The following is the presentation of Summer-Rain Bentham, Manager of Indigenous Women’s Programming at Battered Women’s Support Services, Vancouver, B.C., Canada on missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada.
“. . . home to home across the north and the lower mainland. . . the last group home I was placed in I was nine years old. . . 14 years on the streets of the downtown eastside. . . I wasn’t Native enough for my Mum’s family and I was too Native for any White family.
“I am calling on all women to stand with me, to realize that none of us are free until all of us are free.
“This means that no White woman is free until all Indigenous women and girls are free to live a life without racism, violence, death, and the threat of our disappearance. Huy chexw.“
Thank you, Summer-Rain.
MS. SUMMER-RAIN BENTHAM:
My name is Summer-Rain, and I am Gitxsan, meaning people of the misty river. I am from the house of the raven and the Raven Clan from Kitwanga on my mother’s side, and I am Coast Salish from the Squamish Nation on my father’s side. I live and work on the unceded Coast Salish territories of the Squamish, Musqueam, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations.
I am currently the Manager of Indigenous Women’s Programming at Battered Women’s Support Services, where I have the honour and privilege of working with Indigenous women and girls who have experienced all forms of gender-based violence, and the impacts of colonization at many different levels and at many different times in their lives.
I’m here to speak in relation to the gender-based violence, racism, hatred, and continued colonization that Indigenous women and girls face continuously every single day while the Canadian state passively stands by and perpetuates their failure to respond to the safety of Indigenous women and girls, thus making Canada, in whole, aiding in the deaths, murders, and disappearances of Indigenous women and girls.
The ideology of Indigenous women and girls ‘bodies as rapeable is brutally evident in the thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada. This attitude or belief is entrenched by Canada’s policing agencies and systems which have historically and currently been a brutal force of oppression and perpetration of violence against Indigenous women and girls.
Furthermore, the general response of the police to the murders and disappearances of our women and girls is to blame the victims by arguing that they are — they are or were sex workers, and hence inherently rapeable, often referring to the fact that they are willingly choosing a high-risk lifestyle.
The concept that women are not worth more than their bodies is entrenched into our society, even in our justice system. This leads to an attitude or belief that men who inherently have a position in society that allows them access to women, power, and access to resources, people, and influence to do or effect what they want. Men, as individuals and as a group, hold varying degrees of physical, economic, and political power over women and, in particular, Indigenous women and girls.
Sexual assaults and rape is a way that men enact unequal power. Ending the demand or entitlement of men to the sexual access of the bodies of Indigenous women and girls and placing full responsibility on the men can and will interfere with their sense of entitlement and access to Indigenous women and girls bodies.
Indigenous women and girls are forced to leave their reserves and migrate into more urban settings to escape extreme poverty and violence in their homes and on their homelands. Indigenous women and girls face a particular form of misogynist racism. Indigenous women are forced to leave — live in dangerous intersections of gender and race. Indigenous people have become marked as inherently at risk of violation through the ongoing process of sexual colonization. By extension, their lands and territories have become marked as a way to violate as well.
The connection between the colonization of Indigenous people’s bodies, particularly the bodies of Indigenous women and girls, in Indigenous lands is not simply metaphorical. We are adamant that there is a connection between patriarchy’s disregard for nature, Indigenous peoples and women, and the colonial patriarch combine that seeks to control and dominate. In fact, this is proven in the fact that Indigenous women and girls are going missing and being murdered right here where we stand today, all across the country, and even across the world.
And what is Canada doing about it? What is preventing Canada to follow through on any of the hundreds of recommendations they have already received or on the promises they have already made to Indigenous women and girls to Indigenous communities. That would mean that Canada as a state would have to take responsibility for the racism, patriarchy, misogyny, and violence that is committed. They would have to take responsibility for the impunity they have created for men, predominately white men, to view and treat Indigenous women and girls as disposable and as not worthy of life.
The child welfare system, originally referred to as residential schools and day schools, primary role for education of Indigenous girls was to inoculate patriarchal norms into Indigenous communities, to disrupt our matriarchal systems to interfere with and destroy women’s power, roles, and agency; this continues to happen.
Canada’s current child welfare system continues to cause great harm to Indigenous women and girls. They issue birth alerts and flag our children at birth for removal and place with non-Indigenous families, depriving and stripping our children of their culture and identity and as Indigenous peoples. Our girls’ encounters with child welfare system too often result in an increased lack of safety which escalates to experiences of violence, sexual assault, exploitation, disappearances, and deaths while in the so-called care of our child welfare system.
Our Indigenous girls are grossly overrepresented in the child welfare system; in foster homes, group homes, shelters and single-room occupancies, and on the street.
Indigenous women and girls are classified as high risk, or living a high-risk lifestyle, yet the only true high-risk lifestyle any one of us lived or lives is that of being a girl or a woman and that of being a First Nations, Métis, or Inuit girl or woman.
