God forgive me, but I can’t even remember her name. Staring back through the mists of time, I can barely remember the pain in her eyes. More than three decades have passed since I lived and worked in Vancouver’s east end. I was young, young and foolish, young and carefree, young and adventurous, young and callous. In my early twenties, I was still trying to figure out who I was. I was in no condition to understand who she was. How could I know? None of us knew.
I knew Jesus back then. Some might even say that I was obsessed with knowing Jesus. I went to church every Sunday and I hung out with church people. I knew the Father well back then. I was young, the world was my oyster, my future stretched out before me. I knew that my work in the travel industry was only temporary; just a means to an end, a way to make money so that I could spend it enjoying life. At the time, I was working in a pretty unglamorous part of the wholesale travel industry packaging holidays, to Mexico and Hawaii. We used to joke that it wasn’t brain surgery, just bums on seats, just filling every plane our company chartered with warm bodies so that they could get away from Vancouver’s gloomy, rain-soaked winter; bums on seats, anybody could do the job; day in day out filling airplanes, it was positively mind-numbing work.
The company I worked for occupied an entire three-story office building on the northern edge of Vancouver’s East-End. The East-End of Vancouver is still one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Canada. Back then, the gentrification of the East-End that Expo 86 and then the 2010 Olympics brought, couldn’t even be imagined. Good upstanding middle-class people avoided the poverty of the East-end, unless of course they were young like me, and then the depravity of the neighbourhood was kind of a badge of honour; as we braved the streets on our way to dance the night away in the clubs that sprang up on the edge of the East-End were rents were cheep and cops had so much more to worry about than the kind of mischief that we got into. So, I lived and worked in the East-End and saved my money for the life that stretched out in front of me.
I wish I could remember her name. I’m ashamed to confess that I cannot remember her name. But the pain in her eyes, those dark mournful eyes that I will never forget. I’d warned her more than once. It was against the rules. She was hired to clean our offices. She was to go about her work and make sure that she had the place spick-and span ready for us when we arrived in the morning and then she would be on her way. But time and time again, I’d find her lingering, long past the time when she should have left; lingering and talking on the telephone; she was the cleaner, she had no business using the phones. I was the newly minted supervisor of the reservations department; it was to me that the staff came to complain about the untidy conditions in the staff room. If she spent as much time doing her job as she did sneaking around making phone calls, we wouldn’t have to put up with the unwashed mugs in the sink. I warned her over and over again, but she just wouldn’t listen. My boss told me to fire her; but I was young and I’d never fired anyone before, besides wouldn’t Jesus want me to give her just one more chance; God forgive me I thought I could save her. Oh don’t worry, I wasn’t planning to save her for Jesus or anything as crass as that, oh no, I was going to save her from herself. I was going to redeem her from her lazy self and see to it that she kept her job. God forgive me, I did not know what I was doing.
Back then none of us knew.There were no First Nations people back then; no aboriginals, no indigenous people, just plain old Indians. She couldn’t have been much older than I was at the time, but her face was haggard by a life I couldn’t even begin to imagine. But I was young and I knew it all, and I knew if she didn’t shape up I’d have to ship her out, out onto the streets of the East-End where she could join her sisters; she’d probably end up turning tricks like the rest of them, if I didn’t save her from herself. Dear God forgive me, I really had no idea what I was doing.
I took her into my office and I told her in no uncertain terms that she was not allowed to use the company phones for personal calls. She was there to clean our desks, wipe the phones with alcohol so that we could control the colds and flue that kept running wild through the office. She was very apologetic. She begged me not to fire her. The phones in the rooming house where she lived were always out of order and she couldn’t afford the pay-phone and she only made local calls. I held my ground. She’d just have to stop using the office phones. She’d have to understand that she’d loose her job if she couldn’t follow the rules. I never asked her whom she was calling. It never occurred to me that her need might be more important than the rules. I had to be firm. I had to show my boss that his faith in me was not miss-placed. I might be young but I wasn’t going to let this Indian pull the wool over my eyes. This Indian’s eyes filled up and I sunk back into my chair, somehow undone by the thought that tears might be about to make an appearance. I remember that I actually shot up a prayer to the Father, silently asking for the strength to do my job.
Looking back now at the young woman that I was, I can’t help wondering what the woman I am know could possibly say to that earnest young thing, to break her out of the shell she was so carefully encased in. I try to tell myself that I was a product of my culture, trapped by the prejudices of generations of imperialism. I had absolutely no idea who that woman was who toiled away as the office cleaner. Sure I recognized her as an Indian. But I didn’t know then that native women who left the reserves lost their status as Indians and thereby forfeited their rights. I recognized that she was a woman, but I didn’t know that based on her age, she may in all likelihood have suffered the indignities of the residential school system that basically kidnapped children from their families and held them captive while they did there best to wipe any trace of their culture from their minds. I recognized that she was the cleaner, who probably made less than the minimum wage, but I had no idea that in all likelihood she was trapped in a endless cycle of poverty from which there wasn’t much possibility of escape. I did recognize that she was a human being, but in my arrogance I believed that if only she’d pull herself up by her own bootstraps she’d be able to keep her job and maybe one day be able to make something of herself. I was as determined to be firm but kind, it was for her own good that I warned her that unless she applied herself to the work at hand, I’d have no choice but to let her go. God forgive me but I didn’t know. I wish I could go back and do it all differently; but that’s not how life works.
