Recognition and Misrecognition in the Tragedy of Canada’s Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women

Claudette Michell died suddenly at age 46 of a brain aneurysm on October 5th, 2012. By any standard, she led a remarkable life: as the program coordinator for the University of Winnipeg’s Urban and Inner City Studies program, she was indispensable; as a mentor and leader she was an inspiration to many of the students who went through the program; as a researcher and author she contributed chapters to several books and provided the impetus for an Adult Learning Centre in Lord Selkirk Park, one of Winnipeg’s most troubled neighbourhoods; as a collaborative filmmaker she helped to document the intergenerational effects of the residential school system; as an active member of the community she served on advisory boards and planning committees; as a spiritual Cree woman named Sîsîkwan wâsaham, Miskanahk acahk iskwew ka-pimakwaci, (Rattle that Glows in the Dark, Turtle Shooting Star Woman) from Barren Lands Cree Nation, she was a pipe carrier, drummed in a women’s drumming circle and set up healing circles for residential school survivors; and as a mother and grandmother she raised four children – Melissa, Vincent, Cheyenne and Kenneth, and two grandchildren.

On the first anniversary of her passing, I joined dozens of her colleagues, former classmates and students as well as her drumming circle in the classroom at the University’s Urban and Inner Cities Studies program on Selkirk Avenue to honour her memory, and share stories of how much this woman meant to the community. The Director of the program, Jim Silver, related the difficult path that Claudette had travelled: originally from The Pas, she had left home at age 12 and had lived rough on the street, homeless, at the margins, sleeping in cars and tents between repeated apprehensions by Child and Family Services. It was during a very low point in her life, in lock-up, Jim told us, that Claudette first learned from another inmate about her Cree heritage, and from there began her long, winding road not only to recovery, but to leadership, importance, and a life rich with meaning, thanks in part to her achievements in adult education.

Only hours after I attended Claudette’s memorial, under darkening clouds and through a bitterly cold wind, I travelled to the Manitoba Legislature for yet another memorial — this one as part of an annual nationwide protest coordinated by the Native Women’s Association of Canada to remember and honour Canada’s more than 600 murdered or missing Aboriginal women.  We sat huddled in our folding chairs to the sounds of Claudette’s drumming group, and listened to speakers and singers ask the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper to call a national public inquiry to investigate why so many Aboriginal sisters, daughters and mothers have gone missing or died violently, as well as a national action plan to stop the violence – both of which the Conservative government has repeatedly rejected. We joined hands in a giant circle, several hundred of us, demanding that attention be paid, that the neglect and violence end.

And through it all, I wondered: what might have been for those so many lives cut horribly short? Claudette Michell had lived a life as difficult and painful as many of those who have vanished from our cities, but was fortunate enough to have escaped their fate. As the speakers at the Legislature reminded us: These women are not just numbers. We need to realize that Canada has lost over 600 potential Claudette Michells, women who might have lived fullfilling lives, and given so much to their families, friends, colleagues and communities. It’s a tragedy beyond measure, and shows no sign of stopping.

And  yet, there is silence. These girls and women are mourned by those who knew them, but have vanished without the respect which they are owed by society at large. Their absence has garnered no appropriate official response; their very lives held in low or no regard by the wider non-Aboriginal society.

There has been, in short, no recognition.

According to Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, recognition by others is a significant way by which we gain our sense of identity:

our identity is partly shaped by recognition or its absence, often by the misrecognition of others, and so a person or group of people can suffer real damage, real distortion, if the people or society around them mirror back to them a confining or demeaning or contemptible picture of themselves. Nonrecognition or misrecognition can inflict harm, can be a form of oppression, imprisoning someone in a false, distorted, and reduced mode of being (p. 25).

An integral part of the colonizing process was and has been the profound and deliberate misrecognition of Aboriginal peoples on the part of Euro-Canadians, a rejection of the validity of their knowledges, of their claims to land, of their very humanity. The Library of Congress Classification is just one example of this disqualification: describing almost all aspect of North America’s Indigenous human experience as “History” (the “E” sequence), with the exception of their languages, which are shunted as almost an afterthought to the very end of the PM sequence – along with artificial languages, forms of English patois and Hyperborean (Paleo-Siberian) languages, itself a term derived from the realm of myth. The implication of these positionings is that Aboriginal peoples are not real, present, valid, of equal significance.

This conceptual negation is only symptomatic of and has reinforced the systemic, political and cultural negations to which Indigenous peoples have been subject. For decades their children were systematically stripped of their cultures and languages, and as we recently learned, malnourished as part of cruel “scientific” experiments.  The legacy of this persecution — which by any definition should be accounted as cultural genocide — may be seen in the vast gulfs in health, education and quality of life measures that still exists between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians.

It is essential, therefore, that this violence be seen as more than the murderous, misogynistic actions of aberrant criminals, but rather linked intimately with the other forms of violence associated with settler colonialism. As Indigenous and postcolonial scholar Julia Emberley writes, what attention that is paid to violence against Aboriginal women

more often than not…ends up naturalizing the violence further as a seemingly inevitable condition of Aboriginal existence. [Instead the] intimate violence in the lives of First Nations women [should be seen as the result of] the interlocking contingencies of race, sexuality, and gender categories and the uneven and unequal distribution in the historical context of colonialization…In other words, [women’s bodies] are turned into objects of violence within colonial institutions to maintain the equilibrium of colonial power. But until this specific form of colonial domination is recognized the narrative containment of [one individual’s story] cannot bring about justice (p. 221-222).

Such recognition, however, is exceedingly threatening to dominant society, for it runs utterly counter to Canada’s self-image which has been entirely monological – the result of repeating back to ourselves only that which reinforces those things we wish to believe about ourselves. Yet, as Charles Taylor writes, our identities are constructed through dialogical processes – we learn about ourselves only though dialogue with others – much in the same way Claudette Michell was to discover and reclaim her Cree identity.

In other words, dominant Euro-Canada needs to listen to the voices of the mourners at vigils, the Idle No More demonstrators, voices which are not just making demands for recognition, but are engaging in the very necessary dialogue needed for the creation of a new Canadian identity, one that is sufficiently self-reflexive to transcend the self-flattery of the past and the abject harm being wrought on Aboriginal people, especially women, as a result of centuries of misrecognition.

Sources:

Emberley, J. (2010). Justice in the Child’s Body: Rudy Wiebe and Yvonne Johnson’s Stolen Life. In Jean Barman et al. (Eds), Indigenous Feminism: Politics, Activism, Culture (pp218-238). Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.

Taylor, C. (1994) ‘The Politics of Recognition’, in A. Guttman (ed.) Re-examining the Politics of Recognition, Princeton: Princeton University Press, pp. 25–73.