It wasn’t until 2015 after I arrived in Ottawa, Ontario where I attended my first missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit folks (MMIWG2S) rally. It is not so much that these events are a rally than they are more of a coming together. Coming together to share the pain, the grief, and the hurt in losing a loved one. But, these rallies are also a show of support to one another. A building of community.
In media articles across the country, the signs remain the same. “Missing”, “Murdered”, and “Mother” or “Daughter” are just some of the words painted across the placards. While some people carry boards that call out the injustices, others carry posters or wear t-shirts with faces of their loved. These posters and t-shirts remind onlookers of a moment in time when the missing or murdered were at peace, smiling and care-free.
Media articles often try to paint the missing and the murdered as humanly as possible. “She was a mother, a daughter, a sister.” As if being a mother, a daughter or a sister makes someone more human than another. But, still, occasionally media articles tell the readers about the gruesome details. “She met him at the hotel.” As if we needed to know. Often, silence is enough. Because when an Indigenous woman talks about violence, she doesn’t have to say anything and we know.
When the RCMP released the report on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, they noted that sometimes the missing and murdered just “wandered off.” In other cases, policing agencies claim these women don’t want to be found. But who leaves home without saying goodbye? Or, as my mom would say, “It’s never goodbye, it’s always see you later.”
On our drive to Ottawa, my mom began to tell me stories of her past. And for many Indigenous women, my mother’s recollection of her past are many Indigenous women’s present. Sexual assault. Missing person reports. Moving to the city. Returning home. When I think back to when my mother started to tell me these stories, I always wonder why? Why now? Why not before? Why not when I first moved to London, Ontario? Or, to Toronto, Ontario? Perhaps, her stories served as a warning. A reminder. “It’s okay. I survived and you will survive too.” These are the stories that are passed down from one generation to another. Stories of violence. Markers of survival.
I first left home when I was in my late teens. Then, again in my early twenties. And that time, I moved more than 700 km away from home. “Where will you end up?” My mom’s voice filled with worry. “I am not sure.” And, I wasn’t certain where I would end up. “But I will call you when I get there.” My ticket read London, Ontario but I wasn’t convinced that this would be the next place I call home. It would be a few weeks until I called home. I used the payphone outside the bar where I worked. “Hello?” My mom answered. “Hi, mom. It’s me.” I missed her voice. And, I missed home. Relief emanated from my mother’s voice. Thankfully, the long distance calling card still worked. I still have feelings of regret and shame. Regret that I didn’t call home sooner. Shame that I waited so long. But the longer I waited, the more the shame intensified. “I’ll call tomorrow.” Tomorrow passed. “I’ll call on the weekend.” The weekend came and the days turned into weeks. Then, I remember my mom telling me, “You can always call home.”
When Indigenous people talk about the missing and murdered, we talk about systems or institutions as contributing to the violence and disappearances. It is important to acknowledge how colonial systems and institutions contribute to the issue of MMIWG2S, but we sometimes fail to question the feelings of shame of those who leave home. Where does that shame come from? Who contributes to that shame? How does that shame contribute to MMIWG2S?
Some Indigenous women leave home to escape abuse. Some leave home in hopes of finding a safer home. Some leave home to escape the shame that comes from others. Shame toward certain gender identities. Shame toward drug use. Alcohol abuse. Shame toward those who sell/trade sex. For Indigenous women who sell and trade sex, this shame often manifests itself in having to leave home to survive. Then, Indigenous women who sell/trade sex are pigeonholed into the “survival sex work” box. We leave home to survive. Everything we do is linked to survival.
Thinking back to the words my mother told me growing up, I often wonder about the Indigenous women who sell/trade sex. Do Indigenous women who sell/trade sex have someone to call without the shame and judgment? The way the current laws are structured, even offering a sex worker a place to stay or a ride to their next call, puts those who show an ounce of care and love are at risk of being criminalized. Yet, even when Indigenous women leave home in the context of sex work, even that is criminalized. “Human trafficking” is what the RCMP calls it. Or, when Indigenous women migrate from the north to the south in search of better job opportunities. But if the people who interact with sex workers, Indigenous or not, are at risk of being criminalized, how do we even move to a stage of offering support to sex workers without shame or judgment? How do we move beyond these narratives that seek to criminalize our movements? Our bodies? Our sexuality?
When I first left home, I felt shame because of how people viewed and treated sex workers. Victims with no choice. No chance of survival. But I survived. I carry survival’s guilt with me wherever I go. It scares me sometimes the number of times I count where I should be dead. Silence is not enough in the fight to find justice for the missing and the murdered. And, this is why I speak out in support of decriminalization of sex work. When we talk about violence, we need to make space for the stories of those who sell/trade sex and the violence that they experience. Violence from the police. Violence from their community. I knew that when I left it home, it was never goodbye. And I know that when I tell my stories, I want others to remember that these are more than stories of survival. These are stories of resilience. Or, emblems of resistance.