Regarding MMIWG2S+, storytelling ethics, and systemic change
On May 19, 2022, I had the opportunity to attend the MMIWG2S+ accountability forum at the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre. I wanted to go because this issue is both dear to my heart, but is also highly relevant to my job - which is to increase safety and help facilitate justice in Kwanlin Dün territory on behalf of the Kwanlin Dün First Nation (“KDFN”).1
As I expected, the day was very heavy emotionally. We heard from the families of 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 through the Indian Act, residential schools, the Canadian criminal justice system and the Canadian child welfare system. It felt like a safe space for truth-telling and I was actually unaware that media was there. 2
One of my roles as an employee for KDFN is to manage the Community Safety Officers (“CSO”): a program that is meant to prevent violence from happening in KDFN territory. I was unexpectedly asked to speak on that because one of our CSOs ended up being 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 beloved by her family and communities and who I knew personally from her visits to Old Crow while I was living there.
I decided to share that I am an Indigenous woman (Vuntut Gwitchin) and grew up in Whitehorse, and had experienced violence in my life. I am also a lawyer and have an understanding of the legal systems in place. My exposures to violence were as an adult, in my twenties, and at the time I chose not to involve police or press charges because I felt, and still do feel, that my needs would not be met by the current criminal justice system. I felt this experience was important to share at the forum because I know I am not alone. It is also relevant because I believe that we (either as a society or as First Nation governments) need to explore other options for all people, but particularly Indigenous women in this context, seeking accountability and justice.
This need for victim-centered and crisis-responsive approaches for victims of gender-based violence and sexualized assault is also reflected in Yukon’s MMIWG2S+ Strategy under the Community Safety and Justice path forward. I explained to the forum that I would have preferred to be able to pursue a more restorative approach, that would not necessarily have been seeking a criminal record or jail time. The reason for this is that these punishments are actually quite serious and require serious evidence and lengthy and expensive processes — and they are kind of a zero sum game — which real relationships often are not. The way these sentences are reached in Canadian criminal law actually have the effect of discouraging people, particularly women, and particularly Indigenous women from coming forward. In turn, this results in decreased accountability in our society as a whole for harms done. The process is also adversarial and does not adequately address the complex nature of conflict and the many societal factors that inform behaviours, particularly in the First Nation context.
What I wanted instead was to be heard and understood in a safe environment, to know that the person had a chance to take responsibility for their part and make amends, that it would be a learning experience in that the process would help to prevent the past events occurring in the future to someone else, and to ultimately find supports for healing that align with First Nation values. I also wanted my privacy and dignity respected throughout.
I was upset to see that the Yukon News published a quote of mine from the accountability forum, without context and without speaking to me, that made it seem as though I told the forum that I “grew up” with violence — which was a misquote. This is upsetting because I am actually extremely fortunate that I grew up in a very solid home, without violence and without alcohol or drugs — which is a huge testament to the strength of my parents. It was also triggering to see my words, my vulnerability, so misrepresented in the newspaper. I write this to say that this public misinterpretation is exactly why women do not come forward and share their personal experiences and information. Dealing with the misquote in this article has impacted me by taking time out of my days and being emotionally taxing.
These kinds of mistakes are damaging and cause real harm — especially in the context of an accountability forum for the most vulnerable people in our society. These stories are not click bait — these stories are real people who are continuing to deal with the consequences. These stories and the people behind them deserve respect- which means seeking their consent to retell. When you do not show respect — you risk showing people like me that it is better to keep quiet.
Yukon News explained that when they are invited to events like the forum, consent is implied and quotes do not need to be checked. I asked whether the Yukon News ever provided trauma-informed training or cultural competency training to their journalists. The answer was “no.” Again, this demonstrates the systemic issues faced by Indigenous people in Canada’s institutions. I believe my experience and my opinions on the justice system and the media are neither new or unique from the perspective of many Indigenous people. Indeed, they are both discussed in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action.
Writing this letter about my experience to the newspaper is truly the last thing I ever wanted to be doing - but the original published quote was already out there. If anything can come out of this mistake, let it be to engage in education, reflection, and systemic change and ask whether publishing a quote is doing harm or doing good? Is it accurate? I could not see the value of my particular quote being included in the piece. My point in sharing that about myself at the forum was not for nothing. It was to demonstrate that I am someone that grew up here, I am First Nation and I am privileged and it still feels damaging to navigate these systems that are not built for us or serving us. It was to spark a conversation about moving forward with alternate justice options identified in Yukon’s MMIWG2S+ strategy and to share what KDFN is doing and I very much wish that had been the focus of the article.
Finally, I hope that First Nations are supported in regaining more control over how justice is delivered to their people through self-government and that Yukon’s Strategy for MMIWG2S+ is responded to in a way that is decolonial and empowering to First Nations people so we can continue to heal.
1This letter is my personal opinion and not that of my employer.
2Upon reading the article, I contacted Yukon News. They edited the article and said I could write a letter to the paper. They did not 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 made everyone aware that the media was there. Regardless of who did what or what their intentions were, the impact is the same.