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Content Note: This article discusses individual and systemic violence against Indigenous women and girls, including abuse and murder.
The murders and abductions of Indigenous women have created an epidemic of terror for Indigenous communities across Canada. Whether it is along the Highway of Tears in northern British Columbia or at Robert Pickton’s farm in southern British Columbia, the abuse of Indigenous women is an apparent and ongoing issue. A lack of care and attention from police and the RCMP on this matter allows for this issue to persist and be reproduced, leaving Indigenous women vulnerable to predatory and violent attacks. Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) has led to a revolution from Indigenous people and allies alike who are tired of waiting for the police to care, for the government to listen, and for Canadian society to be proactive. A key contributor to this social justice agenda is Lorelei Williams: an Indigenous woman who has organized and mobilized her community to cultivate lasting change. In this article I will outline my interview with Lorelei to unpack how to be an effective ally to her community, and more details about this complex issue.
“Tired of waiting for police to care, for the government to listen
and for Canadian society to be proactive”
Lorelei Williams is the founder of Butterflies in Spirit, a dance group that uses their art to raise awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG). In addition to her organization, Lorelei has dedicated her life to grassroots activism in an attempt to help Indigenous people as they navigate ongoing colonization and genocide. I had the opportunity to speak with Lorelei and gain more insight into her perspective, work, and suggestions for young advocates.
Q1. Cristina: As an introduction to you and your organization Butterflies in Spirit, can you please share a little bit about yourself, and how you came up with the idea to create a dance group?
Lorelei: I was at a vigil on October 4th, 2011, and a mom stood up and talked about her daughter who had just gone missing a few months prior to that. I started to cry listening to her story, and while I was crying somebody came up to me, gave me a hug, and gave me a poster to hold. I had no idea what was on these posters, but all of a sudden we started marching up the street. We only had half of the road and the oncoming traffic was very slow. I could see people trying to look at my sign and they looked so confused. When I turned the sign over, I noticed there were tiny little newspaper clippings of stories of MMIWG and I was like well no wonder they look so confused, they're not going to be able to see that.
This led me to think of how I can honor and remember my cousin and my aunt. At the vigil, I thought of putting their pictures on black shirts as big as I could so that they (bystanders) could see what we're doing. I thought of the word ‘murdered’ because my cousin was murdered by Robert Pickton, but when I asked my family what I could put with her picture, they didn’t want the word ‘murdered’ so we put her birth year and when she died instead. I wanted to gain attention to these shirts somehow I just didn’t know how.
Then I thought of dancing. I made a callout to the community and other family members and soon many people wanted to join my dance group to represent their missing and murdered loved ones. I feel like all Indigenous women and girls are survivors of some sort of violence so that’s how we started. Ever since then we’ve been performing across Canada and down in the states. We’ve gone as far as Bogota, Colombia and more recently, before covid we’ve been able to travel back and forth to Mexico.
“I feel like all Indigenous women and girls are survivors of some sort of violence so that’s how we started.”
Q2. Cristina: Can you share a brief summary of what MMIWG is and how MMIWG is a colonial and systemically reproduced issue?
Lorelei: First of all, with the police, they don't care and they don’t jump on the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. They don't take these cases seriously. They don't do their jobs properly; whether it’s searching for them or even the investigations if and when they are found. They don’t search for missing women, and predators know that they can target us because the police are not helpful. But even when women are found, they're deemed anything but murdered, anything but suspicious.
The police and the child welfare system go together hand in hand when it comes to putting our Indigenous women in danger. For example, sometimes people call the police for a wellness check on an Indigenous woman. Chantelle Moore’s case is a perfect example of this where she ended up dying at the hands of the police on a wellness check. And if they don’t die, they are thrown into the hospital system where they are forced to take pills. These pills can be addictive so then they get stuck in that. But if there's kids involved, when the mother is thrown in the hospital, kids get thrown into the child welfare system. Now they're (the mother) addicted to these pills and then they're trying to fight for their kids back. If they are in some sort of assisted housing, once they lose their kids, they lose their housing. Then they have to fight for their kids back, but they can’t get their kids back if they don't have enough rooms for their kids to live in so it's this vicious cycle that happens to Indigenous women and girls.
Cristina: Thank you for bringing that up. Many people think that systemic discrimination ended with residential schools, but the genocide continues in different forms.
“Our people have been through this so much that it's just triggering in itself.”
