On Wednesday indigenous artists and community organizers lead the festivities across the country. In Montreal, there was the obligatory event at tourist-heavy Place des Arts as well as a celebration in Cabot Square, which is perhaps quainter, but much more organically attached to Native Montreal.

“There is a very strong native presence across the city today, but it just reminds us of the importance of this presence 365 days of the year,” said Quebec minister for Native Affairs Goeffrey Kelley in a short address to the crowd at Cabot Square.

All afternoon, Cabot Square was alive with Hoop dancing, traditional singing and rock music. Spectators could also visit various booths to try their hands at indigenous crafts, stop by the reading tent or buy handmade jewelry or clothes.

Performers from all nations

For Alexandra Loranger, the co-host of the event and a specialist in indigenous rights, celebrating Indigenous Day in Montreal is all about sharing and learning from one another. “It’s important for me to be here today to be able to celebrate my identity and at the same time to discover others,” said the Attikamek jurist, underlining the diversity of the artists present.

Moontee Sinquah and his two sons came all the way from Arizona to open the show with an impressive spectacle of traditional hoop dancing, immediately attracting a supplementary crowd of curious onlookers.

The notorious Buffalo Hat singers continued the show with more traditional music. Aidan Thorne and Antopola performed calmer, more modern sets.

One of the highlights of the show was Kelly Fraser, a young Inuk singer from Nunavut, who brought the crowd to their feet with a pop mixture of English and Inuktitut. The Mohawk group Corey Diabo Band closed the show with a lively rock performance.

“It’s so beautiful to see so much people and so much pride,” commented Aidan Thorne, a Concordia student from the Cowichan First Nation in BC. Thorne, who also goes by the name of Little Fire, describes his music as Canadian soul.

One day a year

For Toronto native and member of the Ojibwe Nation Cedar-Eve Peters, it was beautiful to see all the diverse native cultures represented and celebrated for one day of festivity. It was also a harsh reminder of their unnatural erasure in everyday life.

“Living in Montreal or Quebec, I find that people get more blatant with racism, so when we have events like this it’s great because we have people from all walks of life come through and they are actually genuinely interested in what’s going on,” she said.

Indigenous Day is a rare opportunity for her to sell her own crafts and jewels, while enjoying the various performances of other indigenous people. “It’s a good day to share that knowledge and to keep traditions alive. It’s great, but I don’t know, I feel like there shouldn’t just be one day of the year of recognition. Every day of the year we still exist.”

Alexandra Lorange agrees that there is a lot to be done in the city and the province to keep Native people out of oblivion on the other 364 days:

“I tell myself we’re taking small steps, slowly but surely… but I do think we’re behind and we could do a lot more. We could see [indigenous culture] on a more equal footing, and not from the perspective of a majoritarian society that allows a small moment for native people to be there.”

She believes that the media have to do their part to get there, and start covering indigenous affairs in their entirety, not just their problematic parts. “Today, all the mainstream media – at least on the anglophone side – have received the invitation and they are not here,” she noted, “that’s a real shame, because it’s something very constructive that is happening.”

Jules Beaulieu, who was also selling his own creations in the square, commented on the common erasure of Native history. “I’m here because for me, it is important to remember that indigenous people have been here for a long time. 150 and 375:  that’s European, people have been here for ages,” he remarked, referring to the summer-long celebrations for Montreal’s 375th  and Canada’s 150th anniversaries.

In an effort to reclaim the Native history of Montreal, Marie-Ève Drouin-Gagné from the ethnography lab of the Milieu Institute at Concordia began a project of photovoice in which indigenous users of Cabot Square are invited to tell their own stories about the square through photos and captions: “The idea was also to go with the 375th; saying  this is kind of a colonial narrative. So what about making some space for other narratives that are often untold?”

Today is not National Indigenous Day anymore, but indigenous people are still here. And we should all find a way to keep in mind that their identity is not a Christmas decoration to be put away until next year’s holiday.

A young Inuit woman addressed the assembly at the UN Conference on Climate Change on Canada’s behalf this past Wednesday in Marrakesh.

Maatalii Okalik, president of the Inuit Youth Council, accompanied the Minister of the Environment Catherine McKenna to the 22nd Conference of the Parties on Climate Change (COP 22) where she pleaded for the world leaders to take native communities into account.

“With your continued leadership that will define our future on climate action, I am hopeful that it is done in cooperation with Indigenous peoples,” Okalik said.

