Regarding MMIWG2S+, the ethics of storytelling and systemic change
On May 19, 2022, I had the opportunity to attend the MMIWG2S+ Accountability Forum at the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Center. I wanted to go because this issue is close to my heart, but it is also very relevant to my work – which is to increase security and facilitate justice in the territory of the Kwanlin Dün on behalf of the Kwanlin First Nation Dun (“PNKD”).1
As I expected, the day was very emotionally charged. We heard from families from MMIWG2S+ and we also heard from women who bravely shared their experiences as Indigenous women in Canada. Individual experiences of violence were clearly linked to experiences of state violence such as colonialism across the Indian Act, residential schools, the Canadian criminal justice system and the Canadian child protection system. It felt like a safe space to tell the truth and I actually didn’t know the media was there. 2
One of my roles as a KDFN employee is to manage the Community Safety Officers (“CSOs”): a program to prevent violence in KDFN territory. I was unexpectedly asked to speak about this because one of our CSOs ended up sick that day. I explained that the CSO program was developed by KDFN in response to the murder of Brandy Vittrekwa, a young Gwich’in woman who was loved by her family and communities and whom I knew personally from her visits to Old Crow while I lived there.
I decided to share that I am an aboriginal woman (Vuntut Gwitchin) and grew up in Whitehorse and experienced violence in my life. I am also a lawyer and I understand the legal systems in place. I was exposed to violence as an adult, in my twenties, and at the time I chose not to involve the police or press charges because I felt, and still feel, that my needs would not be met by the current criminal justice system. I felt this experience was important to share on the forum because I know I am not alone. It is also relevant because I believe that we (as a society or as First Nations governments) need to explore other options for all, but particularly Indigenous women in this context, seeking accountability and justice .
This need for victim-centered and crisis-responsive approaches for survivors of gender-based violence and sexual assault is also reflected in Yukon’s MMIWG2S+ strategy as part of the Community Safety and Security Pathway. justice. I explained to the forum that I would have preferred to be able to pursue a more restorative approach, which would not necessarily have been seeking a criminal record or a prison sentence. The reason for this is that these penalties are actually quite severe and require serious evidence and lengthy, expensive processes – and they’re a kind of zero-sum game – which real relationships often aren’t. The way these sentences are handed down in Canadian criminal law actually has the effect of discouraging people, especially women, and especially aboriginal women, from coming forward. This, in turn, results in less accountability in our society as a whole for the harm done. The process is also adversarial and does not sufficiently take into account the complex nature of the conflict and the many societal factors that influence behaviors, particularly in the First Nations context.
Rather, what I wanted was to be heard and understood in a safe environment, to know that the person had a chance to take responsibility and make amends, that it would be a learning experience in that the process would help prevent the past from events that will occur in the future to someone else and ultimately find healing supports that align with First Nations values. I also wanted my privacy and dignity to be respected throughout.
I was shocked to see that the Yukon News posted one of my forum quotes about responsibility, without context and without addressing me, which sounded like I had told the forum that I “grew up” on violence – which was a misquote. It’s heartbreaking because I’m actually incredibly lucky to have grown up in a very strong, violence-free, alcohol- and drug-free home – which is a huge testament to the strength of my parents. It was also disappointing to see my words, my vulnerability, so distorted in the newspaper. I write this to say that this public misinterpretation is exactly the reason why women are not coming forward and sharing their personal experiences and information. Dealing with the misquotation of this article affected me by taking time out of my days and being emotionally taxing.
These types of mistakes are harmful and cause real harm, especially in the context of a forum of accountability for the most vulnerable people in our society. These stories aren’t clickbait – these stories are of real people continuing to deal with the consequences. These stories and the people behind them deserve respect, which means asking for their consent to tell them. When you don’t show respect, you risk showing people like me that it’s better to keep quiet.
Yukon News explained that when invited to events like the forum, consent is implied and quotes do not need to be verified. I asked if the Yukon News never provided trauma-informed training or cultural competency training to their journalists. The answer was “no”. Again, this demonstrates the systemic issues facing Indigenous peoples in Canada’s institutions. I believe that my experience and views on the justice system and the media are neither new nor unique to many Aboriginal people. In fact, both are addressed in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action.
Writing this letter about my experience at the newspaper is really the last thing I ever wanted to do – but the original published quote was already there. If anything can come out of this mistake, whether it be to engage in education, reflection, and systemic change and ask whether posting a quote is doing harm or good? Is it correct ? I couldn’t see the value of my particular quote included in the piece. It was not for nothing that I had shared this about myself on the forum. It was to demonstrate that I am someone who grew up here, I am a First Nation and I am privileged and it is always damaging to navigate these systems that are not built for us or do not serve us. This was to spark a conversation about advancing the alternative justice options identified in Yukon’s MMIWG2S+ strategy and to share what KDFN is doing and I really wish that was the focus of the article.
Finally, I hope that First Nations will be supported to take back control of how justice is delivered to their people through self-government and that the Yukon strategy for MMIWG2S+ is responded to in a decolonial and empowering way. First Nations people so that we can continue to heal.
1This letter is my personal opinion and not that of my employer.
2After reading the article, I contacted yukon New. They edited the article and said I could write a letter to the newspaper. They didn’t offer to publish my original letter until a week later, so this is an edited version. Yukon News also clarified that they had permission to be at the forum and that the forum organizers should have informed everyone that the media was there. It doesn’t matter who did what or what their intentions were, the impact is the same.