Last week, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) released its final report , concluding that the deaths and disappearances of Indigenous women and girls is a “Canadian genocide.” In finding that the MMIWG epidemic constitutes an act of genocide, the inquiry has reframed the narrative around MMIWG.
Narratives matter because they shape the way we understand the story. They tell us who the victims are and whether or not they deserve our sympathy. In this case, the narrative invites us to infer responsibility for violence experienced by Indigenous women and girls. A new narrative provides a new perspective on this terrible part of Canada’s history.
Historically, Indigenous women and girls have been misrepresented in the media and this representation has resulted in them being viewed as less deserving of our sympathy than other victims of violence.
Narratives matter because they shape the way we understand the story. They tell us who the victims are and whether or not they deserve our sympathy.
When the media use the language of “high-risk individual” to describe Indigenous women and girls, they invite the reader to see these murdered women and girls as less deserving of our sympathy. The narrative goes that Indigenous women who engage in criminal activity and experience violence as a result are at fault. By choosing to engage in a “high-risk lifestyle,” Indigenous women must also accept the violence that comes with that lifestyle. News stories partially present the lives and experiences of Indigenous women and girls by framing them as sex workers, criminals, runaways and “others,” as if any of those categories somehow justifies their murder. It doesn’t.
The emphasis in the media on Indigenous women’s criminal activity means that there is less opportunity for journalists to examine Canada’s colonial history. Our colonial history is important if we wish to understand the plight of Indigenous women. The inquiry’s report stated that the MMIWG epidemic amounts to genocide resulting from “state actions and inactions rooted in colonialism.” This finding changes the narrative and puts the blame on governments of all political stripes who have largely turned a blind eye to what the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women called “systemic racism.”
The media play a crucial role in telling Canadians about the narrative of Indigenous Canadians. Recent polling done by Environics found that 36 per cent of non-Indigenous Canadians receive information about Indigenous people and issues primarily through the media. Similarly, three in four Canadians pay a great deal of or some attention to news and stories about Indigenous issues, with only six per cent paying no attention at all.
Yet, Canadians are still largely misinformed about the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls crisis. The same research found that only four per cent of non-Indigenous Canadians can identify that the MMIWG crisis is a challenge that Indigenous communities face.
This is sobering given that the UN Special Rapporteur argued that “Indigenous women face marginalization, exclusion and poverty because of institutional, systemic, and other forms of discrimination that have not been addressed adequately by the State.” The inquiry’s final report not only suggests that violence against Indigenous women and girls has been ignored by the state, but that it has been perpetrated by the state.
At every level, Canadian society has harmed Indigenous women and girls. Whether it is the inadequate police investigations, the lack of support to Indigenous people given by the criminal justice system, of the disproportionate number of incarcerated Indigenous women, all contribute to the violence that Indigenous women and girls experience.
The publication of the final report of the MMIWG may mark the end of one narrative and the beginning of a new one. Understanding the violence that Indigenous women and girls experienced as one of longstanding colonial policies, rather than a result of individual choice, Canadians may be better able to identify and sympathize with the fact that violence against Indigenous women is a serious challenge Indigenous communities have faced at the hands of the Canadian state. It’s now in the hands of media to tell that narrative.
Elisha Corbett is mixed Irish and Cherokee PhD Candidate in the Department of Political Studies at Queen’s University and formerly a senior researcher with the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls .
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019