For many decades, Indigenous communities in both Canada and the United States have been reporting extraordinarily high rates of missing and murdered women and girls, reports which were generally greeted with indifference by police, the media or politicians. In late 2016, the federal government of Canada announced the creation of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, which went on to hold 24 hearings across the country to listen to the stories of women and their families. The scale and severity of the crimes being committed were horrifically illustrated by the fact that, by the time the Inquiry’s report was completed nearly three years later, an additional 130 cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls were reported.
In the pages of the Commission’s Final Report, “Reclaiming Power and Place: The Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls” what is stressed over and over again is the importance of listening: that, after having had their stories and knowledge of events dismissed for so long, Indigenous women finally had someone’s attention, and their stories were being heard. We read,
I’ve had to continually go to the media and replay the events that happened in her story over and over and over for the last two years to get somebody to listen, to get somebody to hear that this is a bigger problem, that these issues are bigger. That this is not just another Indigenous woman, but this is a problem that is arising in Canada with our Indigenous women being – going missing and being murdered. And, it’s been traumatizing. It’s been very traumatizing to have to take my family through this over, and over, and over, and over (385).
Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people in Canada have been the
targets of violence for far too long. This truth is undeniable. The fact that this
National Inquiry is happening now doesn’t mean that Indigenous Peoples waited
this long to speak up; it means it took this long for Canada to listen (49).
The Inquiry has revealed to our shame that Canadian society has displayed “appalling apathy” towards missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and 2 Spirited people. The Report cut through and named the centuries of racism, colonialism, sexism, homophobia and entrenched institutional power, concluding that the crimes amounted to a “Canadian genocide.”
Almost immediately, politicians and pundits zeroed in on this conclusion, beginning an intense media debate around the meaning and use of the word genocide. The Globe and Mail opined that the claim of genocide “doesn’t add up”, that “the charge of a continuing genocide in Canada is absurd,” while Michael Enright at the CBC confidently concurred, that “[w]hat happened to those murdered and missing women is a tragedy of staggering horror. What it was not, is a genocide.”
Yet, the news media is hardly a disinterested observer. As Veldon Coburn writes at Policy Options
We should understand the media as a colonial institution. It is not merely a neutral channel for funneling information to the people. It is deeply implicated in colonialism by framing popular perceptions of Indigenous peoples as less deserving in life and ungrievable in death and violence. This is especially true in how the media treats Indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA people, amplifying the precariousness of their lives, and desensitizing a public to the horrors of Indigenous genocide.
Following the release of the Report, polls showed that while a small majority of Canadians concurred with the findings, in general Canadians were confused about the meaning and causes of genocide in Canada. To help clarify matters, in a series of tweets, the indomitable Cindy Blackstock laid out exactly why the treatment of Indigenous peoples in Canada has always constituted genocide.
What seems apparent is that too many politicians and pundits are rejecting the term genocide when applied to MMIWG not only because they have a very narrow conception of genocide as explicit Nazi-like government directives for population eradication, but because they either consider the cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls to be only discrete crimes, or that the injustices perpetrated against Indigenous peoples are rooted in the past, and not as part of a larger, structurally racist historic and contemporary pattern in which all non-Indigenous Canadians are implicated and embedded. As a result, mainstream settler society can’t seem to find the words to describe the conditions that it created, nor to listen to the words of those who were actually affected by them and thereby gain the wisdom necessary to do so.
The structured phenomenon in which there is an inability to listen on the part of those in power, and the corresponding lack of shared understanding between the powerful and those who are structurally disadvantaged, is well-recognized in theories of knowledge – specifically in theories of epistemic injustice.
In her 2007 book Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing, English philosopher Miranda Fricker describes it as a form of injustice perpetrated against a person who is “wronged specifically in her capacity as a knower” (20). It comes in two forms: testimonial injustice, in which a knower/teller is not believed by their audience owing to unwarranted prejudice against the social category to which the speaker belongs, and that diminishes the speaker’s credibility; and hermeneutical injustice, a structural injustice preceding testimonial injustice, in which, owing to a lack of shared social meanings, individuals or groups are not able to put into words and share their experience of the world. This is often (but not exclusively) as a result of what she calls “tracker prejudice” that follows a person through various aspects of their existence owing to that social category, e.g. race and gender (27).
For Fricker, epistemological injustice results from social and institutional forces favouring the powerful, who control social meanings and thus create a hermeneutical absence where minority groups can have significant aspects of their lived reality “obscured from collective understanding owing to a structural identity prejudice” (155). The result is often another kind of silencing, “a form of testimonial injustice in which some groups [are] simply not…asked for information in the first place” (130).
Jose Medina in his work, “Varieties of Hermeneutical Injustice,” adds, “non-dominantly- situated people often find their meanings and communicative contributions not taken seriously, improperly heard, deemed deficient, reinterpreted, distorted and too quickly dismissed, and in these ways they are hermeneutically disrespected and wronged” (44).
Gaile Pohlhaus in describing Varieties of Epistemic Injustice, writes that, in our epistemic system, white European-descended men are regarded as “generic” prototypical knowers, and all others as sub-knowers. The result is structural ignorance of all others’ knowledge, and “[t]argeted ignorances are only sustainable when they are collective and supported by the kind of social power dominant institutions offer” (18). Nancy Tuana, author of “Feminist Epistemology: The Subject of Knowledge”, concurs, arguing that this is a deliberate strategy on the part of the powerful, to maintain “willful ignorance” so as to maintain their own privilege. Charles Mills, in his work on White Ignorance, discusses the difficulties nonwhite speakers have in reasoning with whites “in the grip of white ignorance:”
The objective evidence is on the side of people of color, but whites are unable to appreciate the force of this evidence, or perhaps even to recognize it as evidence, because of the distortion of their cognitive processes by white ignorance.
In this light, it is clear that non-Indigenous settler Canadian society and its institutions (including the mainstream media) have too much invested in maintaining its willful ignorance about genocide, so manipulate our shared “hermeneutical resources” (meanings) accordingly. As a result, Indigenous knowers are not listened to, their words discounted as evidence, their truth obscured from collective understanding.
Image: Province of British Columbia [Flickr]
Fricker, M. (2007). Epistemic injustice : Power and the ethics of knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Medina, J. (2017). Varieties of hermeneutical injustice. In The Routledge Handbook of Epistemic Injustice (pp. 41-52). Taylor and Francis. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315212043
Mills, C.W. (2013). White ignorance and hermeneutical injustice: A comment on Medina and Fricker. Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, no. 1 (pp. 38-43).
Pohlhaus, G. (2017). Varieties of Epistemic Injustice. In Ian James Kidd, Gaile Pohlhaus & José Médina Médina (eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Epistemic Injustice. New York : Routledge.
Tuana, N. A. (2017). Feminist epistemology: The subject of knowledge. In The Routledge Handbook of Epistemic Injustice (pp. 125-138). Taylor and Francis. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315212043