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The heart has its own memory. In honour of the spirit of the people murdered in the Downtown Eastside, many were women and many were native Aboriginal women. Many of these cases remain unsolved.
ANNA MARIA TREMONTI: I am with Lorelei Williams and we are looking at a memorial stone.
LORELEI WILLIAMS: This is the memorial rock and this rock is for the missing and murdered women.
AMT: When you come down here, who do you remember?
LORELEI WILLIAMS: My cousin, Tanya Holyk, and my missing auntie, Belinda Williams.
AMT: Tell me about Tanya.
LORELEI WILLIAMS: Tanya went missing in 1996 and her DNA was later found on Robert Pickton’s farm. She was the oldest of all of us cousins that were hanging out so she would babysit us. I felt like she was our protector. I grew up with my aunt missing. And then all of a sudden, my cousin Tanya went missing in ’96, right, and you know violence was around my family too. And just violence is a part of my whole life.
AMT: Lorelei Williams confronts the violence around her now as an advocate for Indigenous women on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, as a liaison between police and Indigenous people, and as the creator of the dance troupe Butterflies and Spirit, that uses art to heal and inform.
LORELEI WILLIAMS: When I first started this was to get my missing aunt's picture out there but to honour my cousin. What I didn't realize was that other family members were going to join me to represent their loved ones. And with that, I didn't realize oh my god, we're coming together and we're healing together and raising awareness of this issue at the same time.
AMT: We're in Crab Park—a little oasis that looks onto the busy port of Vancouver—where the sound of the birds and trains and helicopters and traffic provides a background lull. Lorelei tells me that she speaks to everyone—from teams to police cadets to reporters—but all of that explaining and answering of questions comes with its own price.
LORELEI WILLIAMS: It's emotionally draining any time I speak anywhere. I was dealing with media back to back for three days you know telling my family’s story over and over and over again. And on the third day like after that, I went to bed and I woke up and my body was so sore. I just felt like I got hit by a bus or something. That was the most emotionally drained I’d ever been.
AMT: Lorelei Williams. We will hear from her a little later. The issues that she has raised there are part of what we'll be exploring right now. Hello, everyone.
AMT: We have taken The Current to Vancouver before a live audience as part of our ongoing work covering the issues around the stories of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. We want to explore the role and responsibility of the media—from journalism to art—and its impact on the families of the victims and the wider Canadian audience. So over the next 90 minutes, we will hear from journalists, filmmakers, artists and advocates and from some of you who have come here today. We are also here with our own virtual reality documentary, Highway of Tears, our focus on a place that's become emblematic of the violence that so many Indigenous women experience. I'm Anna Maria Tremonti in Vancouver and this is a special edition of The Current.
[Sound: Applause]Back To Top »
Family often feel 'used by media,' says Indigenous reporter of MMIW coverage
Guests: Sarah Hunt, Lori Culbert, Angela Sterritt
AMT: And just a reminder, you can view our virtual reality documentary, Highway of Tears, on our app or online. The instructions are on our website, www.cbc.ca/thecurrent. Please go ahead and tweet about this show using the hashtag, #TheCurrentMMIW. And now to begin, I want to introduce Gail Sparrow, the former chief of the Musqueam First Nation here in Vancouver. Gail Sparrow is here to give us her welcome.
GAIL SPARROW: I could say to everyone [speaking in Musqueam language]. Welcome to Traditional Territory, the Musqueam First Nations. So I say tonight, haichka. Thank you for asking us to be partaking in this and open up this event and know that we'll be there right with you walking with you and supporting you until we find what happened and we find the answer. And I believe the media could be a real asset. So [speaking in Musqueam language] for tonight and for honouring Musqueam and making us part of this. I say haichka to you. Haichka. Thank you.
AMT: Thank you. Thank you, Gail Sparrow. Well, we can't talk about these stories without talking about how they're presented to the public. What is the responsibility of the media? Where have we fallen down? Three guests who have been involved in the coverage of this story for years are with me. Angela Sterritt is a reporter with CBC Vancouver and CBC Indigenous. She's also writing a book on this topic. She is from the Gitxsan Nation in northwestern BC. Lori Culbert is a reporter with the Vancouver Sun and Province. She was one of the reporters who first investigated the disappearance of women from the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver in 2001. Those disappearances were later linked to serial killer Robert Pickton. She's also reported extensively and early on on the disappearances of women along the Highway of Tears. And Sarah Hunt is an associate professor in the department of First Nations and Indigenous studies at UBC and has been working on the issue of violence against Indigenous women and girls for 15 years. She is a member of the Kwagiulth First Nation. Hello and welcome to all of you. I want to start with you, Sarah Hunt. You were an advocate on the story before it was a story in the mainstream media. What was it like trying to draw attention to the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women?
SARAH HUNT: My interest in these issues really started when I was a teenager. A cousin of mine took her own life and after that, stories of kind of violence in our family started to unfold. Also when I was in Grade 10, a close family friend went missing in the Downtown Eastside and there was no response in terms of police attention, media attention. It was really a lot of women in the Downtown Eastside—many of whom are here today—family members advocating, really just speaking into a void. I think that's what stands out. For my close family friend, it was almost 10 years until the police even would classify her as missing. So if you don't count as missing, how can that become a story? How can that become seen in the public? That was in 1992. The other thing that stands out to me in terms of a media response is that there was interest in kind of the sensationalist story. So I'm thinking for example, of Judge Ramsay in Prince George who pled guilty for abusing four Indigenous girls who were 15 and under. A journalist actually came from Vancouver trying to find those girls at the house that they were in and they didn't want to talk to the media. But there was kind of this drive for the details for that violence that really raised a lot of ethical questions. On the one hand, this sort of lack of response but then on the other hand wanting to tell the gruesome details that we don't necessarily want to have out there. So for me, that's really kind of the duality that I think of from especially in the nineties when I started doing this work.
AMT: Lori Culbert, when did you and your colleagues start writing about missing and murdered Indigenous women?
