Relationships Are Sacred

Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of articles about the conclusions of Canada’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) inquiry. You can read the first one here and the second here.)


Cassidy Bernard, a young mother died last fall in We’koqma’q (Whycocomagh). Last week, newspapers reported that police would soon release information about the case and name an accused murderer.

Cassidy Bernard’s death follows a year of tragedy in Indigenous communities on the Bras d’or Lake, including a rash of suicides in Eskasoni. What is the root cause of this violence? Can it be stopped? If so, how?

The national inquiry (MMIWG) aims to answer those questions and to open a pathway for the kinds of change that will end what they call a “Canadian genocide.”

Protesters call for justice in death of Cassidy Bernard. (Source: Facebook)

Though our lives may touch those of our Indigenous neighbors only in passing, we are responsible for their well-being. That does not mean we can fix things for other people—in fact, encountering Indigenous peoples as a problem that Canadian policy makers should solve lies at the center of all this heartbreak.

The key proof of Canada’s culpability is our history of trying to legislate Indigenous peoples out of existence. The aim of the MMIWG inquiry report is to show how this structural violence combines with current practices and attitudes to cause the ongoing violence against Indigenous women and girls.

Between 1980 and 2012, 16% of all female homicides in Canada were Indigenous women and girls, even though they make up only 4% of the female population. That number is growing and may now be as high as 24%. Indigenous women and girls are 12 times more likely to be murdered or missing than other Canadian women, and 16 times more likely than Caucasian women. They’re seven times more likely to be targeted by a serial killer; three times more likely to suffer sexual assault.

Most of the women and children trafficked in Canada are Indigenous: 90% of children and youth in visible sex trade in some communities are Indigenous, even when Indigenous people make up less than 10% of the population. The majority of Indigenous women who are later sexually exploited or trafficked were sexually abused. All of these numbers come from the final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

At the end of their long introductory writings, the MMIWG Commissioners make us, the readers, an offer:

As you follow this journey through the testimony, you might find you have other questions or that there are other routes you are interested in exploring in more detail yourself. You might find that when you hear about a particular encounter, you want to know more about that family’s entire story, or about how certain issues play out in the health care system, the justice system, or other institutions. We encourage you to follow that path and incorporate what you learn into relationship with your own lives, communities, and societies. Your relationship with the stories included in this report and available on line is an encounter—a transformational moment of relationship—of the utmost importance in itself.

To read this report is to enter into a relationship with something sacred: the stories, offered by the families, of their loved ones.

I grieve for Cassidy Bernard, and for her family, friends and community.

We are all challenged by this loss and the suffering of those who are left behind.


The commissioners of the MMIWG inquiry ground their activism in “a sacred responsibility” to listen to families and survivors and to make “concrete and actionable recommendations.”

All of this is to honor the memory of the lost loved ones:

You were taken, but you are not forgotten; your lives, dreams, hopes and losses are now forever a part of Canada’s living history.

Instead of listing their credentials and experience the commissioners and directors commit to advancing social change.

Chief Commissioner Marion Buller begins:

First, I acknowledge and welcome the spirits of the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

The lost loved ones are both victims and powerful presences. The spiritual is foregrounded from the very beginning. For Buller, this report is about:

…these beautiful Indigenous people and the systemic factors that lead to their losses of dignity, humanity and, in too many cases, losses of life. This report is about deliberate race, identity and gender-based genocide.

“Sister Drummer in Faded Red,” drawing/painting by Jason Sikoak, an Inuit man, from Rigolet Nunatsiavuit, Labrador. (Source: MMIWG Inquiry)

Indigenous people are “beautiful” and they have lost their “dignity” and “humanity.” This report is full of such apparent contradictions, as we will see. A theme of redemption runs through the report: the extreme suffering of Indigenous people speaks “truth.” The agent of the “deliberate” genocide is unclear: existing laws “perpetuate” genocide, but who commits it? Chief Commissioner Buller continues:

An elder said, “We all have to get past the guilt and shame.” This begins with recognizing the truth. For non-Indigenous Canadians, this means rethinking commonly held stereotypes, and confronting racism in every context. For Indigenous Peoples, this means using the truth to rebuild our lives, our families, our communities and Canada itself. And for governments, this means nothing less than a new and decolonized social order; it is an opportunity to transform and to rebuild in real partnership with Indigenous peoples.

This was never an ordinary fact-finding inquiry, but always a truth-revealing one. Readers who look here for a conventional accumulation of evidence, tested by court-room standards will be frustrated. One senses that Buller aims to inspire change in her readers precisely through such frustrated expectations.

