Canada is a crime scene. Ghastly abuses have transpired here, but many of the specifics of these violations are shrouded in mystery. Culprits are unnamed. Justice and closure are elusive. Intellectuals, leaders, and activists cite structures — like colonialism, capitalism, and patriarchy — but theories over meta-level explanations, not specifics. Ultimately, they tell us little about real people, hard facts, and deep emotions. The task of the Indigenous storyteller and change-maker starts with investigation. When it comes to Indigenous people, the truth — the only ground upon which justice can stand — is rarely self-evident. So, to begin, let’s establish some of the facts that are just now emerging.
First, the land was stolen. After over a century of struggle, the Supreme Court has confirmed this truth, which First Nations have insisted upon all along. Aboriginal right and title to British Columbia — a territory seven times the size of England — remains unceded. The land was never conquered. Nor was it purchased or otherwise secured through treaty. Settlers simply took it. Outside of British Columbia, the dynamics of land the theft differ. In 2013, James Daschuk published his award-winning book Clearing the Plains, which, through painstaking archival research, showed that across the Prairies, the Canadian government coerced First Nations to sign treaties by starving them into submission. Then, in 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its final report, which, through interviews with over 6,000 witnesses, established that Canada committed cultural genocide against Indigenous children who were abducted and incarcerated in residential schools. Just this year, a success lawsuit revealed that Canada violated its own laws when it removed tens of thousands of Indigenous children from their homes through the child welfare system during the Sixties Scoop.
Perhaps no issue in Canada, Indigenous or otherwise, remains as poorly understood as the ongoing death and disappearance of Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit people, a phenomenon sometimes shorthanded as #MMIWG2S. Conversations about the missing and murdered often revolve around fuzzy statistics and dangerous places, like the Highway of Tears, a 700-kilometre stretch of desolate British Columbia road connecting Prince George to Prince Rupert. As the first hearings of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls were held in Smithers, B.C. — a town along the Highway of Tears — I interviewed Connie Walker, whose CBC podcast, Missing and Murdered, won the Canadian Hillman Prize and sparked a long overdue national outcry about these deaths and disappearances.
We began where this story ought to begin — with the lives of the women and girls gone far too soon.
JBN Who was Pamela George?
CW Pamela George was a young mother, a First Nations mother from Saskatchewan from the Sakimay First Nation, who was killed when I was in high school. I remember that case so well because it was really the first time that I thought about journalism, that I thought about writing.
I think that what I was reacting to was a lack of awareness. I felt that most of the media attention was focused on the two young white men — white university students who were charged in her death — and I didn’t feel like Pamela was well represented in coverage. So much of the attention was focused around the fact that she was a sex worker — that was really all I knew about her at the time. And I remember feeling angry and upset, without even being able to articulate how and why. I was only in Grade 11, but I wrote something for our school paper, which I would be horrified to read now, I’m sure.
But, I never knew [Pamela George] personally. I only knew her from the media.
JBN Who was Leah Anderson?
CW Leah Anderson was a 15-year-old girl who was Cree and was living and growing up in Gods Lake Narrows, which is a remote fly-in community in northern Manitoba.
I first heard about Leah’s story because her aunt shared a post on Facebook. It was just a photo of Leah, who looked so young. She was standing in front of a Christmas tree, and there was text beside her face that read, “My name is Leah Anderson, and I was killed,” and that she loved her life, and loved her family — it was written in the first person. And it said: “Please help find my killer.”
When we started trying to focus on the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, Leah Anderson’s story was the first that I wanted to profile. I wanted to explore her community and try to understand the context and the things outside of the mystery of the last weekend and the last night she was seen alive.
We went up there to Gods Lake Narrows. We met her family. We met her aunt. We met her sisters. We learned a little bit about her after she was gone, but it’s a heartbreaking story in a lot of ways.
JBN Many of these stories are really, really heartbreaking.
CW I felt frustrated with Leah’s story. We ended up doing a pretty substantial online story, and a 13 minute documentary that aired on CBC’s The National. I’m proud of the work and so grateful to her family for sharing part of her life with us. But I remember feeling frustrated because I felt like we couldn’t explore so much of the context that really helps you understand how and why she was in this position to become a girl who was killed — even though we had, I don’t know how many words online and 13 minutes on The National.
