Growing up on the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve, a large indigenous community in Southwestern Ontario, I was more interested in watching the Rebels and the Warriors—our lacrosse teams—than being one. I’ve since realized that there are bigger things at stake than trophies.
We all know that indigenous people in Canada face a barrage of hardships—discrimination, racism and higher rates of poverty, incarceration and substance issues, to name a few. Indigenous women are especially vulnerable. They experience higher rates of domestic violence and homicide than non- indigenous Canadian women. But while these facts rattle around in my head, besides the occasional retweet, I haven’t exactly left a strong impression on my friends—both IRL and on social media—that I’m affected by these injustices. I guess I don’t feel knowledgeable enough to be anything more than an armchair activist. But the world needs to hear from more indigenous voices. So I reached out to a few of the more comfortably vocal indigenous women I’m inspired by to see what empowers their engagement, hoping that maybe their stories could help me learn to embrace this part of myself.
I knew I had to speak with Waneek Horn-Miller. I identify a lot with her—like me, she’s a mom, a Mohawk and in an interracial relationship. I first saw her on television during the Pan American Games in Toronto in 2015. She was a games ambassador—she’s a former water-polo player and the first Mohawk woman to ever be on a Canadian Olympic team (in 2000). Then I learned that Horn-Miller was also a survivor of the 1990 Oka Crisis, the 78-day standoff and land dispute between a Mohawk community and the town of Oka, Que. On the last day of the conflict, she was stabbed while holding her four-year-old sister. Horn-Miller was just 14.
Sports, she tells me when I reach her on the phone in Ottawa, helped her deal with the aftermath of that trauma. “I’ve struggled with PTSD since I was a teenager,” she says. “I’ve walked that fine line between thoughts of suicide and feeling very vulnerable. I’m an incredibly deep, emotional person.” Today, she channels those emotions into advocating for indigenous issues, such as violence against women. (She was the director of community relations for Canada’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, a national inquiry created to examine the systemic causes of violence against indigenous women.) In 2014, she sued the Kahnawà:ke Mohawk Council, challenging its residency laws that prevent non-indigenous partners of indigenous people from living on the territory. For her, it’s a personal issue as well as a human-rights issue: Horn-Miller’s husband is white. But it’s also an emotional one: Kahnawà:ke is her home, her family. This resonates with me, coming from a community with its own residency bylaw—often not enforced—which means my non-indigenous husband technically isn’t welcome to live there. It’s difficult, she admits, saying that her activism “came from sticking to [her] fundamental teaching, which is love.” She adds: “If I make that decision based on love, then it’s going to be okay. Maybe following my heart has made me an activist.”
“Activism is love,” agrees Sarain Fox, whom I also invited to take part in the phone call with Horn-Miller and me. Fox is of Anishinaabe lineage, and the issues closest to her heart are the preservation of culture and the environment. “The land is what has taught me love, and water has taught me love, and that’s why I fight so much for water,” she says. Fox is the next generation of indigenous voices, using social media as her megaphone. Her Instagram feed paints her as the cool girl I wish I’d been at 30: tattooed, stylish (she can pull off every hat trend) and brave. Fox is the host of Vice’s Rise, a series about indigenous-led resistance, and APTN’s Future History, on the resurgence of indigenous knowledge. Notably, she reported from the front line at Standing Rock, the recent Dakota Access Pipeline protests, when thousands of indigenous and non-indigenous people, over the course of a year, fought the building of an oil pipeline under the water source of the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota—they were evicted, and the pipeline is operational. “Activism is [also] knowing where you’re best served,” she says. “For me, it’s using my platform to reach out to the young people, shining a light on injustices and infiltrating the mainstream with indigenous content.”
Documentary filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril is using the same strategy to bring Canadians’ attention to the struggles her community faces. She directed the 2016 documentary Angry Inuk, which defends the Inuit seal hunt that her people have relied on for thousands of years for food and income. (In 1987, the government of Canada banned the hunting of whitecoat and blueback seals. Despite making an exception for Inuit hunters, the ban, as well as a prior European Union one, still devastated the economy of the Inuit people.) The Inuit face a more difficult situation than other indigenous people in Canada; they are especially isolated, and their struggles—a housing crisis, food shortages, the highest youth-suicide rates in the country, to name a few—are often overlooked. “We do have life-and-death situations up here that people completely ignore,” says Arnaquq-Baril from her home office in Iqaluit. “We aren’t sensational enough…we need to consider expressing ourselves in a different [way]. We can still be who we are as Inuit, take pride in staying calm under pressure, while also ensuring that the outside world understands how upset we might be about a certain issue.”
Arnaquq-Baril is soft-spoken and careful about her word choices, often pausing mid- sentence. (That consideration extends to her automatically spelling out Inuktitut words for me.) The moment that cemented her badassery for me was when she received a Meritorious Service Cross for outstanding indigenous leadership from then Governor General David Johnston; her baby son was nestled in her amautik, an Inuit parka with a pouch on the back.
