December the 6th

A Day I’ll Never Forget

Yesterday was December the 6th. It’s been 21 years since the massacre at the Ecole Polythechnique. No matter how much time has gone by, I remember the day like it was yesterday. I remember coming home and watching the news, without knowing what had happened, and seeing all the ambulances, police cars, and emergency personnel responding to some shooting that had happened earlier in the day. By the end of the hour I would find out that 14 women lost their lives.

One of the images that still sticks out in my mind is a picture from that day. The bullet holes in the walls. The blood on the floor. And one of the victims slumped backwards in her chair in the cafeteria. I don’t remember the magazine that this appeared in, but I found it an extremely tasteless way to portray a victim. I felt it was just a way of selling magazines. At the same time, it did drive home the horror of such an incident. Sometimes, people need to see the ugliness of humanity to understand that change needs to happen.

That day is always going to be marked in infamy, and the aftermath is always going to stay with me as well. I was 17 at the time, and I remember what it was like to go to school the next day. Everyone was talking about it. The school was pretty much shut down because of the subject. Math, gym, social sciences … all of that was replaced with what had happened at the University of Montreal.

The girls in my class would stay away from the boys. There was constant whispering. No one wanted to step out of line for fear of being likened to Marc Lapine. One of the most disturbing pieces of news came out a few days later. A woman was calling various hospitals and threatening to kill all the male babies so that they wouldn’t grow up to hurt women.

It wasn’t a good time to be male in this city. Everyone was afraid of you. It was like Mark Lapine imprinted his malice towards women on the city. I remember getting into a fight in school and someone yelling out “Oh, he might have a gun!” Marc Lapine changed everything. Not just in Montreal, but in every city across Canada. He took violence against women to a whole new level. In the days and months afterwards, questions flooded in. How was Lapine able to get a rifle? Why he didn’t receive psychiatric treatment…? Why, why, why? And nobody seemed to have any answers. Especially not the politicians.

Everyone has that day they’re going to remember, whether it’s good or if it’s bad, because of its life-altering quality. Even at the age of 17 I knew that Lapine’s actions were going to have repercussions for decades to come. Naturally, the politicians said that swift action needed to be taken, so that women could be protected and could feel safe in the community. One of those things was the long gun registry that the Conservatives have been adamant about destroying.

When I think about all of this now, I feel like things have just gotten worse.

Violence against women is on the rise. There’s more apathy than ever. It’s true. 1989, 21 years ago, there were hundreds more Native Women on this planet who had not yet gone missing. Though violent crime has gone down, crimes of other sorts are on the rise. You just need to look at the rape statistics at any University in this country, and you’ll see its not getting better, it’s getting worse. Sometimes I think people have forgotten the message that came out of Lapine’s massacre. People have forgotten that a man killed 14 women because he believed they were feminists. He believed the world was out to get him. He’s definitely still not the only man that thinks this way.

December 6th should be a National day to remember violence against women. And not just one kind of women, but all women, of all walks of life, be they sex workers or students, lawyers or the homeless women. Women all together.

Mark Lapine succeeded in doing two things. He reminded us how savage humans can be, and he made us realize that no one is safe. While we can try to be vigilant in our everyday lives, the problem runs deep, and is systematic. We shouldn’t feel sorry for Lapine. What we need to do is understand mental illness better. We need a better health care system so men – people – like him don’t fall through the cracks. Because when people like him fall through the cracks, we’re all to blame.

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There is something else my girlfriend pointed out, in her brilliance:

There is a well publicized and nationally recognized vigil for the Polythecnique Massacre every year, but few and sparsely attended vigils for the 582 missing and murdered native women in Canada. This shows the difference between violence that happens suddenly and in the open, versus in alleys, on back roads, and homes – the kind of violence we call “domestic,” and to the people who have fallen through society’s cracks. We remember some violence (towards people of education who society approves of), but blatantly ignore systemic violence – much of it just as gruesome as the massacre – when it happens to the people we have cast away as a society.