LORI CULBERT: So I had a colleague, Lindsay Kines, who now works for the Victoria Times Colonist, but he was at the Vancouver Sun with me at the time, along with Kim Bolan who is still there. And it was really Lindsay initially who came to Kim and I and said the police have a very short list of women missing from the Downtown Eastside and he said I've got police sources who feel like they're hitting a brick wall at the Vancouver Police Department who believe that this list should be much, much larger. That the missing persons unit at the Vancouver Police Department is dysfunctional. That they're not properly investigating and he said like I think there's a role here for journalists to start looking into this and it was really life changing to be honest with you. We started looking into this. And one of my roles as part of this project was to reach out and try to find family members of the women that we believe should be part of this list and ultimately became part of a much larger list that grew—as many of you know—to almost 70 names. And I think the thing that I will never forget is contacting a lot of these family members and I would get them on the phone and explain who I was and why I was calling and in every single case, the family members would say to me we've reported our loved one missing five, six, seven years ago or a decade ago. You are the first person that's called me. It's very emotional.
AMT: And I want to ask you as well about dealing with families but I am also curious to know, what was the appetite for the stories you were doing?
LORI CULBERT: So from my own newsroom, we were very lucky. We had editors who were very supportive of this story and gave us the time and the resources to pursue it. But very much like Sarah said, I mean we wrote two week-long series that ran at the end of 2001—one in September, one in November—and it really fell into a void after that. There wasn't a lot of pickup by the other media. Today, I think that's different, definitely. But at the time, there wasn't a lot of response to the story until about four or five months later, Robert Pickton was arrested and then that changed everything.
AMT: But what about police and politicians? Nothing there either? No pick up?
LORI CULBERT: You know, so there was definitely. The police put—the provincial government put more resources into the police task force. I mean I think we felt that there was a little bit of movement there. But the mayor at the time had gone on record to say that these women were sex trade workers. They were transient. They must have just moved somewhere else. And we know. We talked to so many family members who said my loved one always phoned their daughter or their son on their birthday. They always picked up their methadone. They always picked up their welfare cheque. They always phoned their mother on Christmas Day. There was something that the family members knew was wrong. You know there was a pattern that had been broken. And honestly, I would say until they arrested Pickton, there wasn’t enough people listening.
AMT: Angela Sterritt, what kind of reaction did you get when you first started pitching stories about missing and murdered Indigenous women?
ANGELA STERRITT: I mean I would say that there was definitely pushback from editors. There were comments like oh, we've already done that story. You know there was pushback from editors but there was also pushback from the public at that time, that there wasn't people who were interested other than the family members who'd been pushing this story for decades.
AMT: So Sarah, when these stories of missing women finally did come forward, what did you notice that bothered you?
SARAH HUNT: Well, as people are talking, I'm just thinking about how truths get produced and the role of the media in doing that. So even the statistics of the list of missing women, the list that the community has created were much, much, much bigger than that. So I mean for myself, when I was—I volunteered at a couple of marches in about ’96-7, and there was a name—Sheila Hunt—that I saw on a banner. And I can find it online in one place. And I still don't know. Am I related to her? What's her story? She hasn't come to count in the ways that the stories have been told because she's not on the official list. You know we're talking about these kinds of first stories in the media, some of which just kind of came and went and that still happens. I'm thinking of a young woman who's 19. She was found in the waters—she was from Penelakut—in 2015. And we've just never heard anything about it again. And for me, she's neighbouring to my community so I'm kind of paying attention to these things. So yeah. Definitely there have been changes and I think we've seen for those early stories some interest and response, but it was that sensationalist story of Pickton, when it really became about missing and murdered women. I think that's the moment we can see the kind of national interest starting, which tells us something, that all those other stories—what happened to those stories? You know why didn't those women's lives count until it was this kind of critical mass?
AMT: Angela, we talked about families. How do you deal with the fact that even interviewing families about what happened to their loved ones or what they know can sometimes be re-traumatizing?
ANGELA STERRITT: Absolutely and I think that's—I mean part of this is knowing that as a journalist speaking to family members, having that knowledge that you're potentially you know ripping off a scab, re-traumatizing family members. And I think part of this too has to do with the trust, has to do with acknowledging that as media we are an institution and over time, there's been a significant loss of trust in us for things like not reporting, for underreporting these stories and also for the ways that the media has reported these stories, you know? Leaving out significant details about the family—I had somebody message me the other day and say how come the media isn't reporting that we love our sister? They're just reporting that she's missing. And you know there's nothing about who she is or what her hobbies are or what kind of a person she is or where she's from. It's just missing Aboriginal woman and then you know deficits and the type of reporting and you know for me, it's really important for example, to do follow up with family members. Oftentimes family members just feel like they've been used by the media in doing things like reporting—being gratuitous with the details, giving gory details or just you know the woman is just dead. There is no before. There's no details about her childhood. And we see very different pictures between how Indigenous people, Indigenous women are reported and non-Indigenous women and that's still a reality today.
AMT: In terms of both how their families are treated or asked questions about them and in terms of where it gets placed in sort of the lineup?
ANGELA STERRITT: I think just our reporting on Indigenous, missing and murdered Indigenous women and non-Indigenous missing and murdered women, I think there's a large gap in how we report those stories and there's still a lot of stereotyping. And I think that's the biggest problem with this, is that there are still stereotypes about you know she's a runaway or she comes from a dysfunctional family or you know putting things front and centre like she's a sex trade worker, and not getting into the human factors of her life. And I do still see a significant discrepancy in the way that we report you know non-Indigenous and Indigenous women.
AMT: Lori Culbert is a non-Indigenous reporter. How do you navigate contacting and finding out information and speaking to the families of Indigenous women?
LORI CULBERT: I mean I was so naive 15 years ago when I started this. I had no experience and you know I'd like to think that I've learned some things along the way. A lot of it is—and I still have so much to learn—but a lot of it is understanding the culture of it better, understanding the history of residential schools, understanding respect and compassion. My friend Bernie Williams is here. She's in the front row. She travelled with me when I did the Highway of Tears series. There are ways I think for non-Indigenous reporters to tell this story in a respectful way but we've got to work even harder to do that because Angela talks about the trust. No one needs to trust me. You know but you have to earn that. And I think if you try to do respectful, compassionate, honest reporting, hopefully along the way, over a period of time, you gain that trust.