Okalik’s brief allocution was showcased in Canada’s national statement. The Minister introduced her as “an incredible young leader for the Canadian Arctic and a strong voice for Inuit youth.”

The liberal government seems determined as ever to display its good intentions to include indigenous communities in its decisions, at least on social media. On Tuesday, McKenna shaed a picture of Okalik on a stage with several indigenous leaders on Snapchat. The picture was captioned “Amazing panel on Indigenous role on climate action. I want Canada to be a leader on this.”

cop22-enviro-can

According to National Post, the Canadian delegation in Marrakesh comprises around 17 representatives from various indigenous groups.

The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) decided to send its own delegation to Marrakesh. Manitoba Regional Chief Kevin Hart and Elder Francois Paulette of the Dene Nation are both attending. Their mission is to ensure that First Nations have “a strong voice” in the plan for climate action.

“First Nations are in a unique position to be leaders in climate change initiatives because of our knowledge of the sacred teachings of the land. We must not be situated as passive recipients of climate change impacts. We must be agents of change in climate action,” Elder Paulette declared in a communiqué.

Chief Hart, who is also co-chair on the Chiefs Committee for Climate Change, insisted on the importance of indigenous rights and responsibilities being fully recognized.

Both he and Okalik alluded to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Although the Canadian government officially supports this treaty, the Trudeau administration deemed it “unworkable” as a Canadian law.

Although Trudeau is not attending this year, Canada sent a sizable delegation. Several provincial Premiers and environment ministers are there, including Quebec’s Philippe Couillard and David Heurtel. Union representatives as well as environmental advocacy groups like Equiterre and Ecojustice Canada are also there.

Where does Canada stand in Marrakesh?

COP 22 is a two week long event that will end on Friday the 18th. Its purpose is to form strategies to reach the goals set one year ago in Paris for reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHG).

In November 2015, freshly-elected Justin Trudeau arrived at the COP 21 with nothing but the timid goals set by the Harper government: bring GHG emissions down to 30% under 2005 levels before 2030. But according to the grapevine, Canada will revise its ambitions upwards. Greenpeace Canada told La Presse Canadienne that Canadian officials in Marrakesh said that the new goal was to bring GHG emissions 80% below 2005 levels before year 2050.

The measures to be deployed in that regard are vastly unknown. Last month, the federal government announced that all provinces and territories will have to implement a carbon tax of at least 10$/ton by 2018, to reach 50$/ton in 2022. Canada had already promised $2.65 billion over five years to help developing countries access and create clean technologies.

On Wednesday, the government announced a contribution of $2.5 Million to the Climate Technology Centre and Network to that effect. The CTCN is an agency created by the UN to help emerging countries access and develop new technologies, both to fight climate change and to deal with its effects.

The government also promised an investment of $1.8 Billion to “mobilize” the private sector to do the same.

A more detailed national strategy is awaited in the next couple of days.

 

The national inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) officially starts today.

Less than two years ago, the killing of hundreds of indigenous women and girls wasn’t “really high on [the] radar” of Canada’s Prime Minister.

Yet here we are, with a new government chanting a very different tune, kicking off a national inquiry with a budget bigger than promised. But the long awaited hearings are not yet about to start, warned the Chairwoman Marion Buller. “I just hope the public expectation is somewhat qualified by the fact that tomorrow we’re starting at square one,” she told the CBC on Wednesday.

Here is a list of the most important things you should know before they actually start:

What exactly is the Inquiry About?

Indigenous women and girls disappear and get murdered at a much greater rate than any other group in Canada. It’s been like this for at least thirty years and it’s been happening across the entire country. Yes, it is a proven fact and no, it can’t be explained away by high criminality and poverty on reserves.

In 2014, a report published by the RCMP brought this alarming fact to the public’s attention. It documented 1017 homicides of indigenous women between 1980 and 2012. This is 4.5 times what has been recorded for the general population.

For the same period, the RCMP’s counted 164 unsolved disappearances of indigenous women. However, even this alarming number is probably a gross underestimation, considering the general distrust between police forces and native communities.

The accounts of police forces failing to follow criminal leads or to investigate suspicious deaths are countless. CBC investigated 34 cases filed as accidents or suicides, despite the families of victims being convinced otherwise. They found signs of foul play for many of them. A Globe & Mail investigation found that indigenous women were seven times more likely to be murdered by a serial killer than non-indigenous women.