Bureaucracy Kills

The recent developments in the Robert Willie Pickton case have demonstrated the need for for an all out inquiry into why the police didn’t do their jobs and why over a dozen women lost their lives at the hands of the serial killer. Police could have caught Pickton years earlier and therefore prevented the deaths, an internal Vancouver police investigation concludes. The report has remained under wraps for more than a year because of court proceedings, publication bans, and now because the British Columbia government wants time to study the findings. The question is why do they need time, is it to cover their own failings? The report itself is over 400 pages long and while it places considerable blame on the Vancouver police the dept it also lays blame with the RCMP who could have arrested Pickton but chose not which resulted in the deaths of many more women.

The families have been calling for an inquiry for years but the BC govt has been reluctant to have one but now through public pressure from the Assembly of First Nations Chief Shawn Atleo and the Native Women’s Association of Canada, the Vancouver police, RCMP, B.C. Civil Liberties Association, the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs and Amnesty International Canada. So the heat is on the BC govt to give the people what they want, will they do that is still up in the air. If this decision goes in favor of an inquiry it might lead to a national data base for missing and murdered native women across Canada which in my opinion is sorely needed to turn the tide against the abusers.

Right now the province of Manitoba is the only one of the provinces to create a task force to go through all the cases of missing women in that province. The task force is staffed with three RCMP officers, two RCMP analysts and four officers from the Winnipeg Police Service has come under fire for perceived inaction by the police task force set up a year ago to investigate cases like Claudette Osborne’s and to raise awareness about her and other unsolved cases. Claudette Osborne disappeared on July 24, 2008, and was last seen on McPhillips Street after leaving the Lincoln Hotel in Winnipeg. Friends and family recently completed a march from Norway House First Nation to Winnipeg to protest the lack of action.

Unfortunately there are many cases that reflect those of Osborne, too many cases have remained unsolved. In 1996 a Canadian government statistic revealed that Indigenous women between the ages of 25 and 44, with status under the Indian Act, were five times more likely than all other women of the same age to die as the result of violence. Unfortunately the lack of information on violence against native women had hampered a lack of comprehensive reporting and statistical analysis.

Sisters in Spirit campaign was launched in March 2004, in response to alarmingly high levels of violence against Aboriginal women in Canada. In preparation for its March 2004-March 2005 campaign, the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) issued a national call for information about women who have been lost to violence (or suspected violence). Based on this anecdotal evidence, NWAC estimates that approximately 500 Aboriginal women have gone missing in the last 20 years. This estimate is supported by 1996 government statistics showing that Aboriginal women with status were FIVE TIMES more likely to die as a result of violence than any other group of Canadian women.

The BC govt had said that they will render a decision sometime in the fall but I am not holding my breath. We have been asking for years for a public inquiry into missing women but our pleas seems to have fallen on deaf ears. In October 2008, the UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women called on Canada to “take the necessary steps to remedy the deficiencies in the system” with respect to murdered or missing Indigenous women. The committee also called for restrictions on funding the advocacy activities of women’s groups to be lifted and for the establishment of an oversight mechanism for women prisoners.

Earlier this year the Harper Govt made available 10 million dollars to combat violence against native women but then cut funding to the Native healing foundation and the Montreal Native woman shelter both of which native women need to protect themselves against their abusers. The Harper govt has been famous for this taking one step forward and three steps back. His govt hasn’t done very much for First Nations in this country these include plans to construct a gas pipeline through lands in Alberta over which the Lubicon Cree continue to assert rights. The government continued to assert that the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was not applicable in Canada because Canada had voted against its adoption.

I believe that only when there is a national task force and data base on the missing and murdered native women will we be able to stem the tide of violence. Only when our govt begins to respect first nations people will we ever be able to break down the stereotypes that keep first nations where they are!

The power of words

This past weekend proved that activism really works!