You really need to peel back all the layers and explore so much of the context to really understand this issue, to know who Leah was — her interaction with child welfare and how that impacted her life; her father dying a violent death and how that trauma impacted her life. There was a residential school that many people from her community went to — what are the rippling effects of that over the generations in that community?
JBN Who was Alberta Williams?
CW Well, Alberta Williams was a young woman who was loved and is still missed by her family even though it’s been 28 years since her murder in 1989. It’s a case that’s still unsolved. Many of these cases are still unsolved. Leah’s case is also unsolved.
Alberta was a Gitksan woman from northern B.C. who had hopes and dreams. She was living in Vancouver. She had a boyfriend. But she went back home for the summer to work in the cannery.
She went missing at the end of the summer, the weekend before she was supposed to head back to Vancouver. Her body was found a few weeks later in September 1989, just off the Highway of Tears. I heard about Alberta because we got an email from a former RCMP officer, Gary Kerr, who is now retired. He worked on her case at the time back in 1989. He sent the CBC an email saying he believed he knew who killed Alberta. That was the beginning of what ended up being an eight-part podcast that looked into her unsolved murder and found new information. But it also tried to provide the context that people need to understand the bigger issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada.
JBN What is happening on the Highway of Tears? What is happening across Canada and beyond in Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit people?
CW Well, according to the RCMP, there are over 1,200 Indigenous women and girls in Canada who are missing or have been murdered, although some advocates estimate that number could be as high as 4,000. I think it is a terrible tragedy that Indigenous women are disproportionately victims of terrible violence in Canada, even if they don’t end up becoming someone who is missing or murdered. I think that this is something that has been ongoing for decades, but really has just been given the spotlight and the attention it deserves in the last two years.
I think the increased media attention and the fact that there are finally investigations and stories and attention around this issue has led the government to call a national inquiry, which is just now beginning to travel across the country to hear from families of women and girls who have been victims of violence. Their goal is to try to propose some kind of recommendation to stop the violence.
JBNC It’s been a couple decades since Alberta Williams disappeared — coming up on almost three decades. How do you effectively and ethically report on a horrific event like this when it is shrouded in mystery and sometimes fading from memory?
CW With all of these stories that we’ve undertaken with families, we always try to be very responsible and very careful. Families are still dealing with this loss of a loved one, even though in some cases, it has been decades. I think it’s a very difficult thing to ask them to speak out about their loved one and to talk about what has happened or what their story is. That is something that I never take lightly and that I’m always very concerned about.
Because often, when you’re talking about Indigenous communities who are dealing with this kind of loss, this is often not the only traumatic event that has happened in their lives. The trauma is interwoven in so many different aspects.
Even though these stories deserve the attention, and deserve to be told, it is still incredibly difficult for families to talk about it and to trust a reporter when, for so long, they feel like their loved one’s story has fallen on deaf ears, and that they’ve been ignored by the media, and sometimes even by the police. So it’s not necessarily a straightforward thing.
In Alberta’s case, for example, no one had ever really reported on her, certainly not at the time; there was no reporting on Alberta’s death in 1989. Our podcast was the first in-depth look at what happened to her. That was something that her family actually wanted to do, even though it was incredibly difficult to revisit such a painful event and to bring back all of these memories. It’s something that her sister, Claudia, really wanted — to see Alberta’s story told. But there are so many considerations that come with it.
I feel like because I am a Cree woman, and I grew up in my community and I have family members who still live on the reserve, I have an understanding of some of these deeper issues. I also feel like I have an understanding of how these issues impact families. So I always want to be as responsible as I can to families when we’re asking them to talk about such painful things.
JBN Inevitably in conversations about Indigenous issues, you have to turn to history. The big thing emerging in Canadian historical conscience right now is the residential schools. That is such an important context for all of this and it is just now starting to be understood by the broader public.
CW When I started out at CBC in 2000, I’d always obviously been interested in telling stories from Indigenous communities and telling stories from my own community and people. But, I think this interest and appetite has really exploded in the last five years. I think it’s been motivated by metrics, more than anything. But now we actually see, for example, that my podcast was popular, or that a story about Indigenous issues did really well online. Because everyone is measured by their digital numbers now — it’s not just CBC. Every major Canadian newsroom is now telling stories from Indigenous communities, because it has been proven that there is an audience for those stories.
