Free speech has become a game.   Being an activist for several years now I have found that free speech is really just a myth.   Sure, you have folks spouting about gay marriage, health care, abortion, women’s rights and the environment but when it comes to native rights we are the ones who get arrested and thrown in jail.

How is fighting to protect your small piece of land from developers any different from speaking out against stem cell research?   The answer, big business!

Flags in Caledonia

Let’s kid not ourselves folks, protesting can only go so far.   Just ask the Mohawk in Caledonia Ontario who have been blocking passage to a work site since February 28th 2006 because of ongoing land disputes.

Like Caledonia there have been many disputes regarding the First Nations vs the government and big business.   In 1990, during the Oka crisis when the town of Oka tried to extend the golf course by going through a graveyard, the Mohawk spoke out and years of pent up frustration came out.   In the end, though, they lost against public opinion, poor media coverage and a government determined to hide the fact their policies have done way more harm than good!

There are a few subjects that are strictly taboo to speak out against, them being the First Nations, the Israeli conflict and big business.   If you are against the Israeli government for what it has done to the Palestinians then your branded an anti Semite because you’re not allowed to do that.

It’s the same thing with big business.   Take a map of all the deforestation, mining and oil drilling in Canada then take a map of all the First Nation reserves and you will see how they practically line up.   Yet when we speak out against this we are arrested and thrown in jail.

You see big corporations run the government.   They lobby the government over jobs, saying that they need to drill or mine or cut down this forest in order to help the economy.   What they don’t mention is the devastation they leave in their wake and when I say devastation I mean bad water, poisoned land and death.

Tar Sands impact on the First Nations

The folks of Fort Chipewan near Alberta’s Tar Sands have been experiencing a spike in rare cancers that can only be explained the toxic damage caused by the tar sands.   Though big business had said that there is no reason to suspect the tar sands independent research has suggested that they are to blame.

So how do we fight the hypocrisy in our country?   How do we fight the insurmountable odds facing our communities?

How do we win the PR war?

Montreal: On October the 4th, 72 communities organized vigils and marches across Canada to remember the over 500 missing or murdered native women in Canada.  Though some groups estimate the number to be much higher, the Native Women Association of Canada has said that there are 521 confirmed cases of native women going missing or having been murdered in nearly 30 years.

The situation is only getting worse with several cases just this past year.  Native groups have called on the government to investigate these cases but so far, their pleas have fallen on deaf ears.  The United Nations and Amnesty International have made similar requests and all have been ignored by the federal government, only the Manitoba Government has taken to steps to curb the problem by creating a task force that will work with native groups to investigate the 78 confirmed cases in that province!

In Montreal, Missing Justice, a grassroots organization that formed last April took up the task of organizing this year’s vigil and March.  The weekend began with a panel at Concordia University to discuss the root causes and impacts of violence against Native women.  The panellists included Melanie Morrison from Kahnawake (sister of Tiffany Morrison, missing 3 years), Craig Benjamin, Campaigner for Indigenous Rights with Amnesty International, Yasmin Jiwani, professor in Communication Studies at Concordia and former researcher and coordinator of the BC Yukon FREDA Centre for Research on Violence against Women and Children and Kary Ann Deer, member of the Board of Directors of Projets Autochtones du Quebec.

Melanie Morrison addresses the panel

Melanie Morrison, whose sister Tiffany went missing June 18th 2006, spoke of the trend of ignorance when dealing with the police who did not take the case seriously at first.  Tiffany, who has a young daughter, was in a taxi coming home from a concert when she disappeared.

“She always called if she was going to be home late so that no one would worry,” said Morrison, who has been lobbying and finally received help from Pattison to try to put up a billboard with Tiffany’s picture on highway 132 and 138, both of which go right by her home of Kahnawake. Morrison, with the help of the Quebec Native Women’s Association, held a vigil on the anniversary of Tiffany disappearance.

Kary Ann Deer, who worked closely with Morrison at the QNW and sits on the board of Directors of Projets Autochtones du Quebec, shared her experiences of dealing with ignorance from the Justice system and a complacent media.

Kary Ann Deer speaks on the panel

“There are a lot of Prejudice and negative stereotypes placed on our native women and that is wrong,” said Deer, “we have to break down the stereotypes.  No one took the Morrison family seriously and this happens in a lot cases.  Many families deal with the knuckle dragging by police, the media and the government.  These stories are all too familiar!”