While there is no shortage of issues to discuss during our combined three-hour conversation, we put the spotlight on identity, preservation of culture, women and the environment. My biggest takeaway on how Canadians can engage with these issues is this: Be informed, which is as easy as tapping the “follow” button on social media. I should know, as my feed is now predominantly filled with these inspiring indigenous women. I don’t know if I can ever be as tough as them, but with their guidance, I’m well on my way to finding my voice.
ON THE GOVERNMENT AND SYSTEMIC RACISM
Waneek Horn-Miller: “The people I met through the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls inquiry [said] ‘We demand to check the racism that exists in our Canadian society, and if we see abuse, we’re going to do something about it.’ People like me, Sarain and Alethea—it’s our job to get out into the public and make these [issues] Canadian issues.”
Sarain Fox: “Maybe that’s our version of Time’s Up.”
WHM: “More of our people are getting elected to Parliament, which is helpful, but I think we need to solve poverty issues and access to education. Education is the only way we’re going to get out of the situation we’re in. Pushing members of Parliament and provinces to do resource sharing and having economic viability in our communities—that’s going to be very important to get us out of poverty. That’s what I love about business so much; it’s a powerful economic motivator.”
Alethea Arnaquq-Baril: “There are so few places of employment up here that the government is the main employer (it used to be sealskin), and a lot of Inuit feel like they have their hands tied—that they can’t criticize the government, policy or law publicly because they work for the government.”
ON CANADIAN IDENTITY
WHM: “We still have a significant percentage of our population living in third- and fourth-world conditions. There needs to be a groundswell among Canadians saying that that’s unacceptable. What needs to happen, sooner rather than later, is coming up with solutions to housing, water, poverty and suicide.”
SF: “It has always been a touchy subject for me. Like NFL players not standing for the American anthem in protest, my whole life I haven’t stood up for the Canadian anthem. That’s not a radical thing—it’s something all the natives I grew up with did. And it’s not because I’m not proud to be Canadian; it’s far beyond that. I’m part of this land; it is my future and my heart. We talk so much about reconciliation, but I don’t think I can truly feel a part of the fabric of this country until we acknowledge the truth.”
AAB: “Broadly speaking, a lot of Inuit are proud to be Canadian. One of our former leaders, Jose Kusugak, said that Inuit are first Canadians but we’re Canadians first. I believe it can be a great country, but I think there’s a huge amount of work to be done.”
ON THE #METOO MOVEMENT
WHM: “We’ve crossed a threshold and there’s no going back, hopefully.”
SF: “I think this movement is about taking back the power that we’ve always assumed is there but hasn’t actually been there.”
AAB: “I posted my own #MeToo story on Facebook. I think those conversations need to happen in our communities as well—especially because of the history of residential-school abuse. We had federal day schools up here. Many people were exposed to sexual, physical and verbal abuse, cultural denial and having their mouths washed out with soap for speaking their language. It’s still very hush-hush up here. I don’t know if the indigenous world is having an effect on the #MeToo movement, but I hope the #MeToo movement will have an effect on the indigenous world.”
SF: “We haven’t heard enough from indigenous women. I’ve heard ‘If I out someone in my community, then I’m outing my community, so we will deal with it on the inside,’ which is totally opposite to the #MeToo movement. I want to scream at the top of my lungs about a few things, and I’m waiting for permission—which is very indigenous-style. We always have to be backed by our communities; until someone decides that this is the time, I don’t think we’ll see a massive push like in the mainstream.”
WHM: “When I was working with the national inquiry, I kept hearing that we don’t want to hurt our own people, but what do we do with the pain that’s inflicted? We want to honour the pain of people who have gone through colonization, but we’re also trying to do something for the victims.”
ON MOVING FORWARD AND WORKING TOGETHER
SF: “With Standing Rock, I had to remind myself that the battle wasn’t about the pipeline; the battle was about people organizing. When we lost, it felt like even with all the people coming together [it led to] nothing, but the world actually changed a little bit.”
WHM: “Standing Rock stripped away some of the native versus non-native fight that we saw during Oka. Some said, ‘White people aren’t allowed at our solidarity fires,’ but the elders said that there are non-native people who [almost] had their arms blown off at Standing Rock, so there’s space for them. That’s an evolution that I find really important. The indigenous-led environmental fight, but with allies, is the cool thing about Standing Rock, and I think it’s the first of many fights.”
SF: “You can’t look to any front line anywhere in North and South America and not see young women leading the charge. I stand in solidarity with natives and non-natives—with everyone who is standing up for the earth.”
WHM: “I’ve seen change in the 27 years since the Oka crisis because I’ve been aware and part of this movement for so long. There’s a glimmer of hope that I can grasp onto. Some days I’m more optimistic than others and some days I’m not, but that’s the struggle of making change. I hope at the end of my life, people can say that I made people’s lives better, knowing me and the things that I decided to take on [because] I didn’t want to leave a mess for the people coming after me.”
For the latest in fashion, beauty and culture, sign up to receive ELLE's bi-weekly newsletter