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We all must listen to Indigenous families


Unifor President

Jerry Dias

For years, they have spoken, and for years they were not heard. They spoke in the media, at rallies, at government panels and in the courts, and still were not heard, for generations.

Then, somehow, the families of thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls had the courage to speak before a federal commission looking into why so many women, girls, two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, and asexual peoples have been killed or gone missing.

They told heartbreaking stories about families and communities torn apart by the legacy of residential schools, about inadequate housing and the lack of clean drinking water that left people feeling hopeless. They spoke about joblessness, about a criminal justice system that discriminated against them, and about child welfare programs that failed the children they were supposed to help.

As hard as the stories were to hear, they were even harder to tell, and yet the families did just that – for their sisters, their daughters, their aunts and their mothers who had been taken without a trace.

Now, it is our job in the rest of Canada to listen, and to act on what we have heard.

The final report of the commission into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) was released this week. It contains 231 recommendations to address the systemic and cultural issues facing Indigenous communities to help ensure the safety of the women and girls from those communities.

Sadly, many of those recommendations are not new, such as those about providing decent housing, drinkable water, a good education and jobs, and should have been acted on a long time ago.

Others are new, such as calls for a national Indigenous ombudsperson and an Indigenous human rights tribunal, mandatory first-degree murder charges for women killed by partners with a history of abuse and Indigenous oversight of police.

Addressing the report’s recommendations is vital to repairing the damage already done and building a new relationship with Indigenous communities.

We all have a role to play. At Unifor we are working to give greater voice to Indigenous peoples within our union, and finding ways to work with Indigenous communities across Canada. This includes contract language that encourages hiring local Indigenous youth and buying a boat for the Drag the Red program in Winnipeg to help find missing women and girls in that city.

Most of all, we cannot stand by any longer and allow anyone to continue to ignore the continued unjust treatment of Indigenous communities.

Make no mistake, the crimes committed against Indigenous women and girls were made possible because so many in our society chose to look away while injustices against their communities took place.

We cannot let any discussions about the technical definition of genocide, or whether what has happened to generations of Indigenous peoples qualifies, keep us from doing what is needed.

The fact is, assumptions of racial supremacy were the very foundation of both the residential school system and the Sixties Scoop, and remain embedded in the laws that govern Indigenous communities in this country to this day.

The legacy of all that has been a disproportionate level of involvement in the legal and child welfare systems, and to thousands of Indigenous women and girls being killed or going missing.

The families who came forward to testify before the inquiry had the courage and strength to tell their truths about what happened to their loved ones and why it was allowed to happen.

Those of us from non-Indigenous families can only honour them by doing the same, and confronting the truths about what we have done - and not done - that contributed to this national tragedy.

I only hope we can show the same courage and determination for change.