The real number of murdered aboriginal women and girls between 1980 and 2012 could reach around 4000, according to the Native Women’s Association of Canada.

What will the Inquiry do?

The Commission’s mission is to investigate the systemic causes of the high rates of violence against indigenous women and girls and to make recommendations about how to remove them. They will look into underlying factors for the greater aggression and vulnerability of aboriginal women, such as economic, historical, institutional, sociological or cultural factors.

In order to do so, the commission will reach out to families, survivors and community members to hear their “experience and views, including recommendations” and require the testimonies of whoever they see fit. It might also set up regional committees formed of loved-ones and survivors to address specific local situations and issues.

It will review existing reports and research about the issue at hands and related matters.

The federal government will allocate two years and $53.86 million to the process. An interim report should be produced in Fall 2017 and a final one by the end of 2018.

What can the commission do?

The commission is supposed to act completely independently of the government. As per the National Inquiry Act, it has subpoena power, meaning it can legally oblige people to testify or hand over documents.

Provinces and territories have also agreed to let the Inquiry address matters that fall outside federal jurisdiction, like child welfare and policing.

However, the Inquiry cannot determine any civil or criminal responsibility nor lead to accusations. Furthermore, it was announced in early August that commissioners can’t force police to reopen cases, to the disappointment of many families who are still waiting for answers.

Who is on the commission?

The government appointed five indigenous commissioners to lead the inquiry. They are from different corners of Canada, but none are from Atlantic Canada. Four have careers in law, one is a key figure of aboriginal activism in Quebec who has also served as deputy minister of Quebec’s status of women.

The chief commissioner, Marion Buller, was the first indigenous female judge of BC’s provincial court. She has advanced law studies and a bachelor’s degree in anthropology. She was a pioneer of numerous battles for aboriginal rights, including the formation of the First Nations Court of British Columbia in 2006. Thanks to her, First Nations’ members in BC can now choose to be judged by this court focused on rehabilitation and reconciliation with the community. She lives in Port Coquitlam (BC) but is still member of the Mistawasis band in Saskatchewan.

What to watch out for?

The terms of reference set for the Inquiry make it clear that the focus will be on prevention and solutions. Advocates and families of victims want that, of course. But they also want answers and accountability.

The negligence and mishandling of indigenous cases by the police is a key issue. However, the terms of reference do not make any specific mention of investigating police forces. Instead, they talk about “systemic causes” and “institutional policies and practices”.

Many worry that those broad terms will allow commissioners to stay clear of touchy subjects that might ruffle too many feathers, like direct criticism of police work.

Indeed, there is no shortage of systemic causes and Institutional policies contributing to the vulnerability of indigenous women. The Indian Act, centuries of under-funded health, education and justice services in indigenous communities, residential schools, reserves… pretty much everything that happened since 1492.

We don’t need the national inquiry to tell us that Canada has treated First Nations like shit and is still doing so in many aspects. We might need it to tell us why a certain case was closed or if the disappearance of a native child is treated with the seriousness it deserves.

The Minister of Indigenous affairs, Carolyn Bennett, said that the terms of reference are so broad only to give the maximum latitude and independence to the commissioners. Let’s hope they use this latitude to fully address the faults in the functioning of our courts and police work, and not to skirt over the less comfortable issues.

Another thing we should be looking for is who will really cooperate with the Inquiry. Who will demand to be heard, who will come willingly and above all, who –if anyone- will be subpoenaed into it.

Chief Commissioner Buller has expressed to CBC that she is “cautiously optimistic” about getting full cooperation from the police. Past evidence suggests that police forces are not very receptive to being investigated, but well, there’s a first for everything.

A recent statement by Commissioner Michèle Audette also signaled a possible development for Quebec.

Chief of the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador, Ghislain Picard wanted Quebec to have its own inquiry on missing and murdered indigenous women. The Minister of Justice had refused, pleading that the emotional cost of testifying twice for families and victims was too high. However, Audette says that a provincial inquiry could coexist with the national one, if it had a clearly different mandate.

She said this to La Presse on August 31st, so we’ll have to see if anyone will push on the door she just opened. Maybe, optimistically, this will lead to a more transparent way of looking into the abuse of indigenous women by police forces in our part of the country. Enquête’s uncovering of the behaviour of SQ agents in Val-d’Or certainly made it clear that the issue needs to be addressed, and the police-investigating-police method we’re currently using is not good enough.

* Featured image via WikiMedia Commons