JBN Now that there is readership, how do you tell these stories well?
CW You’re almost building a foundation of understanding before you can delve into particular issues. As someone who grew up on a reserve, who has family members who are residential school survivors, as somebody who has personal experience with a lot of these issues, I can see the link between residential schools and the intergenerational effects of residential schools that are ongoing in communities in a way that I can’t necessarily expect an average Canadian who has never been taught that history to understand.
I went to this Reconciliation and the media conference last year in Saskatoon after Colten Boushie was shot and killed in Saskatchewan. He was a young Indigenous man. The man who has been charged in his murder, a non-Indigenous farmer from Saskatchewan, is going to be on trial next year.
The racism that was unleashed online after his death was, I think, really shocking for a lot of people to see written in plain sight on their Facebook feeds, on the Twitter feeds. It was something that caused a lot of people to really open their eyes to something that Indigenous people have understood for a long time.
But the organizers decided to host this conference to help journalists who were reporting in Saskatchewan on Indigenous issues, and who might not understand this bi er context. I think it was such a profound day for me because it came at a point where we were starting to work on the podcast and struggling with how to include this context in Alberta’s story.
The day started with a residential school survivor, Eugene Arcand, who was also on the survivors advisory committee for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He pulled a laminated photo out of his back pocket, and it was a picture of him and his classmates from residential school. He talked about how many of them had passed away.
He talked about how his first day off the reserve was the day he was taken to the residential school. He talked about what it meant to be a survivor and how he carries this picture of his classmates with him every day because that experience as a survivor is something that he carries every day. The keynote speaker for the conference was Marie Wilson, who was one of the commissioners of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. She was incredibly powerful. She talked about what it was like for her to travel across the country as a commissioner, and hear directly from survivors about their experiences, but also to witness how residential schools are impacting families and communities generations later. In her speech, she told us that it’s our job as journalists to connect the dots and to actually show people how these issues are connected. We can’t say that we don’t have the resources, or that our news rooms are getting smaller, or that people want a certain kind of news. It’s our responsibly as journalists to help connect these dots.
Residential schools were created for the purpose of separating Indigenous children from their families in order to minimize and weaken family ties and cultural linkages, and to indoctrinate children into a new culture — the culture of the legally dominant Euro-Christian Canadian society, led by Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Canada’s Indian residential schools uses the term “cultural genocide” for what happened to the Indigenous children and their families while these schools operated.
Cultural genocide is the destruction of those structures and practices that allow the group to continue as a group. States that engage in cultural genocide set out to destroy the political and social institutions of the targeted group. Land is seized, and populations are forcibly transferred and their movement is restricted. Languages are banned. Spiritual leaders are persecuted, spiritual practices are forbidden, and objects of spiritual value are confiscated and destroyed. And, most significant to the issue of residential schools, families are disrupted to prevent the transmission of cultural values and identity from one generation to the next.
JBNC Absolutely. I think it’s so important that people — because of the internet and hopefully because of the changing winds of society, culture, and politics — are actually finally hearing these stories. As Indigenous journalists, I think we also tell these stories in part because we don’t want to have to keep telling them.
CW Yeah. But, I think it’s also important for non-Indigenous journalists to be reporting in Indigenous communities. I think that’s something that is really important and I know the CBC is starting to do more training for non-Indigenous journalists so that we can better tell Indigenous stories from Indigenous communities. Duncan McCue has really led the way on that, with his reporting on Indigenous communities guide.
But I think it’s so crucial for organizations to also invest in Indigenous journalists, because we have an understanding of these issues that even the well intentioned ally just doesn’t have. It’s really important for us to be telling our own stories.
JBNC I want to go back to the issue of connecting the dots, which is really a tall order for journalists of all stripes, and particularly for Indigenous journalists.
For people who don’t come from these circumstances, can you connect some of those dots for us about the relationship between colonization and the residential schools and the social inequities that make our communities so vulnerable today?
CW Yeah, I think in the Alberta Williams podcast, we ended up speaking with someone by the name of Brad Marsden. He was an extended relative of Alberta’s. He was in town the summer she was killed. When we talked to him, we wanted to ask him questions about the night that Alberta died, because we wondered if he had information about it.