AMT: So what do you do today that you might not have known to do 15 years ago?
LORI CULBERT: I think I approach people on a slower and more compassionate way. When Lindsay and Kim and I were working on this series in 2001, we had no idea what we were really on the cusp of writing about. We had no idea for sure that there was a serial killer in the Downtown Eastside. We were working on this nine months before anyone had ever heard the name Robert Pickton. So we were wanting to reach out to families and we were wanting to find out where these loved ones were but we didn't truly know. And in hindsight, you know we were scrambling and writing stories and trying to get things out there because we felt that it was important to get the word out that these women were missing. I think today, I slow down a little bit more and I think about the end result because although I truly believe the three of us were as compassionate as we could be, you can imagine for some of these families, no one talked to them for a decade and then suddenly the Vancouver Sun was writing daily about you know the list is getting longer and we think these women should be on the list and the police aren't doing enough and they went from a void of coverage to this overwhelming amount of coverage.
ANGELA STERRITT: I think the fact about slowing down, it sounds like a minute detail but for me, that's been a huge learning curve. And that pace saying come on, you got to get on you know live television or you got to do this for me, this for me, it's really jarring for family members and that’s something that I had to kind of get schooled about is that you need to slow down. You need to give family members the time to tell their story in the time period that they want to. And the other thing that you kind of touched on was talking about—and that kind of goes in with the slowing down thing—taking the time to understand just how complex these stories are. It's not just about a serial killer. It's not just about racism. It's not just about the police you know being accountable or not. It's not just about the media. These are multi-faceted, complex, multi-dimensional stories about multi-dimensional people. These stories you know encompass residential school, the foster care system, the Indian Act, racism in Canada, institutionalized violence. There's many different things that the story is about and I think that's something that we as journalists need to learn and not be afraid to tackle.
LORI CULBERT: When Lindsay, Kim and I started looking into this in 2001, every single police press release—if there was one—about a missing woman described her as a drug addicted sex trade worker, right? And that's what we had to go on. That was the initial description almost every single time and I think as a proper journalist, you try to dig a whole lot deeper than that initial description.
AMT: Sarah Hunt, what are you thinking?
SARAH HUNT: I think to me what's really concerning is that especially for women who are living in poverty, who are in rural communities, who are kind of out of sight, out of mind for most Canadians, that we still only come to count now in this discourse once we have gone missing. I think the larger question of representation of Indigenous lives, this is one part of it but it's about the full complexity of seeing ourselves represented in the media as leaders, as cultural producers, as you know we have Indigenous reporters, we have filmmakers. We're going to, I know, talk about that later. The more we see of that and the more we cannot just reduce Indigenous women to this victim. You know it's often a very singular narrative still.
AMT: That's something we can pick up with our next panel. Thank you, all of you, for what you've had to say here today. Angela Sterritt is a reporter with CBC Vancouver and CBC Indigenous. Lori Culbert is a reporter with the Vancouver Sun and Province. Sarah Hunt, an assistant professor in the department of First Nations and Indigenous Studies at UBC. Thank you very much. Now a reminder to those of you tweeting about this public forum to use the hashtag #TheCurrentMMIW. If you want to watch our virtual reality documentary, Highway of Tears, go to our website, www.cbc.ca/thecurrent. Go to our website to see photos of this public forum as well. Coming up, we're going to talk to a filmmaker, an actor and a hip hop artist about how their art is used to communicate the stories of missing and murdered Indigenous women. And in our last half hour, we will be taking questions and comments from our audience. I'm Anna Maria Tremonti. This is a special edition of The Current on CBC Radio One from Vancouver.
AMT: We'll return to our recording of the public forum after the news. But just a note at one p.m. Eastern today, 10 a.m. Pacific, I'm hosting a live web chat with Sarah Hunt, who you just heard. Go to our website, www.cbc.ca/thecurrent to join our conversation. We're talking about how the story of missing and murdered Indigenous women has been told.
[Music: Sting]Back To Top »
'I know my duty': Indigenous artists take on responsibility confronting MMIW issues
Guests: Lisa Jackson, Elle-Maija Tailfeathers, Jerilynn Webster
AMT: Hello. I'm Anna Maria Tremonti in Vancouver and this is a special edition of The Current.
AMT: This is the third in a series of forums that we are holding on the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Today we're focusing on how the story of MMIW has been told and is being told by both journalists and the arts community. If you're tweeting about this event, please use the hashtag #TheCurrentMMIW. Still to come, we will be taking questions from our audience here at the CBC studios in Vancouver. But first—
They're not just a statistic. They’re people. They're little girls. When they're growing up, they were bubbly and everything. They had plans to go somewhere, to do something. They figured the world would never hurt them in any way.
AMT: That is the voice of Matilda Wilson from our virtual reality documentary, the Highway of Tears. The documentary was directed by Anishinaabe filmmaker Lisa Jackson. She joins me on stage along with two other Indigenous artists who have also produced pieces that explore issues around missing and murdered Indigenous women. Elle-Maija Tailfeathers is a filmmaker and actor. She is Blackfoot from the Blood reserve in Southern Alberta and Sami from Norway. And Jerilynn Webster is a hip hop artist also known as JB The First Lady. She is Nuxalk and Onondaga. Hello and welcome to all of you. Lisa Jackson, I want to start with you and I want to ask about the virtual reality documentary. It features Matilda Wilson who we just heard, who tells the story of her daughter Ramona who was murdered along the Highway of Tears. What is achieved by telling this story in virtual reality?
