says there are plenty. Sharing messages on social media, making donations to Indigenous-led organizations and groups and writing to political representations are just a few.
From ‘othering’ to taking care of one another
And like Duhamel, Smith believes that countering negative stereotypes is crucial to keeping Indigenous people safe and ending the plight of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. “We have to change that othering attitude,” she said.
“We are targets. Every single day we walk out of our houses and we shouldn’t have to worry about ourselves or our children,” Smith said. “Society has to change … the way that we treat and take care of one another.” Smith does see this happening with young people, which brings her some hope.
She recalls a recent visit to her former elementary school in Winnipeg, in an area of the city that experiences a lot of poverty. The students, who were a mix of Indigenous and non-Indigenous, brought up the recent news of the four murdered Indigenous women in the city and told their teacher that they wanted to do something about it, Smith explained.
“They brainstormed ‘What can we do?’ … I was going to read [during that visit, but] we spent the whole hour talking about these women [and] this issue,” she said. “They probably went home and had a bigger conversation [with their parents] because they had lots of questions. And you know, I think that’s what it’s going to take. A shift in our next generation.”
For immediate emotional assistance, call 1-844-413-6649. This is a national, toll-free 24/7 crisis call line providing support for anyone who requires emotional assistance related to missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. You can also access long-term health support services such as mental health counselling and community-based cultural services through Indigenous Services Canada.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Laura Beaulne-Stuebing Producer
Laura Beaulne-Stuebing is a producer for CBC Radio’s Unreserved. She is based in Ottawa.