Instead, he actually wanted to start back in his own childhood. He told us about growing up in his community and living with his grandparents. He described himself as an intergenerational survivor of residential schools and how for a long time, he didn’t quite understand what that meant.
Now, it’s his full-time job as a facilitator, to teach people about the impacts of residential schools and the things that happened to survivors in residential schools and to their families and to their communities. And how they were a affected by being taken away as children and placed in these institutions where they were separated from their communities, their cultures, their language. How they were punished for being Indigenous, whether they were Cree or Gitksan or Mi’kmaq or Mohawk.
JBNC One of the things I learned from your podcast that I actually didn’t know is that some Indigenous communities call the RCMP “those who take us away,” which I think is a very power l and telling description of the relationship between the police and Indigenous communities.
Why are these relationships with police so strained? Why don’t people want to go to the police when bad things happen? What is the history of mistrust and abuse there?
CW Well I don’t think that the public really understands the RCMP’s role in residential schools. Often, the RCMP were the ones who actually came and took children from their families and from their communities and placed them in residential schools. Sometimes they were the ones who were called when children ran away from residential schools. It was their job to find runaways and bring them back to residential schools.
Compounding that history, the RCMP also played a central role in child welfare. Police often play a role in kids being apprehended from their homes.
Adding to that, just look at the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the criminal justice system. The overrepresentation of kids, Indigenous people in institutions. That compounds the mistrust of people in law enforcement and the justice system in general.
We decided to create our own database and talk to as many families as we could find about their loved ones so that we could not only focus on the violence or the circumstances around their death and disappearance, but also try to tell the bigger story, to provide the context, to show who they were as people: that they were mothers and sisters and daughters and cousins who were loved and missed. And to try to show how and why they became vulnerable to the violence that disproportionately affects Indigenous women.
JBNC Yeah, absolutely. One of my first memories was going up to Prince George to visit my grandfather in the slammer.
CW I feel like so many Indigenous people have that story. Maybe it was their first interaction with law enforcement or police, or their second or third. It’s often a negative story.
I have that, too. I remember driving my brother and cousin to an exhibition in Regina, and being pulled over by the police. Instead of coming to the side to ask for my license and registration, we were told over the loudspeaker to put our hands up and to get out of the vehicle, which we did, and then my brother, my 16-year-old brother, and my nephew, who is 17, were slammed on the ground by police and handcuffed. Just out of nowhere. I was like, “What’s going on? Why did you pull us over? What is happening?” I was so confused.
It was this horribly traumatic thing where they kept my brother on the ground face down on the pavement, without telling us how or why we were being treated this way. After a few minutes, they let them up, and they said, “Oh, you match the description of a robbery that took place here yesterday,” or something like that, which obviously was not any kind of consolation. Indigenous people have these kinds of experiences consistently. Of course that leads to a fractured relationship.
JBNC I’m going to ask a question that I don’t want to have to ask, but need to ask in order to address what is often the elephant in the room. When headlines come out that a missing or murdered woman was a sex worker or that someone from our community had a criminal record, those realities are often seen as justification for abuse — and even worse.
How do you get into those complex realities of how people survive without confirming ingrained, deep, racial biases about native people as sex workers and criminals and all of that?
CW I think the context is really the key. It’s about telling the truth about somebody’s situation. You have to understand the context of how and why those situations happen.
The CBC created a database of unsolved cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women, where the RCMP and their reports said they had 200-plus unsolved cases in their database of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. We decided to create our own database and talk to as many families as we could find about their loved ones so that we could not only focus on the violence or the circumstances around their death and disappearance, but also try to tell the bigger story, to provide the context, to show who they were as people: that they were mothers and sisters and daughters and cousins who were loved and missed. And to try to show how and why they became vulnerable to the violence that disproportionately affects Indigenous women.
And if you read through some of those profiles, you begin to see patterns. So many of these women had been victims of sexual violence or sexual abuse as children. So many of them had interactions with the child welfare system. Their mothers or grandmothers are residential school survivors.
But I think what we’ve seen in the last five years, and what we’ve been trying to do with initiatives like CBC Indigenous, for example, is provide a better reflection of the diversity within our community . It’s not just the diversity within nations, but the diversity of experiences — to celebrate positive stories and to celebrate culture and to celebrate the strength and resilience that exists in communities.