It started with the MUS’s (McGill’s Management Undergraduate Society) recent decision to put on their racially insensitive Tribal Frosh 2010, as part of new McGill students’ orientation activities. That they thought this was a good idea is a symptom of the lack of programs about indigenous peoples in today’s schools. MUS’s use of tribal dances from the Inca, Maori, Zulu and Masai nations in videos they put online were not only an affront to those nations but an affront to all indigenous peoples across the planet. Indigenous peoples have had to deal with the constant appropriation of their land and culture. Cultural appropriation can take on many forms. In this case, it was a bunch of non indigenous people using indigenous dances and warrior lifestyles to promote binge drinking and irresponsible behavior.

Indigenous peoples already have a genetic predisposition to problems with the bottle. Linking indigenous peoples and the over-consumption of alcohol in a casual, disrespectful, and thoughtless way is the last thing the community needs. What MUS Frosh was planning would only have reinforced the stereotype that indigenous people are a bunch of alcoholics. The question “What were the organizers thinking?” definitely sprang to mind.

This past Sunday, after the organizers received complaints about the proposed event, they offered to sit down with the people who had brought the complaints, myself included. We had the chance to ask “What were you thinking?” After speaking with the organizers, it was obvious that they hadn’t thought at all. It’s only after I pointed out a homeless indigenous man across the street that they finally realized what they had done – perpetuate these harmful, false stereotypes, to the detriment of people like him.

During the conversation with the organizers, they decided to A) take down the now infamous video, and B) to promote other cultures. Point B was an obvious attempt to take back lost moral ground – the Management organizers mentioned that they would promote cultures such as Islam, Judaism, and others… within the very same Tribal Frosh.

If anyone can figure out how that would have helped, or made any sense at all, let me know.

After leaving the meeting and having only Points A and B conceded, we were not sure what was going to happen. Would they continue with the event? Would they think about it and change their minds? Did they really hear what we were saying? For the next few hours, I wasn’t sure if my time had been well spent or wasted.

Sunday evening, to my surprise, it looked like they had changed their minds and changed the theme. Their website suddenly announced “Superhero Frosh” instead of “Tribal Frosh.” After our conversation with them, it seems they took our words to heart and understood the problem with the ideas they had had before. It reminded me why I continue fighting for indigenous rights – sometimes activism and words really work!

This made me think about how a theme like Tribal Frosh was able to happen at all. It is a problem of the North American education system.

Now, forget that history is written by the conquerors, yadda yadda yadda. Our education system will never survive, especially indigenous peoples’ history, if all we do is focus on what the conquerors have said. We will never fix racial problems if we ignore the typically silenced side of the story. We need alternative history books. We need our children to understand that there are two sides to every story. And we need our children to understand that just because something bad happened doesn’t mean that we can’t talk about it. What bothers me the most is that there are some subjects in history that it’s OK to talk about (i.e. the holocaust, slavery,), but it’s not OK to talk about what has happened (and is still happening) to indigenous people across the planet.

The MUS Frosh organizers did point out that there’s a huge lack of information about indigenous peoples. I gave them a run-down of just some of the past and current indigenous issues in this country and it was obvious that they had never heard of any of them. Things like residential schools, poor housing, bad water, some of the highest suicide rates of any group in the country, and of course 100s and 100s of missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls. And that’s just in THIS country. If it were up to me to redo the education system, our history books would be a lot bigger. Not just on indigenous issues, but on all the issues the conquerors have decided not to tell us.

We need to talk about the Armenian genocide. We need to talk about Japanese internment camps. We need to talk about Canada’s policy when building the railways of using Chinese workers to carry dynamite into tunnels. I think it’s a trait that a lot of human beings have – to run away and hide rather than face the truth, to face justice. It’s so much easier to ignore something if no one knows about it.

