MMIWG: Two-Eyed Seeing

Editor’s Note: This is the fifth 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, the second here, the third here and the fourth here.


How might reclaiming the rightful “power and place” of Indigenous women lead us all to better lives?

The national inquiry’s answer to this is explicit in its “Calls for Justice.” But it is implicit, too, in the even more ambitious combination of western and Indigenous “rights” that lie at the heart of this report’s logic. In this reflection, I hope to show how the Commissioners adapt a traditional Mi’kmaq “two-eyed seeing,” taught by Eskasoni Elder Albert Marshall for decades.

Reclaimed Indigenous rights combined with the current enthusiasm in some non-Indigenous circles for all things Indigenous will bring change… what the balance of good and bad will be in that change remains to be seen. Much will depend on how we take up self-determination in our efforts to renew Canadian culture, and Indigenous communities as integral threads within it. It will be crucial to bear in mind that self-determination is a European, enlightenment good that can either facilitate a rooted, communal life, or shred it into alienated individualism.

Items placed around a red willow basket, a symbol of women’s connection to the land, language and culture photo: Final Report, Inquiry into MMIWG

The MMIWG commission report argues that direct personal violence against Indigenous women is committed in conditions of intergenerational trauma and sanctioned by the refusal to prosecute perpetrators. Indigenous women are targeted by individuals acting within the parameters of generations– long Canadian antagonism towards them as Indigenous life-givers and protectors of new relationships. Hope for the future lies in affirming the very roles and powers that made Indigenous women particular targets of genocidal policies and practices. As the MMIWG inquiry commissioners put it:

Encounters and relationships, within the right to self-determination, present potential for change at all levels. While state-supported human rights can be helpful in keeping governments accountable, a full understanding of both Indigenous and human rights concepts is important to also understanding how solutions must be based in new relationships that are reciprocal and renewing, and that acknowledge how we are all connected. This is where we find power and place. (Final Report, National Inquiry, MMIWG, 124)

The national inquiry aims to open a future of reciprocity and renewal by showing all the ways that Indigenous women’s and girls’ “rights” have been offended. The rights of Indigenous women are rooted in traditional culture, communicated in sacred stories, and revealed in offenses perpetrated against them. Further rights are enshrined in international law. All of these rights—to culture, health, security and justice—combine universal human rights with recovered Indigenous rights, and so individual self-determination with collective tradition. It is worth repeating that both the attacks and the hope grow out of Indigenous women’s rightful roles and powers as life-givers and protectors of new beginnings.


How is Canada’s capacity for new beginnings recovered when we learn to see Indigenous women as “rights-bearers” as well as victims?

In grounding their argument in “rights” language, the national inquiry enters into what looks at first glance like an ironic self-contradiction. To recover traditional Indigenous rights, they use a very western liberalism. But the hope and the ambition of this report lies precisely in this combination: they invite us into “two-eyed seeing.”

Tuma Young, Assistant Professor, Mi’kmaq Studies, CBU photo: Twitter

In testimony before the National Inquiry, Tuma Young explained that, within his L’nu (Mi’kmaq) world view, the concept of two-eyed seeing is very important:

An issue has to be looked at from two different perspectives: the Western perspective and the Indigenous perspective, so that this provides the whole picture for whoever is trying to understand the particular issue. (Final Report, National Inquiry, MMIWG, 132)

Reclaiming a culture whose transmission has been targeted by racist policies for generations is complicated by the mutual influences between Indigenous and settler cultures. There can be conflict between “rights” as they have evolved under the imposition of patriarchal governments, “rights” as found in sacred stories, and “rights” as defined in international law. The MMIWG report explains:

Indigenous Peoples have their own understandings of rights based on their own laws, traditional knowledge systems, and world views, which are often expressed through stories. These rights are not determined by international agreements, Canadian legislation, or Supreme Court rulings. These are expressions of Indigenous women’s, girls’ and 2SLGBTQQIA people’s proper power and place. At the same time, a variety of human rights instruments dealing with these themes can offer a tool for accountability and decolonization, if the solutions are placed within the context of the four root causes of violence: intergenerational trauma through colonization, marginalization, lack of institutional will, and the failure to recognize the expertise and capacity of Indigenous women themselves. (Final Report, National Inquiry, MMIWG, 118)

The Commissioners refuse to choose between reclaimed traditional rights and European-Enlightenment-derived international human rights. They use “a variety of” Euro-liberal “human rights instruments” to hold Canada and Indigenous communities accountable and so to recover Indigenous traditional rights.

As Fay Blaney, a Xwémalhkwu (Homalco) Knowledge Keeper, says:

Whenever … we talk about women’s issues, they bring up, “Well, what about balance?” And I think that we really need to look at the fact that there is zero balance in our community. Somebody’s got to open their mouth and say that, but there is no balance right now. It’s – men control the private sphere and the public sphere, and the private sphere is the family unit where, you know, we have our Indian Status because of the men in our lives. I have Status because of my husband, and before that, I had Status because of my father. And so, in our world, men hold all the cards and we hold none. So I think it’s really important to look at what are we talking about when we say balance, and let’s bring balance back, I say. Let’s decolonize by bringing our matriarchal traditions back. (Final Report, National Inquiry, MMIWG, 135)

Some of the loudest critics of Prime Minister Trudeau’s admission of a “Canadian genocide” note that far too much of the violence against Indigenous women and girls is perpetrated by men they know, love and maybe trust or fear…and with whom they share intergenerational trauma. The MMIWG inquiry report reminds us that Indigenous women are incarcerated in massively disproportionate numbers, and that many are there because they defended themselves or their children.