JBNC Do you think that telling these stories has made an impact?
CW In general, our goal in reporting on these stories is to help inform Canadians about what the realities are for Indigenous women and girls, so that people know about the violence that Indigenous women are more likely to be victims of, and have an understanding of where these issues come from.
In terms of impact, we were blown away by the number of people who reached out to us after listening to the podcast who said they were learning about residential schools for the first time. They didn’t understand missing and murdered Indigenous women and were just learning about the Highway of Tears.
Sometimes, I feel like I live in a bubble where I’m immersed in this all the time, so I imagine people have a level of understanding that they don’t. It’s not their fault for not having it — I just think that these stories haven’t been told enough in mainstream media. This history hasn’t been taught in schools in the way that it is just starting to be now.
JBNC As the most in influential reporter on this issue, what is next in the story? What do you think is next in the conversation about missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit people? And as its foremost narrator, what’s next for you?
CW We’re working on another season of the podcast Missing and Murdered. It will focus on an entirely new case. We’re still reporting on any and all developments in Alberta’s case as they happen, but we’re working on investigating a new case now. We hope to launch the second season in January of 2018.
For me, I’m not at all interested in true crime. I would almost never listen to a true crime podcast. I never imagined doing this kind of podcast. For me, it’s not about focusing on the violence or the gory details. It’s really about trying to shed light on the bigger picture, to help people understand what these issues are.
In Alberta’s story, we talked a lot about the relationship that Indigenous people have with police and about residential schools and how that impacted her family and community in particular.
This story is taking on a different part of that context that I think is equally important for people to understand and hopefully will help deepen people’s understanding of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada.
It’s not just the diversity within nations, but the diversity of experiences — to celebrate positive stories, culture, and the strength and resilience that exists in communities.
JBNC You have lived these experiences as a reporter. You have lived them close to home. One of your first experiences as a journalist was writing about this very issue. How have #MMIWG2S changed you and your professional life, your personal life, and your life as an Indigenous person in Canada?
CW I’m at the point now in my life and my career where I am exclusively focused on reporting on stories from Indigenous communities. That is something I could not have done 10 years ago.
Ten years ago, when I pitched my rst MMIW story, my executive producer at the time said: “This isn’t another poor Indian story, is it?” there was no appetite in pursuing the story. Now, I’m almost exclusively reporting on Indigenous issues and specifically this issue of violence against Indigenous women and girls.
That is something that I am very compelled to do as a Cree woman who grew up in my community, whose entire family has lived this experience of understanding the legacies of residential schools, but who also has and continues to celebrate the strength and the resilience in our community.
There’s no going back from here. This is not going to ever become a marginalized issue in the same way again. This will only continue to grow. There’s only going to be bigger demand to learn and know about the realities that Indigenous people face in Canada.
Featured Artworks: Walking With Our Sisters
The lives of missing and murdered Indigenous women have been honoured by artists and commemorative installations. Connie visited Walking With Our Sisters (WWOS), a travelling, crowd-sourced exhibition, and described it as “incredibly moving.”
Curated by Metis artist Christi Belcourt, the project collected over 1,725 pairs of beaded moccasin tops (also referred to as vamps, tongues, or uppers) from 1,372 artists, after a general call was issued on Facebook. They almost tripled their original goal of 600.
Each pair of moccasin tops are “intentionally not sewn into moccasins to represent the unfinished lives of the women and girls,” according to the WWOS website. As the artists created these works, many prayed and put their love into their stitching. The project itself inspired dozens of beading groups to be formed, bringing together women, men, and children, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous.
The project website notes: “This project is about these women, paying respect to their lives and existence on this earth. They are not forgotten. They are sisters, mothers, daughters, cousins, aunties, grandmothers, friends, and wives. They have been cared for, they have been loved, and they are missing.”
Connie Walker is a CBC investigative reporter. Her podcast, Missing and Murdered, won several awards including the Canadian Association of Journalists’ Don McGillivray investigative award.
Julian Brave NoiseCat (Secwepemc/St’at’imc) is a policy analyst at 350.org. He is also an award-winning journalist who has written for the Guardian, CBC, Vice, Huffington Post, and many other publications.