Craig Benjamin of Amnesty International echoed Morrison and Deer’s sentiments about the ignorance from all levels of Canadian society:

“Part of what’s happening, part of the violence that is experienced by native women is the public indifference, the apathy.  That is a big part of the reason why this issue has been ignored for so long,” Benjamin said, “this is the ground of which we see the failure of Justice, this is the ground of which the police do not feel compelled to investigate to the same extent that they would a non aboriginal woman.  This is the ground that the politicians do not feel compelled to respond to change that indifference.  So what we have to do is change the public’s opinion on this issue.”

Yasmin Jiwani talked about how history portrayed native women, the uses of negative stereotypes to describe the struggles of native women and of First Nations culture within Canada and the attack on native women by the establishment ie: the justice system, government, police ect ect.

“How many aboriginal journalists are there to tell the stories from the aboriginal communities, because that is important in order to get the message out,” Jiwani mentioned, “if 500 soldiers were killed in Afghanistan, there would be an uproar.  Five hundred Aboriginal women have disappeared or have been murdered in Canada and no one cares.”

The panel took place at the De Seve Theatre where about 150 people attended many of which attended the March and vigil two days later

The March

People began to gather at Cabot Square around 5:30pm, the Native Friendship Centre drum group Tiohtià:ke began drumming at 6pm.  Quebec Native Women President opened the event with a prayer, followed by speeches from Missing Justice, the NDP and Amnesty International.

As the march began, the police did their best to stay out of the way while doing their jobs as the hundreds of marchers went down St Catherine Street in the heart of downtown Montreal.  As we passed the bars and strip clubs, the chants got louder demanding justice from a government who has been inept up to this point.

The march

The longer we marched, the bigger we got and when we arrived at Philips Square after dusk, we lit up the small square with hundreds of candles.  Each one was a reminder of a fallen sister, daughter, mother, grandmother, niece and aunt.

The first of the speakers was Anne St Marie from Amnesty International who asked “what are we waiting for?”  She spoke of the last 5 years, the Stolen Sisters Report and the amount of progress that had been made but also of how much more is needed to be done with this issue.  She echoed the previous speakers, asking how a government could just ignore the issue for so long.

Crissy Swain from Grassy Narrows in Manitoba, who had just finished a walk from Kenora Ontario to Ottawa where she held a ceremony on Parliament Hill, told the crowd: “I’ve been thinking about what I wanted to say here tonight and the only thing I can think of is that back in 2001, I gave birth to my first baby girl and at that time there was a woman from my community who had been murdered.  I felt sorry for my daughter because of all the things she has to go through as an Anishinabeqwe, everything she would have to face when she became a woman.” Swain then began to drum and sing a song that she would for the missing and for the earth because she is also a woman Swain said.

The next speaker was QNW President Ellen Gabriel who spoke about how happy she was to see such a mixed crowd of people and how the number had grown substantially from the 25-30 people just two years ago.

Her message spoke of equality and understanding when dealing with police and the justice system, that violence against women needed to end and that the men in the audience needed to tell their brothers to stop the violence

“It’s not okay to beat your wives, your girlfriends and your daughters,” she said “you have to have a good relationship with your daughters, fathers, so that when they grow up they know that they are valued that they are worth something”.

The vigil

She spoke of what colonization had taken away from indigenous people, one thing being the ability of aboriginal men to take care of the women.  “Colonization, the Indian act and residential schools took that away and now we live in poverty,” she said, “today when we talk about injustice for indigenous women, I call upon you, indigenous men, pull your socks and work with the women!”

She talked about the government neglect, the money spent on war when none was spent on peace, the billion dollar bailouts for the auto companies when aboriginal communities were falling apart.  She urged that we work with police and community leaders to ensure that native women are protected.  She spoke of Harper’s comments that Canada has no history of colonialism.

The final speaker of the night was Cheryl Diabo who arrived with her two children.  She spoke about how important it was to have events like the Sisters in Spirit and the importance of the land and of community.  After her closing song there was a moment of silence afterwards.  Tiohtià:ke closed out the evening with one more song.

This was the 4th annual Sisters in Spirit vigil in Canada and next year the 5 year initiative will end.  What happens then?  That will depend on how many people were touched by the issue, but I can say for certain after seeing the turnout that night there will be vigils in Montreal for years to come.