LISAS JACKSON: One of the things I find most powerful about the way the piece came out—and it is a new field for me so I'm sort of discovering it as I go—was that there is space. And actually for me personally as a filmmaker, working with a lot of traumatic issues, I think that one of the antidotes to media coverage—which can be salacious, detail-oriented, re-traumatizing, not complete—is to actually put, the way I look at it, is putting viewers in a space where they have to reflect and it's uncomfortable and they have to be in a space with a truth that isn't put forward in a conclusive way. And because a lot of these things are complicated and inconclusive so the space that you get to sort of contemplate within a virtual reality space, I think is very good. And I think that if someone watches or experiences a piece and they have that space—not just because you're looking around at a huge landscape or you're looking around someone's home that they're in—but also that there's actually a physical space between the words such as there would be in a real conversation with someone. Those kind of gaps are where you get to insert yourself and you have to make choices and kind of self-reflect on the way you're reacting to it. And I think that's really important. We need not to be fed the stories and how to take them but to actually put ourselves inside them and as filmmakers, I think that's what we can do, is we can kind of make people look at their own assumptions.
AMT: It's interesting. More than one person has told me after they watched our virtual reality documentary that that's exactly it. They feel they're in the room with Matilda and that is both freeing and discomforting but it is like you're not there with her. The person watching is there with her, in a way that it's not the same as if she's up on the wall on a screen.
LISA JACKSON: You're sort of implicated and I think that's a good way to put it because in some ways you can feel voyeuristic and that's one thing that’s been—it’s a critique that's been put forward about virtual reality. You’re just sort of in a space. You really do feel like you're in a space with people. But I like to think of it as being implicated and that sort of brings us into the picture with the person.
AMT: Jerilynn Webster, you wrote a song called “Sisterz” that you perform with your group, Enter-Tribal. What's it about?
JERILYNN WEBSTER: It's about—well, first of all, I just want to acknowledge the family members and the advocates who have been working for 30 years plus and they're here. And I want to acknowledge them and say that you inspire me and you take care of our community and your voices are very strong and I'm so glad that we have you. So give it up for the family members and the advocates.
JERILYNN WEBSTER: They really inspired this song. Me as an artist, I look at like other artists who have come before me like Nina Simone. And she said that it's our duty as artists—like all different artists, not just music makers—to capture our environment. And when we created it, I waited 15 years since I went to my first march on February 14th. As a teenager, I said I want to capture this and tell this story in a way that's honouring, uplifting, bringing awareness about that power of family and good relations. And in the song, it's talking about a sister. And when you think of your family member or you could imagine that it's your own sister, it connects you right away. It's not connecting you to like from the first panel where the media has talked about drug addict, homeless, runaway. It's connecting you in a way where you're thinking about it as your own family member. This is the history of our people and this time is capturing that oral history about missing and murdered Indigenous women because I don't want my grandchildren to be advocating for that. So I want to capture this moment.
AMT: Well, we are going to have you perform the song closer to the end of the show. I want us to hear a little bit of it right now though just to get a sense of it. We’ll just listen for a moment.
[Music: “Sisterz” – Enter-Tribal]
AMT: Jerilynn, you said you waited 15 years. Tell me more about that wait. Tell me more about why you needed to be ready.
JERILYNN WEBSTER: As an artist, I didn't want to like capitalize off of a current issue. Right after I wrote the words and recorded it, I actually broke down into tears. And we actually—it was like a spiritual experience when we made it. We could feel the energies come into the room and our studio on West Pender and so it's in the Downtown East Side. When my cousin, Chief Rock, he was writing it, it just flew out of us you know, and he's like I'm not even writing this. It's happening. For me, we just really wanted it to be authentic. We just really wanted to be honouring and bringing that humanity to our people and talking about family and making it that sister. And going to like a lot of rallies as a young person, you hear the stories and I was very inspired by looking at the sister aspect, hearing family members that are even in the room speak and how they bring power to their voice and how strong it is because it's a sense of urgency. There's an urgency. The time is now. I need to go and find her. And I wanted to really bring that to music. I really wanted to bring that to hip hop. I really wanted to bring that power of our women into the song.
AMT: Elle-Maija Tailfeathers, you've been involved in a few different works about violence against Indigenous women. But tell us about the short film you made.
ELLE-MAIJA TAILFEATHERS: I made A Red Girl’s Reasoning about four years ago. It's an action thriller about this young Indigenous woman who experiences sexual assault and she's let down by the justice system so she decides to take justice into her own hands and becomes this motorcycle riding vigilante. And she sets up an underground network for women who've experienced the same thing. And for me, it was, I guess it was an act of catharsis as an Indigenous woman, as someone who has survived rape, sexual assault. I needed something. I need to create something that made me feel empowered rather than victimized.
AMT: You wanted to create a different image on film too of how Indigenous women are seen, huh?
ELLE-MAIJA TAILFEATHERS: Mhm. Indigenous women, Indigenous people in general have been misrepresented in film, literature, popular media for centuries. And there's this sort of common, a lot of common tropes but particularly these victim narratives of Indigenous women we see in film or the sexy squaw. And I wanted to counter that narrative to show an Indigenous woman who is empowered, who's not hyper sexualized, who's not on the margins, who's not some sort of peripheral character but someone who is in control of her own fate. I think about the audience in everything I make and I wanted to make something that would make other Indigenous women feel empowered rather than being re-traumatized by watching something like that.
AMT: What was the reaction?
ELLE-MAIJA TAILFEATHERS: I got the reaction I wanted, which is women generally seemed to really gravitate towards the film and there's kind of a universal sentiment of empowerment with that film.
AMT: Lisa, you have a short film, a performance piece called Snare and we have a still photo of that work that is here on our monitors next to me on each side. Listeners can go to our www.cbc.ca/thecurrent to see it. Tell us about that film.
