COLUMN: Jessica Iron Joseph — Sept. 28, 2012

Jessica Iron Joseph
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I’m not an Aboriginal woman. I’m a person. At least that’s how I see myself. I don’t classify myself, just as I try not to classify others.

So when I see posters for missing and murdered Native women plastered everywhere, I find it hard to believe that one group of people could be so targeted. There are more than 600 missing and murdered Aboriginal women across Canada. As much as I would like to think otherwise, the staggering numbers don’t lie. They are a targeted group.

I am part of this targeted group, because the world sees me as an Aboriginal woman, regardless of how I see myself.

I recently read a woman’s furious response to a newspaper’s portrayal of Native women. Her niece had been missing and was later found murdered. She wanted people to know that her niece was a wonderful young girl, not a prostitute. She merely made mistakes, as all young people do, and it was unnecessary for the media to suggest otherwise.

I agree wholeheartedly with her. I don’t believe a person’s character or lifestyle has anything to do with whether or not they are worthy of life. That is no one’s decision to make.

Sure there are many other women of different races and ethnicities that go missing and are murdered in Canada as well. Sadly though, the rates are so drastically high for Native women that it is obvious these women are not randomly selected: they are preyed upon.

This is a topic I have avoided for a long time in my life, because it has touched too close to home. Two of my very close friends were murdered by men. One was a childhood friend, a best friend. I’ll call her Sandy. Sandy was Cree.

I have a picture of us at my kindergarten birthday party. We had sleepovers all the time until I was about 13 and I moved away. We tried to keep in touch by writing letters but we drifted apart as we got older, for no other reason than we allowed distance to divide us. We reunited in university and occasionally hung out together.

Sandy was a fun, intelligent, creative person — a beautiful soul. She went out to the bar one night and never returned. Her family searched everywhere for her. They were relentless because it was so unlike her to disappear. Eventually they accepted the truth; she was missing.

For years Sandy’s family investigated missing tips, searched forests, called in private investigators and psychics, the whole nine yards. After four agonizing years it was discovered that Sandy had been murdered. Her remains were found outside the city that she had lived in … in a deserted fire pit.

After learning this news I was filled with anger, shock, revulsion, horror and a deeply piercing sorrow. I was traumatized. The jarring reality was that our lives were so similar that based on chance, I could have been the one who wound up in her place.

At the time Sandy went missing I was still mourning the loss of another friend, whom I’ll call Beth. Not even a year earlier, Beth was murdered by her boyfriend. Beth was a friend who I played volleyball with and she was an incredible athlete. She was Métis.

She really was one of the kindest people I had ever met. She was joyful and accepting — someone you aspire to be just like.

Perhaps it was Beth’s huge heart that led her to date a troubled man. She was always more forgiving and compassionate than anyone I knew. Two weeks before her death, Beth’s mom informed me that her daughter was in an abusive relationship. She wanted me to talk to her. I didn’t know what to say to her, so I didn’t say anything at all. I still feel guilt when I think of this.

Beth’s boyfriend shot her and then shot himself, in a murder-suicide.

Both Beth and Sandy left behind one child each, along with countless stunned friends and family.

It’s hard for me to fathom that these women were killed based on their race, but I don’t know what spurred their murderers on. Certainly these women didn’t deserve it. I don’t believe anyone deserves murder.

I do believe that they were marginalized, maybe even because they were female. Especially for Aboriginal women, they are often looked down upon in Canadian society. Truthfully, at this point in history, all women are still fighting for equality.

But if Aboriginal people are viewed as the dregs of Canadian society, Aboriginal women fall one step lower, being the lowest ranking people across the land; citizens double minus.

I am one of these women. I fall into this category. Based on these classifications, do I deserve murder?

No, you might say — because I’m educated and literate. Right? Then add one more marginalization to the pile: Racism, sexism AND classism. Appalling how easy it is to classify people, isn’t it?

Yes I am educated and literate. I have a voice, and lucky me — I even have a few columns in the world. But do I consider myself more important than any of the missing and murdered women? No. Absolutely not.

It is apparent to me that missing and murdered Aboriginal women are not valued or respected as people, for any of the above reasons, and possibly even more.

When Aboriginal women go missing and are murdered at shocking rates, we need to ask questions. Most notably, why?

As chiefs across the country demand an inquiry, we can rally behind them and offer our support. That is definitely one way to make change, though much more needs to be done.

We should all be uncomfortable with this topic, because that is where we are likely to see change. All women in this country matter … because they are people, just like you.

Geographic location: Canada

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