Colonialism's impact pervasive and ongoing, experts say, as MMIWG inquiry leaves Iqaluit

As the federal inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls leaves Iqaluit, commissioners and attendees were left with plenty to consider regarding colonialism, and how it has served to create a country where Indigenous women and girls are left vulnerable.

'We are just scratching the surface,' says panellist, after hearing spent four days focused on colonialism

Surrounded by her fellow commissioners and elders, Qajaq Robinson breaks into tears at the end of the MMIWG inquiry hearings in Iqaluit. Robinson closed her remarks by challenging those in the halls of power to make way for Indigenous voices. (Garrett Hinchey/CBC)

As the federal inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls leaves Iqaluit and heads for Quebec City, commissioners and attendees were left with plenty to consider regarding colonialism, and how it has served to create a country where Indigenous women and girls are left vulnerable.

The four-day hearing in Nunavut's capital, which began Monday and ended Thursday with a passionate rebuke of those in power by commissioner Qajaq Robinson, who challenged non-Indigenous actors to make room for Indigenous voices at the table.

The oft-criticized inquiry has been marred with difficulty and resignations. Commissioners requested a two year extension to complete their work earlier this year, but were only granted one year by the federal government.

But this week, as a group of experts and knowledge keepers convened in Iqaluit's Frobisher Inn to speak on the topic of colonial violence, the sheer scope of the issues that will need to be considered by the inquiry before its April 2019 deadline was made clear.

"We have only just scratched the surface," said Jeffrey McNeil-Seymour, a social work professor, activist, and artist currently working at Ryerson University told commissioners, as he pleaded for the government to reconsider its decision.

Panelist Jeffrey McNeil-Seymour asked the federal government to reconsider their decision to deny a two-year extension to the inquiry on Thursday, saying that 'we've only just scratched the surface.' (Garrett Hinchey/CBC)

Inuit perspective, health, two-spirit experience all examined

The hearings consisted of three separate panels, each focused on examining colonial violence through a different lens. Reflecting the people of the territory in which it was held, the first panel focused on the experience of Inuit.

Panellists Elisapi Davidee Aningmiuq, Hagar Idlout-Sudlovenick, and Inukshuk Aksalnik told commissioners about the impacts of colonialism on Inuit, such as the slaughter of Inuit sled dogs by RCMP and the forced relocation of Inuit by companies, government and police.

The resilience of Inuit was also highlighted. Davidee Aningmiuq spoke about a successful kamik making program in Iqaluit, stressing the importance of funding programs like it in order to allow Indigenous women to rediscover their culture.

Elisapi Davidee Aningmiuq, on right, flanked by counsel. She was the first to testify during the Iqaluit hearings. (Garrett Hinchey/CBC)

"When you start learning or relearning the cultural knowledge, cultural skills, it does something to you inside," she said. "What it does is it really makes you understand who you are, where you come from, and the hardships that our mothers endured."

The second panel of the week zeroed in on Indigenous health and wellness. Dr. Janet-Smylie, a Cree-Métis physician with extensive experience and knowledge in the field of Indigenous health, stressed the importance of supporting youth early in life, and its importance to physical and mental health for adults.

Smylie also spoke about how newborns can be apprehended in to the welfare system after just three days, and how that can lead to both negative outcomes when it comes to Indigenous traditional knowledge and medical outcomes for the mother and child. 

Saying that greater efforts should be made to keep Indigenous children within their communities and extended families, she said this kind of apprehension was "comparable to the death of a child."

Dr. Janet Smylie, a Cree-Metis physician, testified Tuesday on Indigenous health and wellbeing at the hearings. (Garrett Hinchey/CBC)

The final panel focused on decolonizing practices and the two-spirit Indigenous experience. Jasmine Redfern, TJ Lightfoot, and Jeffrey McNeil-Seymour discussed a host of topics, including the difficulty of balancing queer and Indigenous identities and the role two-spirit people play in Indigenous culture.

McNeil-Seymour said that the very act of decolonization can be seen as a form of colonialism, and that the practice "hasn't ended, it's just shifted," morphing and hiding in plain sight.

He referenced Orange Shirt Day, which was created to honour residential school survivors and families, and said that it is often used as a "photo op" by companies and organizations. 

"I think about the words indigenization, decolonization, and reconciliation," he said. "As far as I know, there's no words for those in any Indigenous language in Canada."

The inquiry is quickly moving towards its conclusion. Next week, it will hold a hearing in Quebec City focused on the criminal justice system, before holding two final hearings in Winnipeg and St. John's. The commission's research and statement gathering must be completed by December 31.

About the Author

Garrett Hinchey

Copy Editor/Reporter

Garrett Hinchey is a Métis journalist based in his hometown of Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, where has worked since 2014. He has worked as CBC North's social media editor, copy editor, and as a multimedia reporter.