Speaker Sessions: Ernie Crey – Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women
This post is a response to a talk about missing and murdered aboriginal women given by Ernie Crey at the STAND Canada 2016 Directors Conference: “Learn, Listen, Act: Promoting Reflexivity to Genocide of Indigenous Peoples.”
From January 21-23, 2016, STAND Canada convened its national leadership to listen through consultations, meetings, and events in an effort to understand our responsibility as a Canadian anti-genocide advocacy organization and initiate a robust dialogue with other groups with similar questions. The Conference took place on the unceded and occupied territories of the Coast Salish peoples, including the sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), sel̓íl̓witulh (Tsleil-Waututh), xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) and Stó:lō nations. We invited activist groups, Indigenous peoples, and other interested parties to engage in a critical dialogue on topics related to our conference theme with the aims of listening to Indigenous perspectives and promoting reflexive action in activist communities.
Author: Alison Chan, Human Resources and Operations Director & Website Manager for STAND Canada. Alison participated in the planning committee for the conference.
One of the best aspects of volunteering for STAND Canada is the opportunity to connect and learn from people who work with those affected by the human rights issues we advocate for. STAND Conferences are prime avenues for incorporating the insights gained from consulting with community partners and fellow advocates into STAND’s mission and advocacy work. Ernie Crey, Chief of Cheam First Nation and President of ALIVE (Aboriginal Life in Vancouver Enhancement Society) and the North West Indigenous Council delivered the keynote address at the most recent STAND Conference, focusing on the societal causes for the problem of missing and murdered aboriginal women. I was thrilled when Ernie accepted our invitation to attend the Conference, having read his book Stolen from Our Embrace: The Abduction of First Nations Children and the Restoration of Aboriginal Communities (written with Suzanne Fournier).
As a well-respected leader and activist, Ernie is often interviewed in the media and asked to provide his thoughts on issues related to First Nations. With all due respect to these articles, nothing compares to giving Ernie free reign to speak. During the time he spoke with us, Ernie captivated everyone by interweaving his personal experiences with societal observations. In his powerful, fluid storytelling style, Ernie linked historical wrongs perpetrated by governments, institutions and people to explain how and why systemic social issues continue to disproportionately affect groups such as First Nations people and people who live in poverty. He also spoke of the lessons he has learned and what advocacy groups and individuals should think about in their strategic approach. Ernie’s talk fit perfectly with the issues discussed in Finding Dawn, a documentary that was screened and discussed on the first day of the conference, which illustrated the deep historical, social and economic factors that contribute to the epidemic of violence against First Nations women in Canada.
During the planning process for the Conference, the committee sought out a variety of consultants, hoping to be able to gain different perspectives into the Conference theme. Ernie reframed the conventional notions of missing and murdered Indigenous women* in the context of the notorious Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. He explained how economic and social factors push people to move to the area despite its reputation, often exposing them to increased risk of violence. Poverty is a vicious cycle, particularly for people with mental illness or post-traumatic stress disorder, problems which may prevent them from developing employable skills and cause difficulty in securing long-term jobs. To cope with their reality and survive financially, these individuals may begin to resort to risky occupations and habits. Society tends to view people who engage in these behaviours as moral failures. This perception dehumanizes and devalues the individuals, which explains why misogynists and sex criminals are able to prey on vulnerable people with little response from the police.
Ernie also pointed out that the “Highway of Tears” in northern British Columbia is an illustration of a countrywide trend – the rate of women who go missing or get murdered is disproportionately high amongst Aboriginal women across Canada. Further, the responses of the authorities to these disappearances are often sorely lacking. A police officer in Finding Dawn claimed that sightings were made of the missing women but that police “could not substantiate” them. He said that the person may not have wanted to be found. Such attitudes reinforce the lack of action on the tragedy of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls. Often, it takes First Nations communities banding together to raise awareness in the mainstream media to get police support for investigations. It is a vicious cycle that traps and exposes women to harm, humiliation, and death. These harmful attitudes also lead to situations in which families are forced to live without their loved grandmother, mother, daughter, sister or granddaughter.
Ernie Crey’s method of speaking inspires you to recognize that the issues discussed are bigger than you, but that you as an audience can be part of the solution. As he concluded, “Groups like STAND can be a nursery for people to develop a social consciousness. People do not care because they do not know.” As a young professional, one of my goals is to continue these discussions outside of the academic sphere and into the mainstream discourse.
Thank you to Ernie for his time and insights. We were honoured to have him attend.