The content of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Two-spirit+ people (MMIWG2S+) strategy isn’t groundbreaking to First Nation chiefs — but it does present a unique opportunity for territory-wide collaboration.
“We knew these problems were there, we’ve been dealing with colonialism and racism since contact,” said Champagne and Aishihik Chief Steve Smith.
“Our land claim itself was a statement of us not accepting, any longer, the current way in which it was.”
The MMIWG2S+ strategy, which was presented and signed by 45 Yukon leaders on Dec. 10, outlines four root issues that marginalize Indigenous women and render them vulnerable to violence.
Those root problems are intergenerational trauma; the status quo; economic marginalization; and ignoring the agency of Indigenous women and two-spirit+ people.
They are complemented by 31 action items for ending gender-based violence against Indigenous people in the territory.
Those action items outline some of the basic necessities — like safe housing, mental health support and access to education — that some Yukon First Nations have been asking for since the implementation of their final agreements.
Dana Tizya-Tramm, Vuntut Gwitchin Chief, says the gaps identified in the strategy are evidence that the cultural overhaul intended in those final agreements hasn’t culminated.
“Indigenous women in the Yukon and this country have to face decisions that the rest of Canadians simply don’t. These strategies are filled with the lives and experiences of those Indigenous women,” Tizya-Tramm said.
“We have always endeavoured to provide those supports, to close these gaps, and (the strategy) is recognition from our governing partners in Canada and the Yukon that they see what we see.”
The responsibility “lies with each one of us”
While the action items in the strategy don’t identify the gaps for the first time, the strategy does present a new opportunity for collaboration. It’s 45 signatories included Yukon chiefs, mayors, federal ministers, territorial ministers and the RCMP Chief Superintendent.
“One of our greatest points of advocacy is getting the same messaging out to leadership, because if this is something that is intimate to the Indigenous experience, we also need that recognition from our partners,” Tizya-Tramm said.
That recognition is an important piece of the strategy’s power. According to Kluane First Nation Chief Bob Dickson, it’s also a pivotal first step toward change.
“Recognition of the fact that this has been happening for a long time is where we need to start — the first step is to sign the declaration and acknowledge the injustices,” Dickson said.
Tizya-Tramm said the responsibility for acknowledging and implementing the strategy “lies with each one of us” in the Yukon.
All eyes looking toward implementation
Now that leaders have agreed on a set of solutions, implementation is key. On Dec. 10, the Yukon Advisory Committee responsible for writing the strategy said planning and budgeting were their next steps.
Smith told the News that the strategy is a positive start, but doesn’t guarantee actual change.
“I can’t say we’re excited, but we’re buoyed by the work that’s gone on so far…. The implementation is where the hard work has to start and the commitments have to start,” Smith said.
The strategy calls on all leaders to take responsibility for ending violence via the action items. The onus is also placed on every Yukon citizen to enact change, which is one aspect of what makes the initiative unique.
“There is no hierarchy; we together are recognizing … our collective responsibility to dismantle colonial systems that perpetuate systemic racism,” Tizya-Tramm said.
It lends opportunity to change the colonial systems that reinforce male-dominated hierarchies and instead prioritize the safety and autonomy of Indigenous women, Tizya-Tramm explained.
“It has always been our intention and we have always tried to make these cultural shifts, but we have only been provided negotiation tables or courtrooms and that is the hardest way to affect culture in this country,” he said.
The Carcross/Tagish First Nation hosted a celebration in support of the MMIWG2S+ strategy last October. It hosted the whole community for a prayer circle, a fire, dance and story-sharing.
“It was emotional, people got up and told some stories about their relatives,” said Carcross/Tagish Deputy Chief Maria Benoit.
“The community supports it and the community is behind it, it speaks for itself when the community shows up…. I’m sure it’ll be true for every First Nation, every community to make it a priority to keep our young women and girls safe.”
Benoit added that the strategy was “a long time coming” and signals encouraging change.
The priorities of each First Nation will be individual and fluid
The MMIWG2S+ strategy promises to be a living document that will morph over the next 10 to 15 years to suit the needs of First Nations. At the signing ceremony on Dec. 10, First Nation leaders were invited to establish priorities specific to their community.
Smith said that he envisions an improved healthcare system, economic independence and culturally relevant education as priorities for the Champagne and Aishihik First Nation.
That means improved, “victim-centred” mental wellness support, and the infrastructure to support it, he explained. The chief would also like to see improved access to post-secondary education and professional development. Safe housing is also key, he said.
Finally, improved post-secondary education is necessary to eliminate systemic racism in public systems.
“We should be holding universities to account,” Smith said.
“When we hear some of the terrible stories about how healthcare workers treat marginalized people, I think a lot of that is a survival technique, it doesn’t excuse what they’re doing, but they’re doing it because they’re trying to survive.
“It’s one of the things that can be easily overlooked; they’re not being trained to the reality of today.”
Dickson said community safety is a priority for Kluane First Nation. There hasn’t been an RCMP detachment in Burwash Landing for nearly three decades, he said. Haines Junction RCMP are responsible for covering the area.
“There is violence in the community, there’s drinking and driving, and a lot of these issues happen when the RCMP are two hours away,” Dickson said.
“It’s sometimes very challenging for our community to deal with a lot of issues.”
The highest priority, of course, is protecting Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit+ people and signalling a return to the traditional values of a matriarchal society that honours and protects them.
“When I had successfully won the office in leadership for the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, I remember finding out at our local community hall, and as community members were shaking my hand one of the elders pulled me close,” Tizya-Tramm said.
“He said, ‘You stand up for our women, and you stand up for our rights.’ Of all the things he could have said, that’s what he told me.”
Prioritizing the safety and autonomy of women and two-spirit+ people is a way of honouring traditional values, he said.
“Whether we are successful, or have a lot of work to do, I think this is a rising star in the night sky of our country that really should be guiding us.”
Contact Gabrielle Plonka at firstname.lastname@example.org