The crimes of our past haunt us, and we must learn to live with the consequences. Those deep, dark, tear-filled, eyes peer out at me from my distant past and over the course of the past few weeks, even though I’ve been busy, some news has penetrated my very rich life and each time the numbers have caused my own eyes to well up. I remember thinking how bad it was back before the most recent reports came up with numbers: 500 murdered and missing aboriginal women in the past 30 years.
500 seemed like a number far too big to tolerate. Surely, the news that 500 aboriginal women have been lost in just three decades would be enough to prompt the powers that be to do something. Then a report came out that put the total number of murdered and missing First Nations women at 826. 826, surely now the government would act. I remember thinking that even if the number turned out to be exaggerated, somewhere between 500 and 826 was simply too many women to ignore. Then when the United Nations Human Rights Commission called for an inquiry into the violence against aboriginal women in Canada, I thought, surely now the government will be compelled to act.
I was right the government did act. They slashed funding by as much as 80% to organizations that served aboriginal women. Then just two weeks ago, on May 4th the RCMP announced that the number was much higher than anyone had imagined. The assistant police commissioner announced that the RCMP has complied records that show beyond a doubt that in the past 30 years 1026 aboriginal women have been murdered and an additional 160 women have gone missing since 1952 who are presumed dead.
1126 murdered women and girls. 1126 murdered women and girls of the 1126 murdered women and girls, 87% were mothers; that’s 980 murdered mothers. “Arise, then, women of this Day! Arise, all women who have hearts, whether your baptism be that of water or tears! Say firmly: “We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies.”
Since the RCMP report was made public, we have all learned a great deal about the statistics. I have spent a lot of time in the past few weeks studying the numbers. I know that statistics can be overwhelming and many of us tune out when numbers are quoted. So, I’ve tried to sift through the numbers so as to give you a sense of the urgency. Aboriginal women make up 4% of the female population of Canada, just 4%, and yet 16% of the females murdered in Canada are aboriginal.
I’m going to say that again, because it is staggering, so staggering that even the RCMP declared that aboriginal women are over represented in this particular demographic. Aboriginal women make up 4% of the female population of Canada, just 4% and yet, 16% of the females murdered in Canada are aboriginal. Our government continues to deny the growing outcry for a national inquiry into the plight of aboriginal women.
To be fair, I tried to figure out why Stephen Harper steadfastly refuses to order an inquiry. Stephen Harper has said that the time for studies has ended and now is the time for action. It sounded good to me. I’m not particularly fond of national inquires; especially when we fail to act on their recommendations. So, I did some digging to see what actions our government is taking. I wrote to the Prime minster’s Office and I’m waiting for their reply. In the meantime, the government continues to point to the fact that they have allocated $25 million dollars to the problem. $25 million sounds like a lot of money until you read the fine print. The government has indeed allocated $5 million dollars per year for the next 5 years to what they are calling the concerns of aboriginal women. Of that 5 million per year 1.3 million will go to the national DNA data base which serves all Canadians.
I also discovered that the government spent 26 million dollars on an inquiry into missing salmon; it seems that we can afford to look into missing fish but not missing women. I love to report on the action that our government is taking, but sadly all I could find were records indicating how many millions have been cut from programs that serve the people of Canada’s First Nations.
1,126 women have been murdered. Mothers, daughters, sisters, friends and lovers are dead. Hundreds more are missing. I don’t have any answers for you. I do know that we can no longer cry out for forgiveness because we know not what we are doing.
I can look back on that young woman that I was and I can forgive her for being arrogant, stupid and unknowing. I can even forgive her for her faith in the great big Father in the Sky to whom she prayed for forgiveness, trusting that He had everything under control. We’ve all come a long way from the days when we called our sisters and brothers Indians and passed by not caring about the horrors of our history. We know that God lives, and breathes, and has being in, with through and beyond us. We know that the One who lies at the very heart of reality finds expression in us. We know that the deaths of our sisters is an abomination. The plight of our First Nations sisters and brothers is Canada’s great shame and we can turn away, or we can simply offer up a prayer to the Great Sky God, and hope that somebody somewhere does something. Or we can allow the plight of our sisters and brothers to move the Spirit that lives in us to find expression in our actions.
I wish I could remember her name; I cannot remember her name. I can see her deep, dark, tear-filled eyes. Her eyes cry out to me from my past. They cry out to me, because I over-heard her tell one of the other women who we worked with, that she had moved to the East-End to search for her daughters. Two of her daughters were missing; vanished without a trace. She worked as a cleaner, she lived in a rooming house, she embraced the poverty of the East-end in a desperate search for her daughters; two daughters who had left their home searching for a better life in the city. 1,126 murdered women, that’s a very big number. Numbers mean something; two, two, missing daughters. One is a number far too big for us to comprehend when it comes to imagining the loss of a daughter; two is a number that would destroy must of us. 1,126 is a number that is more than we can bear; more than we can tolerate, more than we can ignore, and yet we know that that number will continue to grow, unless we, that you and that’s me, unless we act and unite our actions with all the mothers whose deep, dark, eyes are filled with tears.
If we want resurrection to be more than just rumors of an empty tomb, we must arise. On this Mothers day, let us resolve to arise. Arise, then, women of this day! Arise, then, our brothers, join us as we untie the spirit that lives in us with the spirit that lives in all our sisters and brothers, let us arise and show the world what resurrection looks like! Arise, for if Christ is risen, Christ is risen in us! Christ is risen in-deed, in deeds of love. Arise! Arise! Arise! Arise in the name and for the sake of the One who lives, in, with, through, and beyond us all. If we want resurrection to be more than just rumors of an empty tomb, we must rise-up and demand justice for our sisters!