One of the questions I asked the organizers was whether they had asked the Elders from the tribes they were misrepresenting if they had permission to use each of the Masai, Inca, Zulu and Maori dances. Did they have permission to use their songs and their chants? Probably not, because the Elders would never have agreed. In the end, I hope the organizers learn from this experience, and that it’s not OK to take a culture’s traditions and use them for whatever means they want. It is important for them to take this moment and learn about the Maori, learn about the Zulu, and the Inca, and the Masai. Really learn about their cultures. Learn about how history has treated them, and then share it with other students in their Faculty. I commend them for reaching out to us and asking “What’s wrong? Why are you so upset?”, because that shows that they were concerned about what kind of reaction this was going to get. I commend them further for accepting the loss of the T-shirts and other costs and coming up with something new for Frosh. I understand that Frosh is an important event at the beginning of every university year, that people need to go out, get drunk, get stupid, and make poor sexual choices. But let us remember that Frosh can also be used as a time to understand and meet new people. It is an opportunity to understand different cultures and societies, and the different ways that people think. Don’t waste your brain cells on a pint of beer when you can be having a discussion with someone from Dubai, or Timbuktu, and learn their customs. Learn about them, instead of focusing on some pathetic stereotypes that don’t need strengthening.


The Native Women’s Association of Canada recently added 62 names to the list of missing or murdered aboriginal women and girls. The Sister’s in Spirit initiative is tasked with researching and reporting on cases of women and girls who have gone missing, In 2005, a five-year research, education and policy initiative supported by Status of Women Canada – to address the root causes, circumstances and trends of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls. The NWAC works to point out the the systemic problems within the government and justice system when it come to dealing with violence against native women. An aboriginal woman aged 25 to 44 is 5 times more likely to die violently than an non aboriginal woman.

One of the issues that really needs to be dealt with is the negative stereotypes that native women face in the justice system. First Nations peoples make up 4% of Canada’s adult population but make 20% of the prison population this according the office of the correctional investigator. Native women make 33% of federally sentenced prisoners and though there are various problems attributed to the high percentage the federal government refused calls for a special commissioner to investigate the problem. This issue first came to light in 1990 when the native women made up 17% of federal prisoners, that number is now double. The issue is only getting worse according to the latest report on aboriginal offenders which has seen an increase of a 131% for federally incarcerated native women prisoners. You can find that report here,

On March 4th the Federal government dedicated 10 million over two years to deal with the issue of violence against native women but the future of the sisters in spirit seems to be finished also the Conservatives’ cuts to the Aboriginal Healing Foundation (AHF) shows that the government is taking a step back instead of a step forward! The Aboriginal Healing Foundation is a non-profit, Aboriginal-managed agency which supports community-based healing efforts addressing the intergenerational legacy of abuses from the residential school system. There have been many questionable cuts done by the Conservative Government, some of the notable ones being the Kelowna accord which was a series of agreements between the Government of Canada, First Ministers of the Provinces, Territorial Leaders, and the leaders of five national aboriginal organizations in Canada.

The Accord sought to improve the education, employment, and living conditions for Aboriginal peoples through governmental funding and other programs. The minority govt of Paul Martin’s Liberal’s was in charge when the agreement was put together but lost the election to Harper who said that there were committed to Kelowna but have since gone in another direction. In June 2006 Paul Martin tabled a private members bill, Bill C-292 An Act to Implement the Kelowna Accord which passed easily on March 21st by a 176 to 126 margin. The torries ignored the vote stating that they didn’t have to implement the bill because private members bills cannot force the government of the day to spend money.

Other cuts that have Canadians scratching their heads, First Nations and Inuit Tobacco Control Program, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada FUNDING REDUCTION, Natural Resources and Environment Climate Change Programs, including the One Tonne Challenge, 40 public information offices across the country, and several scientific and research programs on climate change, 40% BUDGET CUT, Status of Women Canada, SIGNIFICANT BUDGET CUT, Court Challenges Program ELIMINATED and there have been many more social and government programs that have had their funding cut or eliminated by the Conservative Government.

With all these cuts you would think that Harper just doesn’t care about women, so what is it. He makes these grandiose promises but makes cuts that make those promises hallow ones. You can’t devote 10 million over two years to protecting native women then cut funding to the native woman’s shelter of Montreal which helps protect battered women. On the 4th of October this year I will be getting a team together to set up for the Sisters In Spirit Vigil. Like the 3 years previous, communities across this country will come together to bring attention to the plight of native women. Unfortunately progress will only be made when the government creates a national task force made up of police, government and community groups all working together to bring an end to violence not just against native women but all women!

What is in an apology?