LISA JACKSON: There is a project at imagineNATIVE Film Festival in Toronto and it was called the Stolen Sisters Digital Initiative. So they put out a call for films that could address the issue of violence against Indigenous women and they asked me if I had any ideas. And I said no and then I hung up the phone and the film sort of basically came to me all at once, probably in like two minutes. It's a very simple film. And it's without any words. And so I think it's an example of kind of the things that you can do when you get outside into the art world and what it is is there are women and they're walking in dirt and you really just see feet moving around. And there's a soundtrack that sort of has natural sounds but it also feels kind of eerie and dangerous and the pace increases and there's sort of a heartbeat that increases. And then at one point, these number of women step simultaneously onto a hunter’s snare and they are simultaneously in a heartbeat sort of whipped up and they hang upside down frozen in time. And I'll pause there and I'll just say that for me, there was a sense that when you look at an issue like MMIW, there's descriptions and as has been spoken about in this program, there's a lot of details. But do the details capture what actually happened? And so the idea of the violence, the visceral violence that's occurring to people was something that I wanted to convey in a way that would take your breath away and you would feel it in your body. So the women hang and it sounds macabre and it is but it's also very beautiful. And they're wearing white dresses and so it's fairly elemental. And then at one point, it starts to rain but instead of water, it's feather down. So down begins to rain down and the women are lowered and then we see them and for the first time, we actually see their faces. So throughout the film, what you've seen is body parts and feet and shoulders and things like this. And then you've seen them hung up sort of like objects. But then you see one after another, each woman's face very closely and they're looking straight at you into the camera. So it really gives them their humanity back and they stand in a circle. So you know the idea was a sort of sense that there was community. There's a lot of ways to read this. But the sense that I wanted to give that humanity back and also have people feel on an individual sense what was happening and not turn it into a statistic. And finally the film ends with a young woman, Akina Shirt, who sings O Canada in Cree. It’s a very powerful performance of it. And that was a little bit my political stance about these are Canadians. Here's a beautiful Cree woman who is singing O Canada in Cree. And where's the justice for these Canadians? And that’s Snare, but I think it speaks to what we can do when we get away from words sometimes or get away from the statistics. And that's my goal is to generally get people to feel what it is so that they care, so that there's action.
AMT: Do you as Indigenous artists feel an obligation to confront and do some of your work on the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women? Tell me a little bit about how does that fit in your other work? Elle-Maija?
ELLE-MAIJA TAILFEATHERS: Oh wow. I don't know if it's so much an obligation as just sort of a reflection of the reality we all face as Indigenous women and as Canadians. But there's this challenge of being an Indigenous artist and always having to I guess respond to colonialism, having to respond to trauma, having to respond to deficits. And I personally, as I grow as an artist, I feel that I have a huge responsibility to focus on the positive, to focus on the resilience, on the strength and the resistance and the resurgence because ultimately it is about the relationship I have with my audience. And I often consider Indigenous youth and I consider my community first before any other audience members. I really want for Indigenous youth and for members of my community to look back at what I create and feel empowered by it or at least not feel like they're being portrayed as the same sort of ugly narratives that we've seen over and over and over again.
AMT: And as you do that, are there times when you don't want to talk about it? Are there times when you just want to do your part and let it speak for itself? Talk to me about that intersection of how what you do also is part of a wider conversation.
ELLE-MAIJA TAILFEATHERS: There's sort of this emotional labour and mental labour that's asked of artists, of Indigenous women to talk about this issue, to educate others and there's a certain emotional burden to it because it is labour. And I've been asked to talk about this issue so many times and it feels like we're listening to a broken record in a lot of ways, just hearing my voice over and over and over again talking about the same issue. And I can only imagine what it's like for family members who've been talking about this issue for decades now. So it really sort of begs the question of are things actually going to change, you know? And how much of this, this burden of responsibility of educating, of talking about it do our people have to bear before Canadians are going to get it? Before things are actually going to change?
AMT: Jerilynn, how do you think about that? The sort of the political message that's always underlying this? Do you feel a burden sometimes? Do you feel a weight or extra responsibility?
JERILYNN WEBSTER: No. I'm ready to like yell on the mountain tops and like protect our women and our children. And like I'm ready to go. Like I will bring the people together and I will put my fist in the air. Everything I do—waking up is supposed to be political. Me talking on this microphone is political, you know. And like for me, I'm not supposed to be here. You know? Like in my home territory of Nuxalk people, before smallpox came to our community, we had 30,000 people. Nuxalk people. In one month when smallpox came, we went to 300. So you know I'm a descendant of 300. I'm not supposed to be here. So every time I wake up, every time I have good relations with my sister, with my mother, with my son and with my community and teach cedar weaving, teach poetry, teach all of those things that I know and practice my culture as much as I can on a daily basis, that's what revitalizes me to be able to be you know ready and willing to work for the people. Because I know my role and I know my duty here as an Indigenous empowered woman, right?
JERILYNN WEBSTER: And I give props to, like I said, to a lot of the family members that are in the room and the advocates who have been advocating for so many years. The elders that I see in the room makes me so proud. You know? And I'm not afraid to use my voice or that platform or music because you know what? Especially in hip hop, there's not many women and we're only getting half of the story and that's what Shad said. He used to be on the q?
JERILYNN WEBSTER: That's my bro. He said you know we're only getting half of the story in hip hop and we need more women in rap to tell the story. So I am here to do that.
AMT: Lisa, what are your thoughts on this?
LISA JACKSON: Oh, I agree with both of these two. I’m sort of a little of both. I actually do relate to both. So on the one hand, I feel like I think when you're born into an Indigenous life and for me, it's on my mother's side. And you know she went to residential schools. She has a lot of these similar stories. Like anyone, that's your family, you know, and an extended sense, everything that's happening, whether or not I'm directly connected with it, I feel a responsibility to do something. So in a way it's hard to imagine like oh boy, I'm tired of this you know Indigenous filmmaking thing. I think I'll just, maybe I'll get a marketing job or something. You know? It’s probably not going to happen. It's just such a driving force. And I think that you see that. And on the one hand, it's a big responsibility and it does take a toll. I think there's a number of years where I went along and you're just a tool for it. And then at some point, there is fatigue and there's a sense of like wow, we're seeing one side of the story. On the other hand, I also think about the fact that what we do see in the media about Indigenous people is a certain side of the story and there are many issues and that is what I mostly focus on, is things that can be improved, things that aren’t right. So it's not something that's a real burden. It does take a toll and I think I've always felt just from a young age that I would do something to contribute however you can. And when it comes to an issue like this, it's daunting and you sometimes feel like how can—I have friends who work in film and they sort of do, I don't know rom coms or something like that. And when they look at what I do, they say well, how can you—that's such a responsibility. What if you get it wrong? And I'm like well, what if I do nothing? You know? That would be worse. So you just have to do what you can.