As Indigenous girls and women we are taught and trained at birth by our mothers, our aunties, our grandmothers, that we will be targeted and attacked by men, not only because we are women and girls but because we are Indigenous women and girls.
And yet the state continues to perpetuate and/or ignore the violence, poverty, and unsafe conditions of Indigenous women and girls. The state continues to remain silent, leaving ourselves, our sisters, our aunties, and our daughters to face these men who choose to attack us because we are Indigenous women and girls alone in the fight for our lives.
Indigenous women and girls have a long multi-generational history of colonization, marginalization, and displacement from our traditional homelands, languages, food, culture, and history. All of these things have been stolen from us and replaced with Western world traditions of poverty, violence, abuse, and addictions, leaving Indigenous peoples, especially Indigenous women and girls, extremely vulnerable to male violence.
This continues to be perpetuated with Canada’s failure to address the sexism and gender discrimination to women and girls in the Indian Act, which only furthers the colonial and patriarchal constructs that have consistently fueled the exclusion of Indigenous women’s voices since the creation of the Indian Act.
I myself, not like — not unlike many Indigenous women and girls, were born into poverty and violence. I was a product and a part of the child welfare system my whole life, a system where I was nothing more than a file lost on someone’s desk.
I was born in a very small community up north. When I was little, my Mum and my grandmother were so happy that I had these bright blue eyes and fair skin; they truly believed I wouldn’t experience the heinous acts of violence that both of them had experienced. My grandmother was a residential school survivor. My mother was part of the sixties group and struggled with addictions and mental health.
They were wrong. I was targeted by men since the age of two and experienced violence from almost every man who came into my life, because to these men, and to the state, I was an Indigenous child. No matter how light my skin might be or how blue my eyes are. Because these men — and I want to be clear, the men I refer to were mostly White men — they knew there would be no consequences for the harm done.
I was bounced around from home to home across the north and the lower mainland. I left the last group home I was placed in in Vancouver when I was nine years old. I spent a chunk of my life, 14 years, on the streets of the downtown eastside, trying to find where I belong, where I would be accepted. Because of colonization I wasn’t Native enough for my Mum’s family and I was too Native for any White family.
Eventually, I found my own and I had amazing, strong Indigenous women warriors in my life who taught me who I was, where I come from, and how important my voice is.
This is why I am alive today and why I am able to do the work I do today. This is why I speak, not only as a frontline antiviolence worker but as a family member and as a survivor.
I was taught as a young child that our way of sharing, of teaching was through storytelling, and that is why I have chosen to intertwine my personal truth with my political message as the two are inseparable for me.
I know you have heard throughout these hearings and in Calgary hearing, that it is mostly Indigenous men who are committing the violence against our Indigenous women and girls. From my 15 years of frontline experience and my 35 years of life, I would strongly disagree with this statement. I would go so far as to say it is a grossly unfair reading of history to blame Indigenous communities alone for the state of crisis across this country.
This is not an Indian problem. This is a state — a Canadian state problem as the deaths and disappearances of Indigenous women and girls continue to rise and largely remain unsolved on reserves, in cities, towns, and communities across Canada.
To say it is our problem alone makes it easier for the White colonial state to say it’s our problem, and for the rest of society to accept this answer. I refuse to, and I ask you to refuse to.
Over the past 55 years approximately 4,000 Indigenous women and girls have gone missing or were murdered in communities across Canada, yet the government, the media, and the Canadian society continues to remain ignorant; a refusal to recognize the names and families who have lost someone.
The RCMP list a mere 1,200, yet the Indigenous women on the ground, the women walking across Canada, the women who walk the streets every night, they have 4,000 names.
If there were 1,200 White men went missing in the last 55 years, it would be the front page of every paper, the headline on every news outlet. We would all have the images, faces, and names of these men drilled into our heads; the government would not let us forget these men.
And I can only imagine if 4,000 White men were missing; the world would come to a halt until we found out what happened to these men. Yet when it’s 4,000 Indigenous women and girls, their names remain silent; their families remain uninformed; their pictures shown on posters or in media are that of a mugshot because, once again, Canada’s message to Indigenous women and girls, and to the rest of society, is that of disvalue, of disposable, of good riddance.
During this Inquiry, the team at Battered Women’s Support Services had the opportunity to walk the Highway 16 from Prince Rupert to Smithers in memory of Tamara Lynn Chipman, a young Indigenous woman who went missing from this stretch of highway. This highway, which now known as the Highway of Tears, where families have recorded over 32 Indigenous women and girls who have gone missing.
This stretch of highway that I was born on in the middle of nowhere is a stretch of road that runs from Rupert to Prince George. Indigenous girls and young women were going to missing along this stretch of highway, barely causing a ripple in the media until a young White woman went missing from the same stretch of road, and then her disappearance was all over the media while our young girls were ignored.
