Why I’m not in favour of a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls

The Liberal Party of Canada is circulating a petition: Stand with Justin: Call for an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

I haven’t signed it and I don’t intend to. It’s not only that I think petitions have become so commonplace that they’re a waste of time and completely ineffective. As just one example, the petition I linked above is one of 29 on the Liberal Party website, along with standing up for youth employment and speaking up for food security. I’m in favour of youth employment and food security, of course. Who wouldn’t be? But does anyone really believe that a petition will create change in either arena?

I used to sign a lot of petitions. I still support the odd one if it seems to stand a reasonable chance of influencing change or even raising public awareness. But the day I received an email from Change.org asking me to sign a petition to Nintendo America to name a Legends of Zelda game character after Robin Williams so that the actor could “live on forever in a universe he always loved” was the day I realized how worthless petitions have become.

But that’s not why I refuse to sign a petition calling for a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

The reason is more basic: I don’t want an inquiry.

Carol Rowan has written a paper (“Seeking to Understand Barriers to Quality Inuit Early Childhood Education,” forthcoming) where she links Sara Ahmed’s concept of nonperformativity to government nonperformance in relation to the First Nations and Inuit Child Care Initiative (FNICCI). Rowan writes:

Sara Ahmed (2005) is interested in institutions that declare their interest in cultural diversity and racial equality while employing nonperformance as a methodological approach. She argues that nonperformance happens when documents are written, graphics are designed, and words are spoken that establish conditions for cultural diversity and racial equality, but the mechanics required to act are not enabled. In these instances the oral, written, and visual images of words, which Ahmed labels “speech acts,” create the impression that the institution is “committed to equality” (para. 1). In practice, however, the speech acts “do not commit a person, organization or state to an action” (para. 2). Ahmed draws on Austin’s (1975) theory of performativity to explain that “an utterance is performative when it does what it says”; further, “conditions have to be in place to allow such words to act” (para. 2, emphasis added). For a document to act, in other words, the people, places, and things connected with it must have the capacity and systemic support required for action. Simply put, the FNICCI cannot act because it lacks the capacity to do so. And, if Ahmed’s theory is correct, it was never intended to act in terms of Inuit and First Nations direction, delivery, and control.

I believe that if the federal government—particularly Stephen Harper’s government, since Harper has stated publicly that violence against Indigenous women is not a sociocultural phenomenon—were to conduct an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, the inquiry itself would become the extent of its action. An inquiry would let Harper off the hook from any further action.

I agree with Sara Ahmed and Carol Rowan that “speech acts”  are not what is needed. All of us who are deeply concerned about violence toward Indigenous women and girls know that what’s needed are real acts, physical acts, acts empowered by financial and human resources.

In 2005 I attended a meeting in Hagwilget, BC, where relatives of girls and women who have gone missing in the Highway 16 corridor shared their grief and their utter frustration with the nonperformance of police and government to find their loved ones and secure justice on their behalf. The meeting culminated with an event called Take Back the Highway. At that time I dreamed of a similar event where people all across this country, including police and policy makers, would join hands in an unbroken chain and pledge to end racism and violence. An inquiry won’t make that happen. An inquiry lets people go about their business secure in the knowledge that somebody else is addressing the problem.

In 2006 I attended the Highway of Tears Symposium in Prince George to stand witness with others as the families of missing and murdered girls and women shared their stories. I will never forget Audrey Auger’s outpouring of grief in her language, or her saying of her murdered daughter Aiyleh that she had been a quiet girl, but “her voice is speaking like the thunder now.” Politicians, government officials, and members of the RCMP all nodded their heads when John Les, then solicitor-general and minister responsible for public safety, stood in front of those families and stated that the RCMP are “professionals beyond reproach.” Beyond reproach. Les presented $25,000 on behalf of the BC government to move the symposium’s recommendations forward. That amount represents about 5% of Premier Christy Clark’s credit card bill in the 2011/2012 fiscal year. Pocket change—and very few of the recommendations have been moved forward.

Meanwhile, grassroots initiatives—most without public funding—are raising awareness of the sociological phenomenon that Indigenous women and girls are widely regarded as disposable in this country.

Walking With Our Sisters is a crowd-sourced art installation that honours the lives of missing and murdered women across North America. More than 1700 pairs of vamps, or moccasin tops, have been created by volunteers and intentionally not sewn into moccasins as a way to acknowledge the unfinished lives of murdered Indigenous women.

At the University of Saskatchewan, 120 red dresses hang throughout the campus as powerful reminders of missing and murdered Indigenous women. The REDress Project is led by Winnipeg artist Jaime Black to “draw attention to the gendered and racialized nature of violent crimes against Aboriginal women and to evoke a presence through the marking of absence.”

Artist Aaron Paquette created a profile picture that Facebook users and others can use to show their solidarity “with all Indigenous women missing, murdered, and denied.”

These actions go beyond what Sara Ahmed labels “speech acts.”

Do we really need a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls? While I honour the intentions of those who are calling for one—with the exception of Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party of Canada, who have expropriated the call for an inquiry for their own political purposes—I say no.

The Special Committee on Violence Against Indigenous Women presented its report, Invisible Women: A Call to Action, to the House of Commons on March 7, 2014. The government responded: “As the Committee is aware, in 2010 the Government announced a five-year strategy aimed at addressing violence against Aboriginal women and girls.”

In other words, the committee is a nonperformer and the government strategy nothing but a speech act never intended to act in any real way to end racialized, gendered violence.

Meanwhile, the Native Women’s Association of Canada and the Assembly of First Nations have already drafted A National Action Plan to End Violence Against Indigenous Women and Girls. Their plan spells out in detail the concrete actions that need to happen and who is responsible for each of them. They also state unequivocally:

An effective strategy must include full commitment and participation from all levels of government including First Nations, civil society and both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

In other words, you and I are required to participate.

But what does that mean? What does it actually mean to commit to ending violence against Indigenous women and girls?

As a starting point, it means acknowledging that our country was built through genocide. It means recognizing all of the subtle and obvious ways that our governments, our education, economic, and (in)justice systems, and our media perpetuate colonial racism. It means opening our eyes to the links between systemic racism and violence. It means considering the links between violating women and abusing our planet. It may mean changing our ideas of what counts as humour. For non-Indigenous Canadians such as me, it is likely to require pushing ourselves to admit the ways we benefit from ongoing colonialism.

These actions are much more difficult than signing a petition.

We can also act, individually and collectively, to call on our governments to implement the actions already outlined by Indigenous organizations. A national inquiry won’t tell us anything we don’t already know. We simply have to take our blinders off—and then act.

It’s up to us.

8 Responses to “Why I’m not in favour of a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls”

  1. Judith

    You’ve given me tools to discuss the gravity of nonperformativity as it relates to the call for a public inquiry into our missing and murdered young women.

    I encourage you to drop everything and send this piece out there, to every publication
    you can think of.

    • commatologist

      Thanks, Judith. I felt excited, too, when I read Carol’s (and then Sara Ahmed’s) discussion of nonperformativity. It makes a lot of sense to me.

  2. carin

    Thank you for writing this, Leslie. So important. It’s so easy enough to get lost in the ‘language’ of what only appears to be useful. Will share this broadly…


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