Perhaps nothing is more thoroughly “western” and “liberal” than believing that rational agents can find common ground, no matter how deep their differences, and that argument can define laws that should apply everywhere. Perhaps nothing is more thoroughly “colonizing” than this enlightenment-based understanding of justice as rational, procedural, universal and rights-based. And yet, here liberal international law (especially the United Nations) provides legal clout for the commissioners’ return to a traditional Indigenous justice that is shaped by each “First Nation” in its relation to the land and its gods.

This is complicated, and as far as I can see, not fully worked out in the MMIWG report: some witnesses speak as if the laws of their particular people are naturally present in their hearts despite the near success of Canada’s attempted cultural genocide. Despite frequent reminders that the MMIWG inquiry is not suggesting any “pan-Indigeneity,” much in the report depends on the belief that in all pre-contact Indigenous social systems women had power and place that can be reclaimed.

Both “western” and Indigenous” rights have their limitations. Enlightenment notions of universal rights gave secular, bureaucratizing energy to the social-scientific project that used churches as a tool for “taking the Indian out of the child” with what we now see as the violent modern goal of a society freed from spirituality, superstition, parochialism and blind authority. Traditional notions of Indigenous women’s “power and place” cannot be pure visions from pre-contact cultures because they have been filtered through European anthropological oral histories, Christian Mary-worship and existing male-dominated Indigenous governments.

Detail of Shrine of Our Lady Of Guadelupe, Johnstown, Cape Breton. Photo by Dennis Jarvis flickr photostream.

Admitting that “Two-Spirited” is a relatively new term, the national inquiry reconstructs a pre-contact gender fluidity out of traditional sacred stories. The MMIWG inquiry report argues that colonization imposed European gender binaries and then declared that only straight men could even hope to be fully human. The report’s emphasis on the two-spirited, alongside of women and girls, is an affirmation of difference. It is also a counter to the intense gender essentialism that comes with reclaiming women, as life-givers and protectors of new beginnings, as the “heart” of Indigenous culture. And it may be precisely this gendered view of people, nature and justice that attracts many Indigenous peoples to Christianity today…


To critique Canada’s genocidal laws and practices, must we step outside the “western” or “colonizers” way of thinking, and of defining “humanity” and “dignity”? Is that even possible? Can critique arise from Indigenous culture as it now exists, but reinforced with recollected Indigenous tradition? Can fusions of Indigenous and western critiques break out of contemporary techno-bureaucratic-consumerism?

The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has argued for decades for a multi-cultural politics of recognition by which robust particular cultures can meet in a mutual “fusion of horizons.” Such a “politics of recognition” has come under attack from more radical de-colonizers or un-settlers such as Glen Sean Coulthard. Yet even Coulthard draws his frankly revolutionary approach out of the Marxist anti-colonial struggles of Africa, in the tradition of Franz Fanon.

All these forms of critique come out of “settler culture,” and yet that culture is modified with every encounter with Indigenous culture. Under conditions of conflict, this is a forced mutual modification. Under conditions of reconciliation, each culture opens itself to be transformed into something new, broader, unknown. The gain is the “fusion of horizons” but, in the modern world of techno-bureaucracy, the risk is what Jurgen Habermas calls the “colonization of lifeworld by systems instrumentality” where the “new” seemingly-reconciled culture will be a non-culture of efficiency for efficiency’s sake.

As the MMIWG inquiry emphasizes in its treatment of Indigenous culture but downplays in western culture: liberal culture neutrality never simply protects those rooted in particular cultures… This is too big a topic for now but let us come back to it next time when we consider the recent changes to Canada’s Indian Act and speculate about the role Indigenous matters will play in the upcoming federal election campaign.


For now, let’s reflect on Jaime Black’s “REDress” project as it brings the meta-problem of missing and murdered Indigenous women into local and personal context. The red dresses that we see hanging in Chapel Island, Potlotek, as well as here and there on Cape Breton roads, and in some storefronts are gestures of remembrance and calls for change. This is the spirit in which the MMIWG inquiry hopes we will approach remembering the lost women. When we remember them as “rights-bearers” we invoke their spirits and especially the pride that remains after an outrage: these women were targeted in their role as the protectors of new beginnings and welcoming encounters.

Red dress, Potlotek First Nation, 9 June 2019

As people have done across Canada, Sasha Doucette from Eskasoni put a personal and local lens on the “REDress” project by photographing a red dress that she placed where 24-year-old Cheryl Ann Johnson’s body was found in 2001. Doucette then did the same for others from Eskasoni. Sasha Doucette’s photographs anticipated the MMIWG inquiry report by so beautifully connecting interpersonal violence with intergenerational trauma, marginalization, lack of will to change and refusal to honor the knowledge and words of Indigenous women and girls. We all need to start to try to see through two eyes, and as Elder Albert Marshall says, this means we must:

[L]earn to see from your one eye with the best or the strengths in the Indigenous knowledges and ways of knowing … and learn to see from your other eye with the best or the strengths in the mainstream (Western or Eurocentric) knowledges and ways of knowing … but most importantly, learn to see with both these eyes together, for the benefit of all.


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, 2018) and author of The Halifax Explosion: the Apocalypse of Samuel Prince (a commentary on Catastrophe and Social Change), Underhill Books, 2017. She can also be heard in a recent episode of Canadaland’s Commons, “CRUDE #6 — The Devil in the Deep Blue Sea”