ELLE-MAIJA TAILFEATHERS: Can I just?
AMT: Yeah, go ahead.
ELLE-MAIJA TAILFEATHERS: I don't feel burdened by being you know an indigenous artist. I just, I do feel burdened by occasionally or you know about specific issues. It does become an emotional burden. But I do feel so incredibly privileged to be able to create the work I create and to work with the beautiful community of Indigenous artists and women that I work with. So I just want to clarify.
AMT: No. I did understand that but you know the other thing is we talk about just in doing the work and with your own family backgrounds to do this work, there is a toll that you pay because you get so deep into what you're doing and you put your emotion into it. It's not solely your creativity, it's your emotion, right? It's your very soul that goes into your work. That takes its own toll, I'm guessing.
LISA JACKSON: It struck me listening to the media panel and I was just reflecting that there is an institution which is a blessing and a curse, right? So you operate within the institution of journalism and there are rules and ways that that happens. And so there's [unintelligible], you know you're not going to go over here. You know that this is the way that we tell a journalistic story and the balance—and I'm not a journalist—but you know all these things. Well, we are not restricted by that but that also means that we have the entire playing field of anything we might want to do. So that's really incredible. But it does mean that a lot of times you're kind of, you hope the inspiration or something meaningful comes to you. I think sometimes I wish there was like a rule book of how you put together something that works. You know it's not like you come and sit down at your desk and you know the assistant comes. You really are kind of going by your own soul’s kind of compass but that also can be a really beautiful thing. But I think it's not for the faint of heart. And I will just say that Maija’s been one of our most profound and powerful outspoken artists in the field and she hasn't been here very long. And so there is no doubt in my mind why she might be feeling a little tired at this time.
AMT: Well, thank you all three of you for your creativity and your work and I know there's more creativity waiting. So thank you so much. I've been speaking with Lisa Jackson, Anishinaabe film maker who directed our virtual reality documentary, Highway of Tears, for The Current. Elle-Maija Tailfeathers is a filmmaker and actor. Jerilynn Webster is a hip hop artist also known as JB The First Lady. Stick around because she will be performing for us later with Butterflies and Spirit. Go ahead and applaud for her. All of them.
AMT: All three of you. Coming up next, we will be taking questions from our audience. A reminder if you're tweeting about this public forum, use the hashtag #TheCurrentMMIW. If you want to watch our virtual reality documentary, Highway of Tears, go to our website, www.cbc.ca/thecurrent. On our website you can also see photos of this public forum. Check out our Facebook page for more information about our project. I'm Anna Maria Tremonti in Vancouver. This is a special edition of The Current.Back To Top »
'Culture is so much a part of healing': MMIW public forum audience share stories
Guests: Lorelei Williams, Lillian Howard
AMT: Hello. I'm Anna Maria Tremonti and this is a special edition of The Current from Vancouver.
AMT: This is the third in a series of forums that we are recording across the country about missing and murdered Indigenous women. And today we have been talking about how the story has been told through journalism and the arts. And speaking of the media, if you are tweeting about this program use the hashtag #TheCurrentMMIW. And you can head to our website, www.cbc.ca/thecurrent, to learn more about our guests and our virtual reality documentary on the Highway of Tears. In this half hour, we want to hear from our audience. The studio here is full of people who have opinions and who are really interested in this issue here in Vancouver. We want to hear what you think of the discussion today. What has been lost in how the media covers this issue? What more would you like to see done? Do you think arts and culture are a better way to get the message across and start the healing? If you'd like to say something, please look for our two producers who are in the audience with the microphones. Go ahead. Do you want to give us your name please?
MARLENE JACK: Hi. My name is Marlene Jack. I'm here on behalf of my sister, Doreen Jack. She is the missing Jack family out of Prince George. They went missing August 20, 1989 and officially reported missing September 1st with the RCMP. My sister, her two sons—nine and five—and her common-law husband Ronnie Jack.
AMT: The entire family.
MARLENE JACK: The entire family. And they're still missing. My sister's case is on the back burner. She was in residential school also. She is a good woman. She looked after her family. She cared about everybody and she was always happy. She always found ways to make you laugh on a bad situation. The way the officers described her to me was not my sister. This is what they were doing was telling me my sister was an alcoholic and she was not a contributing member to society. This is what they told me. They don't know my sister the way I did.
AMT: What about the media coverage of their disappearance? Was there any?
MARLENE JACK: No. No. There was one false report saying—I think it was four months after they disappeared—they said that they were located and safe and the investigation was called off. Still there is no coverage. Like the Highway of Tears, I've asked numerous times—the Highway of Tears—can we put my sister in with this investigation and try and keep her in the public so we can get tips on what happened to my family? I had one lady tell me from the Highway of Tears saying oh no, we can't put your family on there because they don't fit the criteria of the Highway of Tears. This is what I was told in the beginning when I was trying to get my sister's story out, trying to get her information out there so people can phone in. There's got to be somebody that knows something. There's no need to be afraid to speak up and help bring closure with our families of our missing and murdered Indigenous women. You got to stop being scared. Come up and speak and let us know and help us bring closure in our healing with all of us family members of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada.
AMT: Thank you very much for sharing your story with us. I'm very sorry for what you've gone through.
KAREN JOSEPH: Hi, my name is Karen Joseph. I'm actually the niece of Janet Henry and my family's been involved in this, particularly my aunts, for quite some time and we're sort of the next generation picking it up because of the length of time that it's been going on for. And I'm wondering if there's an opportunity for you and perhaps for The Current to engage the broader Canadian community in this discussion because this really is not an Indigenous issue. It is a Canadian issue and it's part of how Canadians view Indigenous people in general and Indigenous women in particular. And so I think there's an opportunity within this process to include those voices because no matter what, as many times as we as Indigenous people stand up and share our stories, it's not going to be relevant to the Canadian public until Canadians start standing up and sharing their perspectives on this and start engaging with us together in creating a movement where all of our women are going to be safe across this country and all of our children are going to be safe across this country, regardless of where they come from. So I really hope that there might be an opportunity moving forward to engage other people in this really, really important conversation.
