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Personal essay: Carol Daniels on including a strong indigenous heroine in response to the pain of history

JanFeb_Frontmatter_CarolDanielsWhen I look at my daughter, Nahanni, I see everything that is beautiful. Infinite love, endless possibilities. I have called her “my baby bear” since the day she was born. Just being around her brings a level of happiness beyond anything I can describe. She makes me laugh, makes me proud, and makes me cry, mostly tears of joy.

The thought that we live in a country where the disappearence of my precious daughter could be ignored – condoned, even – is almost more painful than I can bear. But that pain is nothing compared to that experienced by the families and friends of the more than 1,200 missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada. They live in a dreaded and forlorn place where it seems no one cares.

I first became aware of this dark corner of Canadian reality because of the 1970s case of Helen Betty Osborne. The Cree teenager was walking home after dark in the Pas, Manitoba, when she was abducted and brutally murdered by four white men. The case was closed almost immediately due to lack of evidence.

The circumstances surrounding her murder prompted the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry, which delivered its report in 1999. It concluded that racism, sexism, and indifference were factors as to why the Osborne case was not properly investigated until almost two decades after the young girl’s murder.

But that was then, you may argue.

Let me remind you about Tina Fontaine. She was just 15 in August 2014, when her body was found wrapped in a plastic bag and floating in Winnipeg’s Red River. The headlines screamed that the child died because police and child and family services failed her.

But surely one cannot place blame with justice authorities, you may further argue.

Let’s jump forward to October 2015. Indigenous women in Val D’or, Quebec, have alleged that from the period between 2001 and 2015 it’s been routine for police to force them to have sex. The women claim to be assaulted and dropped off outside of town. The case is under investigation at the moment.

The reason I bring up these examples is because I am tired of hearing simplistic explanations for them. One RCMP officer I once spoke with actually said, “The cause of missing and murdered aboriginal women is aboriginal men.”

Too easy an answer, especially considering systemic imbalances in justice. If you don’t believe that, simply look to an Alberta case from November 2015. A judge admonished a sexual assault victim by asking her, “Why couldn’t you just keep your knees together?” That judge then acquitted the accused. The victim was a 19-year-old homeless woman. The case has now gone to the Appeal Court.

These are not just headlines. They are descriptions of the lives and experiences of real people. My people. First Nations women, families, and children. As an individual, I can do one of two things in response: I can ignore it, or I can speak up. This is the reason I included a specific kind of indigenous heroine in my debut novel, Bearskin Diary.

I grew up always seeing my own First Nations sisters portrayed in media (literature, movies, TV news clips, and newspaper articles) as downtrodden, victims, and losers. That’s not the reality. My First Nations sisters are community builders, doctors, lawyers, and Indian chiefs. They are great parents and neighbours and friends.

As an artist, I have a responsibility to speak up. It is the reason why the main character in Bearskin Diary is proud, courageous, and resilient. Sandy is her name – the colour of the Earth – because we all need to be strongly rooted in our indigenous culture in order to grow in a good way. So, my portrayal of a female indigenous character is that of heroine – like my real life friends and colleagues. And like my beautiful daughter, Nahanni.

Nahanni is a Slavey word. The Slavey are indigenous people from the Northwest Territories. In English, her name means “strong rock.” My baby bear will need this strength as she cultivates her own cultural roots.

I am grateful that Canadian society evolved to the point that the “scoop up” – which forms an essential part of Bearskin Diary – was not a factor when Nahanni was born. I was able to raise my daughter and my two wonderful sons even though I was a single parent up until 2012, when I married Lyle W. Daniels from Gordon’s First Nation in Saskatchewan.

I am encouraged that a cultural dialogue seems to have begun regarding missing and murdered indigenous women and other atrocities. It is my hope that, for some, reading Bearskin Diary might be a starting point toward learning who we are as Canada’s indigenous peoples and reclaiming those roots.

Carol Daniels is the first Canadian aboriginal woman to anchor a national newscast. Her novel Bearskin Diary is published by Nightwood Editions.