The recent decision at Health Canada to send body bags to northern Manitoba reserves was stupid at best and racist at worst.  It showed a systemic insensitivity to growing health problems on most reserves throughout Canada.

This recent incident involving Health Canada is not the first time that poor decisions resulted in an embarrassment for the government agency.  Back in June, Health Canada was involved with another incident which also displayed racial insensitivity when they delayed hand sanitizers to First Nation communities due the alcohol in the product.  Rights groups screamed racism and Health Canada was left back peddling.

Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq

I don’t know what bothers me the most, the fact that First Nations are treated differently in practically every facet of Canadian society or that apathy towards First Nations has been on the increase.  Ever since the apology from the Harper Government a lot of people feel that it’s enough and that First nations in Canada should stop complaining but what they don’t understand and don’t see are the conditions most First Nation communities are in.

90% of First Nations communities are under boiling water advisories.  Then there are the health concerns, gang violence, high suicide rates and women going missing.  There are also housing and education issues as well as drug and alcohol abuse.

When we talk about our communities, most of them are in areas where there is heavy mining, deforestation or oil drilling which adds to the problems of the First Nations.  Take Fort Chipewyan in Alberta where they have been experiencing rare cancers because of the Tar Sands, yet the companies that run the Tar Sands naturally deny responsibility.

In the end big business wins over a few dead Indians.  Currently there is a lawsuit against those companies and the Alberta Government for what there are doing to the environment.  We’ll just have to wait and see!

So yes, the apology was necessary but we must remember that there are still many problems stemming from what happened because of those schools and that people can’t be allowed to forget that.  Canadians must remember these issues of inequality and systemic racism within the many facets of Canadian society.

Because in the end, it’s always going to be about equality, who has it and who doesn’t!

The recent denial of parole for Leonard Peltier by the US parole commission a few weeks ago got me thinking about injustice and whether the wrongfully convicted ever really see justice.  In Leonard’s case I have an ugly feeling that it’s never going to happen.  This is a man who had key evidence withheld at his trial, witnesses intimidated into speaking against him and an FBI determined to put someone away at all costs.

While reading up on Leonard’s case I found myself being reminded of Rubin Hurricane Carter who spent nearly 20 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, he was later freed when evidence of police corruption and racism surfaced.  Unfortunately Leonard has not been that successful even though there was jurisdictional malpractice in his case and a great deal of racism on the part of the justice system and the FBI.

The FBI’s consistent excuse for withholding key evidence was that there was a threat to national security.  What boggles the mind is how a case like Leonard’s involves national security? Smokescreen?  That’s what it looks like, the evidence against the government agency clearly shows misconduct on their part.

So how do you fight this, how do you bring justice to Leonard Peltier?  A man who has, according to the evidence, done nothing wrong and has spent 33 years in prison. How do you fight a justice system that claims to be blind but is clearly not?

Flag of the American Indian Movement (AIM)

There is evidence that the FBI was involved in supplying guns to Dick Wilson’s goons who then went about intimidating, raping and murdering traditionalists who were fighting to keep their ways from being destroyed by a government determined to wipe them out of existence.

The American Indian Movement (AIM) has been fighting for decades trying to win some sort of equality in the United States but the road has been a tough one.  Since its founding AIM has led protests advocating Indigenous American interests, inspired cultural renewal, monitored police activities and coordinated employment programs in cities and in rural reservation communities across the United States.  AIM has often supported other indigenous interests outside the United States as well.

So for the time being Leonard Peltier will spend more time behind bars because of a justice system that won’t admit to the gross miscarriage of justice done by the FBI.  Until it does, Leonard will sit in a tiny little cell awaiting the next chapter in this long tragic tale.

When I was growing up I thought it was hard being someone of mixed heritage, I thought no one understands how hard it is to grow up off rez.  For years I thought like that, the us-versus-them mentality,never realizing that folks had it much harder. Being a young man you never really appreciate the beauty in life until it’s gone.

The path I walk now began when my mother died.  My mother was a great artist, a good mother and a Mohawk woman but it wasn’t until a few short years ago that I truly understood what that meant.

I first came across the story of missing women two-and-a-half years ago when I did a story on the Highway of Tears for Native Solidarity News.   Being curious and wanting to learn more about this issue, what I found were stories of women vanishing at alarming rates all over the country.