AMT: Thank you for that. Thank you very much.
FAY BLANEY: Hello. My name is Fay Blaney. I'm with the Aboriginal Women's Action Network and I think I'm going to differ a bit with what Karen Joseph has just said. I actually think that this is an issue of male violence against Indigenous women and other women. It's a very seductive narrative that's out there right now about colonization, especially with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that's happened. The federal government started this entire process with a families first agenda. That was the narrative that moved forward and it seems like we're stuck on that. And I think that it's nice to look at colonization. It's critical to look at colonization. You know I do come from a reserve. But I think what's even more important than that is to look at the gendered violence. It isn't an issue of only Indigenous men perpetrating this violence against Indigenous women. But on the other hand, I'm a survivor of that. I was 13 years old and running away from my community. My mother was 23 years old and running away from my community because of male violence. On my reserve, there have been Indigenous women that have been murdered. The cops couldn't care less. Today in Canadian society, there is very little attention being paid to male violence against any woman, much less Indigenous women and unfortunately, we’re impacted by both colonization and gender violence. And all of these issues point to the fact that Indigenous women are marginalized. Yes, we have settler Canada but more importantly we have male Canada. It’s open season for women.
AMT: I want to pick up on that and get some comments from Sarah Hunt on this. Go ahead.
SARAH HUNT: I think that it's important to, I mean from my perspective to see this as interconnected, that colonization brought this kind of violence which is you know instituted through—we can look to the Indian Act and all kinds of things that will put men in positions of control. And I absolutely think Fay’s right in talking about the fact that we can't make this just about race. It is also about patriarchy. It is also about how those work together and I think it's also really important to talk about the fact that the violence that happened in the Downtown Eastside for so many years, it wasn't just Indigenous women. So it wasn't just simply a race issue, that it was an issue of male violence. And I think that recognizing the fact that it got ignored for so long was because of male violence against women is so commonplace in our communities. So yeah. I absolutely agree.
AMT: Okay. Go ahead. Do you want to give us your name please?
VANESSA WEBSTER: I'm Vanessa Webster. I just really feel like that I want to call out on—right now I feel like we need to talk about where are the men in this situation? Where are the Indigenous men my age talking about this? And I really challenge people. I really challenge men my age that are Indigenous to come out and talk about these issues because I don't hear it. Because I get to meet all these amazing women right now. I get to sit beside them and there is a few, Sino General, which is right there. So I'm not saying not everyone but the percentage, right?
AMT: Thank you. I appreciate what you're saying.
GRAHAM: Hi there. My name's Graham. I am an ______ worker with an organization and I work in schools. And a lot of the kids that I work with happen to be First Nations because of the area that we live in. And my question is kind of for the panel. Where is our centralized message and how do—as a man from a settler culture—how do I bring this up with the kids that I'm working with?
AMT: Elle-Maija, go ahead.
ELLE-MAIJA TAILFEATHER: I've had the pleasure of working with and the privilege of working with a lot of Indigenous youth here in the city and back home in my community. And if there's anything that I can say about Indigenous youth, is that they are so bright and so strong and they know about these things already. I mean like JB was saying and like so many others have been saying, if you're born Indigenous in Canada, you're inherently born politicized. You're born with this reality. So I don't think it's so much of how you bring it up with Indigenous youth. It's a matter of owning that responsibility of making space for that conversation in the classrooms and in the spaces you're working with and also listening to the youth. I mean I've learned so much from Indigenous youth. They have so much to teach us. So it's more about a relationship of reciprocity and learning from the youth and hearing what they have to say and listening to their experiences.
AMT: Thank you very much. Go ahead.
BERNIE WILLIAMS: I just want to say hello to you, Anna. My name is Gul Kitt Jaad, which means Golden Spruce Woman. I'm from Haida Gwaii. My colonial name is Bernie Williams. I just want to share about some really amazing women here that are always forgotten are the frontline workers that we still do the work. We're still in those trenches yet. I've got a family members you know who were murdered. I have three sisters. We all have our stories but nobody comes to us and yet we're the ones that are mopping up the blood in the Downtown Eastside. I live half a block right from Skid Row. This is all about a ladder of violence too and about our leadership. Nobody wants to hold—our leadership is accountable for anything because the sexual abuse is so rampant. When we talk to our women in the alleys and that, that's the first thing they talk about. We don't want to go home. I would love to see those chiefs you know sitting up here. I would like to have one community meeting if CBC hosts us and let us ask them questions. Why are our women—is why are they leaving?
AMT: You are telling me that journalistically, our search for accountability needs to run a lot deeper. Thank you. One more. Tell us your name.
DAISY KLER: Hi. My name's Daisy Kler. I'm a frontline worker. I work in a transition house for battered women and their kids and in a rape crisis centre as well. I actually would like to kind of hold the media a little bit more accountable for some of the ways in which the problem gets defined because how you define the problem defines the solutions that you come up with. The issue of prostitution was a huge debate when William Robert Pickton was killing women and murdering them and picking them up from the Downtown Eastside. And there was a very big lobby to legalize prostitution as if that would create safety for women. And we had a lot of women saying prostitution is in the spectrum of male violence against women, just as incest is, just as wife assault—which are all key issues when we talk about murdered and missing women. And I think the media completely failed in taking on the issue of prostitution from more than one angle. I also think that when we are talking about what the problems are, I agree with Fay that there is very little discussion about the men and also holding men to some account. And I'm talking about individual men—fathers, brothers—women who are leaving their reserve because they're leaving male violence or trying to escape it. They get into the cities and they experience it here and also forced into prostitution. But there's also systems of power in terms of policing, the criminal justice system, and we need to name those men too. And I don't see that happening within the media. So I'd encourage that. I have much more hope for the artists. Thanks very much.
