“If governments don’t act we will continue to die and experience violence”: In conversation with MMIWG activist Hilda Anderson-Pyrz

Hilda Anderson-Pyrz is from O-Pipon-Na-Piwin Cree Nation in northern Manitoba, a community located on South Indian Lake, which was once home to North America’s largest white fish industry, before being decimated by Manitoba Hydro activities. Hilda is the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Liaison Unit Manager with Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO) and she is based in Thompson, Manitoba.  MKO is a non-profit, political advocacy organization providing a collective voice on issues related to the rights of member First Nations in northern Manitoba. MKO was a Party with Standing to the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

Amnesty International spoke with Hilda in advance of International Women’s Day 2020.

Can you share with me a little about your role at MKO and the work you do with families?

My role at MKO is as Manager of the MMIWG Liaison Unit and our role is to support families who have experienced the loss of a loved one through homicide, have a loved one who is missing, and we also work with individuals who are survivors of violence. We also focus a lot on prevention and awareness and wellness and healing.  We also build partnerships with various organizations to further support impacted individuals who seek service from our program.

It’s been nine months since the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls released its Final Report with 231 Calls for Justice. What do you think has been the impact of the report thus far?

I think the report has educated many Canadians, and I also feel that the report has really brought a lot of light to the need for immediate action in addressing many of the systemic failures and barriers for Indigenous women, girls, two-spirit, and gender diverse people.

I think the most important thing the National Inquiry’s Final Report has done is to carry the voices of loved ones who are no longer with us and really, in sharing those stories, highlighted the need for governments to self-reflect on how they need to change their policies and legislation and allow Indigenous peoples to go forward in providing their own solutions and recognizing that they are rights holders. Moving forward, Indigenous representation needs to be at the table both in the decision-making, the planning, and the implementation phases of the 231 Calls for Justice.

What potential do you think the Calls for Justice have to be transformative and end this human rights crisis?

I think there is a huge opportunity for the 231 Calls for Justice to be transformative if the government takes them seriously and recognizes the need to provide adequate resourcing for the implementation of the Calls for Justice, and for all Canadians to recognize that they also have a responsibility to be part of the solution to ending the violence by taking certain calls for justice and implementing them on their own. Because we are all part of the solution of ending this genocide in Canada.

You strongly advocated for the National Inquiry to address the harmful impacts of Manitoba Hydro projects on Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit people in northern Manitoba. Why was it so critical that the National Inquiry address the connection between resource development and violence against Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit people?

It was critical because I don’t feel that as an Indigenous woman who is from a hydro-impacted community that Indigenous womens’ lives should come at the cost of economic activities. If there’s activities happening in our territories, there need to be mechanisms to protect us from all types of violence. We should not be experiencing violence so others can benefit economically.

The government has said it will develop a National Action Plan on ending violence against Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit people by June 2020. How are you and others so central to this work involved in developing the National Action Plan?

We are hopeful to hear from the government soon, as I feel the MKO MMIWG Liaison Unit would be instrumental in providing valuable information into the National Action Plan as we are on the ground working and hearing directly from those who have been impacted.   We are also rooted in community and Indigenous ways of being.

The National Inquiry’s Calls for Justice apply not just to the federal government, but to all levels of government, industry, the general public, and others. How have you seen the Manitoba government, municipal governments in Manitoba, First Nations, and others in Manitoba work to understand and implement the Calls for Justice?

There have been a few meetings with the Manitoba government with respect to implementing the calls for justice. They’ll be announcing a Manitoba plan soon and MKO and the Manitoba MMIWG Coalition are going to be involved in meetings related to this. I know that initially when the National Inquiry’s final report was launched we had an event in Thompson with key representatives from government and they all committed to reviewing the Calls for Justice but I haven’t heard too much since then. I think everyone is waiting to see what the federal government is doing because ultimately they hold the purse strings.

I really believe that if governments don’t act Indigenous women and girls and two-spirit people will continue to die and experience violence at very alarming rates. It’s already been declared a national tragedy and it’s going to get worse and more communities and more families will be impacted if we don’t do something. It’s an opportune time for government to act right now. The government has talked about reconciliation and this is a path forward for that.

What is your vision of Canada a decade from now, if the Calls for Justice are fully implemented?

My vision for Canada is that every little girl in every First Nations in Canada has a dream and is able to fulfill that dream and our communities are thriving.  We are reclaiming our roles as matriarchs and living a life we deserve as Indigenous people.