Lorelei: They (the government) are so quick to take the kids; they are so quick to give the foster care guardians tons of money to watch these kids. Non-Indigenous, white people take care of these kids, but they do nothing to support the mothers and if anything they're just pushing them down more and making sure that they don't get to go back to their moms. It's really hard for them to fight for their kids back. Our people have been through this so much that it's just triggering in itself.
Q3. Cristina: As we are the Sexual Violence Support & Prevention Office (SVSPO), I was hoping to talk about sexual violence and MMIWG. Can you please share your reflection, and how university students can continue raising awareness about this issue.
Lorelei: So this reminds me of a time I attended a conference at UBC. The university invited advocates from Canada and some advocates from the states arrived as well, and it was an amazing event. However, there was a group of white male students at the campus who were upset about the event and felt that their own voices were not being heard. As we (Butterflies in Spirit) were about to perform, the organizers of the event stopped us because these same white males were causing a scene. The police were called on the men. This created a very unsafe space for us as Indigenous women and everyone was quite upset. Something drastic needs to be done about these types of people because they're dangerous and they're showing that they are capable of being aggressive towards us on a university campus.
Q4. Cristina: I am aware that you have met other Indigenous advocates for MMIWG in the South, such as in Colombia and Mexico. What have you learned from their resistance to gender-based violence and their efforts in the anti-feminicide movement?
Lorelei: I have learned so much. In Colombia, I learned that the work that I do here in Canada is not safe to do in Colombia. If anybody was doing this kind of work in Colombia, they would get killed; it's just not safe for women down there. Even when getting into a taxi, women take pictures of the license plate and the taxi driver and send it to a friend or family member.
In Mexico, I've been in two brigades, the national brigade and the international brigade, searching for the disappeared. I learned so much about their disappeared people and actually finding human remains. The first brigade, we found I think it was 14-16 human remains and I say 14-16 because there were some remains we found and we were not sure if it was two people or just one person.
Q5. Cristina: What are some ways that university students can get involved/support Butterflies in Spirit, Crazy Indian Brotherhood (CIB), or other Indigenous organizations in the Lower Mainland? Where is help needed? What opportunities are there to get involved in your community?
Lorelei: Attending vigils and protests is helpful. CIB (Crazy Indian Brotherhood) and Butterflies are coming together and doing great work in our communities. Monetary donations, legal help, or any positive support is necessary. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to help and I can connect with you directly. Also follow @butterfliesinspirit on instagram for updates.
Q6. Cristina: As we know: gender inequities, ableism, and homophobia/transphobia are colonial entities, and directly impact MMIWG. Can you share examples of how Indigenous nations have traditionally provided communities of care and gender equality? How can we at the Sexual Violence Support & Prevention Office (SVSPO) and the SFU community learn from this example, thus promoting a decolonizing agenda?
Lorelei: When I was working with a women's group in the DTES, a trans woman joined the group so I called an Indigenous elder to help facilitate a smooth inclusion of the trans member into our space. I knew this would be beneficial because in traditional Indigenous communities, LGBTQ people were held on a pedestal because of their ability to connect with feminine and masculine energies. This was viewed as a unique and positive quality.
On a separate note, sexual predators in Indigenous communities pre-colonization were often publicly shamed and brought out at community gatherings in order for the community to be fully aware of who was acting incorrectly.
Call to Action
My hope for this article is for students and young people to gain inspiration to cultivate social justice reform in their communities. As Lorelei mentioned in our chat, there is a need for a plethora of support in the fight against Indigenous genocide. Whether it be monetary, artistic, or legal support, anything is welcome and helpful in this agenda. I encourage readers to utilize their talents and resources to support the Indigenous community and uplift their voices and concerns. Indigenous genocide and colonialism are not historical issues; rather, they are on-going issues in Canada and across the Americas. At this point in history, taking a complicit or non-political stance on this issue is synonymous with encouraging colonialism, genocide, and mass murder.
As community members, it is our responsibility to listen, support, and learn from Indigenous nations and demand equity.
If you would like to learn more about how to be an effective ally to Indigenous nations: I have compiled a list of my top 3 favorite Indigenous studies classes at SFU. I also suggest familiarizing yourself with the Truth and Reconciliation 94 calls to action.
To learn more or support the work of Butterflies in Spirit, please visit their website: http://www.butterfliesinspirit.com
About the Author: Cristina Figueroa is a student at Simon Fraser University where she is pursuing a degree in Labour Studies and a minor in Indigenous Studies. She is a former Active Bystander Network volunteer with the Sexual Violence Support and Prevention Office (SVSPO).