Commissioner Qajaq Robinson denounces the conflict and dehumanization underlying mainstream Canadian prosperity:

This denial and dehumanization [of Indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA peoples] is the foundation Canada is built on, and upon which it continues to operate today. It is the cause of the violence we have been called upon to examine. It is a hard truth to accept for Canadians today, as we pride ourselves on being a just and principled society, bound by the rule of law and respectful of human rights and human dignity. However, we have been blind to the reality that our place and privilege as Canadians is the result of gross human rights violations against Indigenous Peoples.

Robinson identifies “overt” and “more subtle” daily violations of human rights. The “root cause is colonialism, which runs deep through the foundational fabric of this country.” For Robinson, we “must be active participants in decolonizing Canada.” (10).

For Commissioner Robinson, as for Chief Commissioner Buller, colonialism is genocide.

Commissioner Michele Audette connects with “women worldwide” who suffer violence. She highlights the “extraordinary resilience” of Indigenous women and girls, and concludes:

We cannot change the past, but we can work together to shape a better future built on the strengths of each and every community that welcomes it, thereby committing to improving the safety of Indigenous women and girls together.

Commissioner Bryan Eyolfson recalls “beautiful relationships” between witnesses, activists, and all participants in the National Commission. Good in themselves, those relationships also hold the promise of future relationships. He focuses on practical matters: safe housing, education, and the end to discriminatory practice and policies. He “owns” at least some aspects of the crisis as an Indigenous man:

It is also important that men “take action and stand up to end violence towards women and children,” and as the Moose Hide Campaign encourages, through actions such as speaking out against violence, holding each other accountable, and healing and being healthy role models for youth. It is also vitally important that we listen to Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people in addressing this pressing issue, as they are the experts and have the solutions and important roles to play in ending violence.


Reflections from “the National Inquiry Elders and Grandmothers Circle” deepen the sense that this inquiry is doing things differently. As survivors and family members with deep roots in a particular community, the Grandmothers’ role was to ensure that the process “respects the spiritual values of our peoples.” As one of the Grandmothers explained:

It’s an inquiry, there are Commissioners. Witnesses, lawyers. Putting spirituality at the centre of this National Inquiry allows us to work in a calmer atmosphere, rooted in cultural values that are thousands of years old.

Mi’kmaq people gather from all over the Atlantic region for the Feast of St. Anne in July. Mniku provides a place for cultural sharing and community building. (Photo by Raymond Doucette, 1976, via the Beaton Institute)berThey were to make the inquiry “as healing and as decolonizing as possible.”

“What does it mean to be ‘sacred’?” the Grandmothers ask. It is as “multi-faceted as people themselves,” they reply.

For the Cree grandmother, the sacred is literally, “Creator-gifted, Creator-power-gifting.”

It’s Creator-centred-thinking… It’s a sacredness of life. … It’s … you have the gifts that were given to you and you’re putting them to use for the good of humanity.

The grandmothers conclude:

When we honour our own gifts and the gifts in others, we are recognizing the sacred in all of us.

Why do the grandmothers make no reference to the importance of Christianity in Indigenous spiritual life? The 2001 census found that of the 1,360,000 people who self-identified as Aboriginal, 42% called themselves Roman Catholic, 22% called themselves some kind of Protestant and 28% declared “no religion.”

Only 2% self-declared as following Aboriginal spirituality. Of course, such data is highly problematic and does not capture the extent to which people have fused their traditional religious practices with Christianity, and thus infused Christianity with traditional Indigenous connections to the land, other people, and awareness of multiple perspectives or “truths.”If around 2/3 of Indigenous people in Canada called themselves Christians in 2001 does Indigenous spirituality not include some inter-relation between Christianity and traditional Indigenous belief? Even when we acknowledge the Churches as colonizing and often brutalizing institutions—in the Residential Schools and other institutionalized abuses especially of children—has Christian practice as adapted by Indigenous peoples not been a source of power, too?

One need only drive through Potlotek around July on the weekend of the Feast of Saint Anne to get a sense of the continued importance of Christianity there. Crucial, though is:

…to recognize the importance of Indigenous ways of knowing, doing and being. This often starts with learning, or re-learning, what those Indigenous ways are.


Featured image: “In My Heart,” quilt by Hermina Joldersma, a non-Indigenous Canadian, created in “tribute to all those who participated in the National Inquiry on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.” (Source: MMIWG Inquiry)



Susan Dodd

Susan Dodd is an associate professor of Humanities at the University of King’s College in Halifax. She is the author of The Ocean Ranger: remaking the promise of oil (Fernwood, 2012), co-editor (with Neil Robertson) of Unity of Opposites? Hegel and Canadian Political Thought (University of Toronto Press, forthcoming) and author of The Halifax Explosion: the Apocalypse of Samuel Prince (a commentary on Catastrophe and Social Change), Underhill Books. She can also be heard in a recent episode of Canadaland’s Commons, “CRUDE #6 — The Devil in the Deep Blue Sea”