AMT: Thank you very much. Before we finish, I'd like to bring two other people into our conversation. Lorelei Williams is back with us. We heard from her at the top of the show. Her cousin, Tanya Holyk’s DNA was found on the Pickton farm. Her and Belinda Williams has been missing for 40 years. Lorelei began Butterflies in Spirit, a dance group to raise awareness about MMIW. They will perform for us in just a moment. Lillian Howard is also part of that group. Her two aunts were murdered in 1979 just outside of Gold River on Vancouver Island. Lorelei, we've been hearing from both artists and journalists about the considerations they make when telling the stories of families of victims. What have you been thinking as you've listened to people tonight?
LORELEI WILLIAMS: It's really hard. It's really hard to hear the family, like other family stories. It's draining. It's just really hard.
AMT: Lillian, I'm wondering how tough it is for you to speak about the family members you lost.
LILLIAN HOWARD: Initially it was very difficult. My aunts were murdered. They were hitchhiking home. They weren't hookers or prostitutes or drug addicts or alcoholics. They were beautiful young women in their late teens and early twenties. There's no transportation at that time, bus service, so they hitchhiked home. They didn't make it home. And it wasn't until I saw working at the Vancouver Community Policing Centre when Lorelei was working on the issue of missing and murdered women and girls. And I said oh my gosh, my family member. And so I ended up getting involved in working on the issue with Lorelei and the team and I started realizing that I hadn't begun that healing journey accepting the fact that my two aunts were murdered, accepting the fact that I had a transgender cousin who was last seen at [unintelligible] farm. So it's like a huge learning curve for me. And I thought how did these women do it, who have been working on this issue for 25 years or more? And then you do this and it’s just really raw. And my eyes just really opened up on the issue. The last few years have just been a huge healing journey learning curve for me on the issue. It's so complex. It is so incredibly complex. Right now I'm deeply immersed into working on violence against women issues wherever I can and on the subject of missing and murdered women. How am I doing that? By sharing my story at the Vancouver Police Department when I worked with the organization, by being involved in the reconciliation dialogues which is really a fantastic tool for bringing people together to speak about the truths of the history of what happened to our people.
AMT: You are also involved in Butterflies in Spirit, which is a very different way for you to do it. How has that helped you?
LILLIAN HOWARD: I have to say that was a major part of healing for me. There's this one scene at Crab Park and there was the coffin there. They had a carved coffin that was loaned to us and the team put some butterflies in the coffin. And the idea was to let our sisters go. And so I was just shaky. And so they did that. And when I saw the butterflies fly away, these are my two aunts who were murdered. They were younger than me. In ’79, I was 27 and they were 19 and 21 or about that age. And then I saw these two butterflies. [Breaking up] I said Christina, Helena. I said bye. That was a turning point for me because I finally let them go.
AMT: Those butterflies that were part of the dance.
LILLIAN HOWARD: Yeah. So that was a turning point for me in terms of my own really deep anguishing pain about the loss of loved ones. And then I started dancing with Butterflies around that time so it's been an ongoing healing journey and I have to say to the people in the arts, culture is so much a part of healing. Arts, expression through art, you know, because you can express your anger through art. You know it's really difficult to do in media and expressing your anger and you come off like this crazy angry Indian. [laughs] And so Butterflies really helped free that artistic side. I'm an artist at heart. And so I was just kind of like the butterfly, I was able to just you know.
AMT: Well, we're going to actually get you dancing with the group. But before we do that, Lorelei, what is it about dancing and dancing to a piece that is specifically about this issue that both empowers and heals?
LORELEI WILLIAMS: I actually had no idea how powerful dance is in healing until I started Butterflies in Spirit. I wasn’t a professional dancer or anything. All of us, we’re beginner dancers. But I just wanted to get my picture out there somehow and honour my cousin. And it just felt like I needed to get people's attention because my missing aunt’s picture wasn't out there so I just wanted to find a way to get it out there and for some reason, I thought of dance and it just happened that way. And it's so powerful. And I realized that right away because my mom actually passed away five days before our very first performance. And I had anxiety and I had to make the decision if I wanted to go on with the performance. And it was when we were performing during that 15 minutes when my anxiety went away and right then and there, I knew that dance was so powerful. And you know like along with Butterflies in Spirit, like with other family members joining me—which I didn't plan—you know they represent their missing or murdered loved ones. And I didn't realize us coming together and raising awareness of this issue would be so powerful.
AMT: Well, we're very pleased that you will dance for us tonight in combination with the song “Sisterz”. But before we do that, I just want to thank you both for speaking to me right now, Lorelei Williams, Lillian Howard. A reminder as we close this program that you can find instructions on how to watch our virtual reality documentary, Highway of Tears, on our website, www.cbc.ca/thecurrent and find photos of this evening. I want to thank the people involved in putting this forum together. The virtual reality documentary was created by director Lisa Jackson, producers Josh Bloch and Chris Bennett, creative director Marty Flanagan, cinematographer and editor Connor Illsley and executive producers Kathleen Goldhar, CJ Hervey and James Milward. The forum was produced by Liz Hoath, Josh Bloch, Cathy Simon and Kathleen Goldhar. Our digital producer is Ruby Buiza. And special thanks to Caroline Ewald and our colleagues here at CBC Vancouver. Our sound engineer is Ross Bragg. Our camera operator is Alexandre Lamic. And after all of this talk of the role of art, we are going to leave you today with a performance of the song “Sisterz” by Enter-Tribal, which is made up of Jerilynn Webster, who was my guest earlier in the program and her cousin Sino General. We also have Lorelei Williams’ group, the Butterflies and Spirit also joining us on stage with a dance created for this song. I'm Anna Maria Tremonti in Vancouver. Thank you for being part of this special edition of The Current.
[Music: “Sisterz” – Enter-Tribal]
CBC would like to acknowledge the support of the Broadcasting Accessibility Fund.