The two year anniversary of Harper’s apology to victims of the residential schools is just a few weeks away, what I would like to know is, has anything changed? The first residential schools were started in the 1840s with the last one closing in 1996. If you’ve ever heard of the schools it’s quite possible that you have never heard about what really happened. Unfortunately the stories of abuse lay dormant for decades, The Story of a National Crime: Being a Record of the Health Conditions of the Indians of Canada from 1904 to 1921 by Dr Peter Bryce which talked about the mortality rates within the schools between 1894 to 1908 only became public in 1922.

Bryce’s report contended that the high mortality rates were were deliberate in many cases with healthy children being placed with those who had tuberculosis. Over a five year period the schools had a 35 to 60% death rate because of tuberculosis which was rampant. In Harper’s apology he mentions how some died but according to an estimated 50,000 children died in the schools. The school’s were run by the Catholic, Anglican and United church’s, Pope Benedict XVI is the only church leader to express regret for what happened in the schools.

His Holiness recalled that since the earliest days of her presence in Canada, the Church, particularly through her missionary personnel, has closely accompanied the indigenous peoples. Given the sufferings that some indigenous children experienced in the Canadian Residential School system, the Holy Father expressed his sorrow at the anguish caused by the deplorable conduct of some members of the Church and he offered his sympathy and prayerful solidarity. His Holiness emphasized that acts of abuse cannot be tolerated in society. He prayed that all those affected would experience healing, and he encouraged First Nations Peoples to continue to move forward with renewed hope.

The alleged abuses varied from Rape and torture, medical sterilization and experimentation, Physical abuse and even murder. I once had a conversation with one survivor where we talked about what really went on in the schools.(For the sake of this blog we’ll call him George) George went into a school in southern Ontario at the age of 5, he was beaten for speaking his language, he had his hair cut and had to deal with various abuses from the nuns and priests. The schools not only tried to beat the Indian out of the child but it also irreparably damaged and displaced families and when I mean displaced, George doesn’t know where family members who went into the schools are anymore.

I had such high hopes for the apology when I heard that it was coming but afterwords I felt nothing but disappointment. Sure the apology was a necessary first step but it didn’t go far enough,it sure wasn’t long enough at just under 10min. When Kevin Rudd the Prime minister of Australia apologized to the Aborigines for the stolen generations he spoke for 30min in detail about the survivors of the stolen generations went through and promised to make amends for what happened. Harper simply apologized and left at that, he even mentioned that it took a year of Jack Layton leader of the NDP telling him to apologize and that it was important. If it takes someone that long to decide if it’s okay to apologize then how could anyone take it seriously.

I was interviewed by the CBC about my reaction to the apology, unfortunately my response was severely edited. I wasn’t surprised by the edit because I don’t think people are ready to hear about what really happened during that time. What I think needs to be done is the whole truth needs to come out, everything, all the dirty laundry. The Friends and Relatives of the Disappeared (FRD) sent a letter to the United Church which asked that the church identify the burial sites of residential school children who died under their care, and return them for a proper burial, the letter was ignored. There have been many demonstrations since the letter was sent out in February.

Only with full disclosure can the country and it’s victims can truly start to heal, a person can’t heal if they are prevented from sharing the full story. Unfortunately because there was so many years of neglect, so many years of ignoring the issue the victims have grown to include their families. One quote that best describes the situation most survivors are in is “We have forgotten how to love”. Imagine hurting so much inside that it affects your ability to interact with even your own family let alone people. That is what victims had to face, unable to talk, to share their pain, they kept it bottled up inside where it festered. Some victims turned to drugs and alcohol, some turned to suicide.

I myself am a victim of sexual abuse and was not able to share what had happened because my abuser told that my mother wouldn’t believe me and that it would cause only problems. It would be two decades before I would really speak about it. When it comes to solutions I don’t believe that a simple apology will do it nor will an inquiry. The survivors need justice, yes some of the accused are long dead but there are some that are still around and should be brought to justice. We can’t just brush this aside aside because it happened so long ago, in order for this issue to completely heal we need to do it properly!

Irkar Beljaars