By: Karissa Ketter, News Editor
Editor’s Note: This article was updated on October 13, to correct the title of the Haíłzaqv (Heiltsuk) Washing Ceremony. Also, to correct that Angela Sterritt investigated the cases of Ramona Wilson and Tina Fontaine in her book.
Content warning: mentions of missing and murdered Indigenous women and police brutality.
On September 25, Gitxsan author and investigative journalist, Angela Sterritt, spoke at SFU for the annual Andrew Mack Memorial Lecture series. Sterritt spoke on the systemic violence Indigenous communities and women face today, as highlighted in her newest book, Unbroken.
“The reason why my book is called Unbroken is because when I grew up, I always heard Elders say, they took everything away from us, but we are unbroken,” explained Sterritt. “A lot of people think that colonization ripped everything away from us, which it temporarily did: our languages, our cultures, our children, our communities, our connections to our lands.”
Sterritt said all the things colonization attempted to take away from Indigenous communities, they are powerfully reclaiming today. “I am proof that our cultures, our laws, and our land are still alive today.”
Sterritt is a “bestselling author from the Wilp Wiik’aax of the Gitanmaax community within the Gitxsan Nation on her dad’s side and from Bell Island Newfoundland on her maternal side.” Her lecture, “How Indigenous women’s knowledge and power can transform our understanding of human security,” was hosted by SFU international studies.
In Sterritt’s lecture, she said, “I want to talk about what human security means for women, girls and two-spirit people in Canada.” To do this, Sterritt outlined three case studies of systemic violence that she investigated in her book. Two of these cases were those of missing and murdered Indigenous women, Ramona Wilson and Tina Fontaine. Both young Indigenous women inspired Sterritt to write her book, “and have also really illuminated the tragedy and the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in this country.”
Indigenous women in Canada make up only 4% of the female population. Despite this, they disproportionately make up “25% of all female homicides in Canada. Indigenous women are 12 times as likely to be murdered or go missing as any other woman in Canada and 16 times as likely to be murdered as white women,” said Sterritt.
The lack of government action to protect Indigenous women sends a strong message to Indigenous communities, according to Sterritt: “That we don’t matter.” Canada’s colonial policies “ushered in the idea that we were not human,” said Sterritt.
Many Indigenous women have gone missing along a 700 km stretch of highway between Prince George and Prince Rupert in BC, including Ramona Wilson. This portion of Highway 16 has been named Highway of Tears, after the women who have gone missing there. Sterritt explained there are several Indigenous communities along that highway, some as far as 70 km away from the highway. “The reserves are far away, and the colonials set this up on purpose. It’s a system of apartheid that they created to make way for white settlers to come to thrive off the land.”
Their communities being far from the main highway and urban centres made it increasingly difficult for Indigenous peoples to engage with the local economies. Additionally, the provincial government refused to set up a public transportation system along this highway until 2019. “Women have been forced to hitchhike on these lands.”
One of the goals of Canadian colonialism was to dismantle Indigenous cultures and Indigenous sovereignty. Colonizers enforced that Indigenous communities “temporarily had the inability to enact [their] own laws [ . . . ] The colonials that came over understood deeply and intricately women here have power,” said Sterritt. She noted that Indigenous women were the “backbone of their communities.” Indigenous women were targetted in colonial society, to disenfranchise their humanity and power.
“In order for Indigenous women and girls to have safety, we need Canadians to see Indigenous people as full dimensional beings,” said Sterritt.
Another priority for Sterritt is for Canadians to recognize Indigenous governance systems and sovereignty. The third case study she included was that of Maxwell Johnson, “a grandfather who was handcuffed while trying to open a bank account with his 12 year old granddaughter,” in Vancouver.
After Sterritt covered the story in a CBC article, she found people “were shocked that anti-Indigenous systemic racism still happens. They were shocked that people of colour trying to open a bank account might be arrested.” In response, the BMO employee and Vancouver police officers were called on to attend a Washing Ceremony, which is part of the Haíłzaqv (Heiltsuk) justice system when wrongdoing has occurred.
The two arresting officers from the Vancouver police department refused to attend. Sterritt noted that if the officers had attended, it would have been “such an amazing opportunity for these two officers to come and to bear witness to a different form of justice, a different court system. One that doesn’t handcuff people and put them in jail and forget about them. One that upholds people in all the things that they’ve done.”
When taking part in a Washing Ceremony, Sterritt said the person is symbolically saying, “I’m responsible, I’m accountable, and I’m honouring your system of governance and your system of law.”
Angela Sterritt concluded the lecture by sharing what white settlers on this land can do for Indigenous people. “I want to implore you to uphold Indigenous laws and governing structures, implore you to speak the truth. But I also want to implore you to dismantle the systems that our white ancestors have created.”