To find out more I contacted the Native Women’s Association of Canada and that’s when I heard about the Sisters in Spirit initiative.  Wanting to do something to help, I set up the vigil in Montreal in hopes of raising awareness.

Since then the Montreal Vigil has only grown and so has awareness about the problem which only seems to be getting worse. Maisy Odjick and Shannon Alexander are the latest to disappear yet I see no Amber Alerts for either of them, why is that?

In Canada it seems that only people of certain status and ethnic background get the best service.  There are literally hundreds of missing or murdered Aboriginal women and girls in this country yet where is our justice system? I do not understand why has it gotten so bad?  Why are Native women such easy targets and why is this issue not taken seriously?

When my mother was 18 she was gang-raped by five men in Montreal’s East End; they left her broken and bleeding.  She died never knowing true justice.  Those guys are probably still walking around free as birds.  When people ask why this has continued to go on, all you have to do is look at Ottawa for the answer.

“I believe there is no empirical evidence to suggest that there is discrimination against Aboriginals in the justice system,” states Stockwell Day, the Minister of Public Safety.  With a comment like that what do people expect, here is a politician who seems educated making a very ignorant statement!

Ignorance is definitely at the heart of the problem, the media reports on us whenever a bridge or highway is blocked off.  They focus on the radicals because that’s newsworthy.  But a young girl who sells her body for crack and who eventually kills herself because of too much abuse or neglect doesn’t even get a sound bite.

So when a young Native woman goes missing don’t expect to see much of it on the news because it isn’t important.  Which begs the question what do we do?  How do we fight to bring attention to this issue when the people holding all the cards are making all the rules?

Vancouver serial killer Robert Pickton was just the tip of the iceberg and his convictions were only a fraction what he really did.  There are dozens of Picktons out there preying on women but the justice system isn’t doing a damn thing about it.  The fact of matter is no one wants to hear about it. No one wants to hear about a sex worker, drug addict or homeless person dying or going missing when it concerns Native women.

What we need to do as a people is become stronger, tear down these stereotypes and show the world that we’re not going to be a target anymore, that we’re never going to give up no matter how much our politicians and media ignore this issue.  I hope that with every vigil that we hold we can bring this issue to light. We must rediscover ourselves!

The Cree have a saying that a child is not raised just by his/her parents but by the whole community and that’s what we need to do.  We need to fight for our children, our communities and most of all ourselves!

Too many have gone missing and that needs to stop now!

On April 29th Pope Benedict said he was sorry for the physical and sexual abuse and deplorable conduct at Catholic Church run residential schools. My first reaction to this was that it’s about bloody time maybe now some of the priests that have been saying that crimes that happened in residential schools were exaggerated will change their tune! I guess the question is what happens now, the Pope has admitted that there were crimes committed by the clergy in the church run schools.

AFN Chief Phil Fontaine at the Vatican (photo CBC)

Now I know that Canada will probably never admit that previous government policies regarding The First Nations were in fact acts of Genocide! The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide of 1948 clearly states that Canada is guilty! I am currently trying to get an interview with Phil Fontaine Chief the Assembly of First Nations to find out why he has decided to close the door on this sad chapter in Canadian history.

I understand closure for the victims is necessary but why now? Have we gotten all that we are going to get from the people and Governments that wronged us and is the truth ever really going to get out? Because let’s face it, the severity of those crimes has not been fully examined! According to the Rev Kevin Annett a former United Church Minister there were an estimated 50, 000 children who died in the schools from various ailments.

Dr Peter Bryce who wrote The Story of a National Crime: Being a Record of the Health Conditions of the Indians of Canada from 1904 to 1921, which exposed Genocide of the Aboriginals in Canada? Dr Bryce talked about the 50% death rate in the schools and how that Canadian government ignored warnings of Tuberculosis which was rampant in many of the schools! It seems to me that this issue should remain out there for public debate just because the real truth has not fully revealed. If it were my family that was exposed to such crimes I know that I would not rest until the complete truth was revealed!

When it comes to the crimes of Genocide everyone not just the undesirables should be held accountable, they should be brought to justice wherever they may hide and if you want an example just look at Nazi war criminals. Just because it’s been over 60 years since the holocaust does not mean that you stop hunting them. The last residential school closed in 1996 that was 13 years ago, don’t you think we owe those who survived a little more respect!