The whole community came out to search for Nicole; billboards were put up with her picture, posters were made and distributed, media interviews were conducted, yet Indigenous warrior women in the community were fighting to have pictures and billboards of their loved ones put up. They were met with resistance, disrespect, and a level of hatred. I walked this road for five days. It was dark and silent and heavy; I could feel the weight of the girls on me as I walked. I could hear their cries. It was one of the first times in a long time I realized just how alone I was I this world. And I wondered, yet again in my life, that if I went missing right here, right now from this road, would it matter?
In Vancouver, more than 50 women went missing from the city’s downtown eastside. Sixty (60) percent of these women and girls were Indigenous, and most were young. These are women living in extreme poverty. Some, if not all, struggled with drugs and alcohol, and many were victims of childhood sexual abuse. Every one of them grew up in foster homes.
In other words, their lives bore all the markings of the violence and victimization of colonization. There is a growing list of missing and murdered Indigenous women in B.C. The February 14th memorial march has over 550 names of women and girls on their memorial list. Many of these women lived what many would classify as that high-risk lifestyle, which is a polite way of saying the police, the state, and the community saw these women as disposable and not worthy, yet at no fault of their own. They were poor, homeless, struggled with addictions, maybe in sex work. Most importantly, they were brown women and girls so the state and the justice system could look the other way.
Too many of our women are currently left in highly dangerous and increasingly more dangerous situations. These reasons cannot be used to abandon our Indigenous women and girls to gender-based and often hate-fuelled violence anymore. The torment of waiting for answers by families is only deepened every time a White woman’s disappearance triggers a flurry of national media coverage and attention.
Grim statistics and anecdotal evidence compiled by the Canadian press suggests public apathy has allowed predators to target Indigenous women and girls with near impunity for as long as the colonial state has been in existence.
The record also points to the ugly truth behind the political and legal lethargy which is racism. The police departments and RCMP stand accused of ignoring the disappearances of our most valuable young Indigenous women and girls who go missing across
Canada in numbers so large, only to be forsaken by a jaded justice system and neglectful media. I know this to be true. From 9 to 24, I was reported as a missing child, youth, and adult 23 times. The police left me in unsafe conditions with adult men and on the streets to fend for myself. When I received my MCFD file a few years back-18 out of the 23 missing persons reports were still unclosed, so somewhere I’m still listed as missing. I’m not sure, in my opinion, if it was ever– if I was ever found by them or if it was easier for them to leave me unfound.
Battered Women’s Support Services receives 11,000 calls a year from self-identified women and girls, and I have come to learn that not only are the police responding inadequately to cases of male violence against women entirely, but their lack of effective response allows for the violence women experience to continue happening.
More recently, in Vancouver, Ottawa, and Montreal, we have been dealing with Martin Tremblay, a White man who targeted and recruited young Indigenous girls out of group homes, youth shelters, and the streets. He would look for young vulnerable Indigenous girls and offer them drugs and alcohol, a place to party, or a place to stay if they did not have one. He would load them into a car, drive them to a new house or location not close to transit, feed them drugs and alcohol. He would mix drugs in their drinks, making a noxious substance, and when they would pass out, he would sexually assault or rape them, while videotaping the attack.
In all, we know of 103 young Indigenous women attacked by this man and his comrades. He is currently in jail waiting for his dangerous offender hearing, but how many lives and how many young Indigenous girls had to be attacked by this White man before this happened? A hundred and three (103).
When Indigenous women’s lives are considered dispensable, then the likes of Gilbert Paul Jordan, Robert William Pickton, and Martin Tremblay, and many, many more men come out and attack without fear of any consequences and with impunity. Right now, there are hundreds if not thousands of Indigenous girls caught up in a racially-polarized world. What has and is happening to Indigenous women and girls in this country by the conscious act of the Canadian state is appalling.
It is no longer our crisis; it’s Canada’s crisis and Canada should be embarrassed because I no longer have the time to spend being embarrassed. It takes every minute of my energy to stay a proud Indigenous warrior fighting to stay alive in this world that insists on hating me. I am here to say that no Indigenous woman or girl is disposable. I am not disposable. No one in this room is disposable. My life matters along with the life of every single person in this room. I will not be silenced anymore and you cannot be silenced any more.
As Indigenous women, we are resilient. We are rising up. We are fighting back against the continued genocide of our women and girls. We will rise stronger. Our women and girls are the future and this genocide is for the purpose of ecocide and it needs to end, to clear the land and gain full access to the resources by any means necessary.
As we gather here today on occupied Indigenous territory, I invite you all to reflect back on all the conditions of colonization that affect our young Indigenous women in our lives today. I am calling on all the women in this room to stand and fight with me, to realize that none of us are free until all of us are free. This means that no White woman is free until all Indigenous women and girls are free to live a life without racism, violence, death, and the threat of our disappearance. Huy chexw.
I invoke the Mother and Sanat Kumara
and the Universal Law of Elimination
for bigotry, hatred, limitation, control
for all women on Gaia, Planet Earth.