Bev Jacobs, a Mohawk lawyer and grandmother from Six Nations, was the lead researcher on Amnesty International’s 2004 Stolen Sisters report. Bev went on to serve as President of the Native Women’s Association of Canada. Her cousin Tashina General was murdered in 2008. Bev has recently been working with Ending Violence Association British Columbia, to design and lead knowledge sharing workshops on how to build safety in Indigenous communities.
I spoke with Bev as part of a series of conversations with Indigenous women activists and leaders to mark the 10th anniversary of the Stolen Sisters report and the ongoing struggle to stop violence against Indigenous women and girls.
What’s the most important thing for Canadians to understand about what’s happening to Indigenous women and girls in this country?
I think it’s really important to understand the reasons why there is this epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women.
I’ve been remembering my meetings with families and rereading their stories and the notes that I took during the meetings I had with all the families. It’s still very emotional for me. One of the things I remember in those meetings is that it wasn’t only the loss of one person, it was also all those historical traumas — the traumas that came from residential schools, the sixties scope, the whole child welfare system, the jail system, the young offender system. It’s just so horrific, to have experienced all those traumas and to add on a horrible murder, a missing person. It’s just so horrific for anybody to have to experience that.
And I think one of the messages is for Canadians to care. That’s it. I want them to care about what’s happening . I want them to care about the families that have been traumatized. I want them to care about why this is happening. I want them to care that this is a systemic problem and that’s we’re all responsible. That’s what my message would be.
One thing that I remember from the conversations with family members leading up to the Stolen Sisters report, is that while we were looking for the patterns, while we were trying to understand the role of history and the role of contemporary society, the family members themselves often said how isolated and alone they felt.
The isolation is still felt by most of the families but it has changed a little bit for some families because now there’s been a lot of movement by communities, by advocates and by the families themselves. Over the last ten years since the Stolen Sisters report, there’s been a lot more support in that way. But if I were to talk still with some of those families, they would still feel some of that isolation because they’re still having to survive it.
I’m talking even about my own family. After all those years of advocating for families, my own family had to deal with a loss, with a murder. I know that the trauma affected not our family, but also it impacted the community, is very difficult to heal from.
Bev, you said that wanted Canadians as a society to show that they care about the lives of these women and girls, to acknowledge that they are loved and valued. Do you think that this is important to other families as well?
As Indigenous people, when we say we come from a nation, that implies a history, and connections to the land, to the territory. There are also those collective connections, not only to our extended family, but to our communities.
For me, the spirits of those women are helping reclaim that. That’s one of the positive messages that’s coming out of this is to honour the spirits of those women who have sacrificed their lives., so that we can reclaim those connections with our families and communities. That’s a huge healing process for all of us.
Looking forward, what’s the future that you want to see, that you’re working to realize for Indigenous women and girls?
My vision is about having peaceful relationships. I just wrote about that recently.
That’s been the role of Indigenous women all along. Inherently, we know about peace. That’s what we’ve been told as a people. That’s one of the reasons why women are leaders in our community: because of that inherent peace that we have, to our families, to our children, and to our men. We raise our children to be peaceful people. At least, that’s what our teachings tell us. So that’s what I want. I want to have that feeling of peace for our women, for our men, for our children, so that we feel safe in our communities and that we feel safe in society and so that we can feel safe when walking down the street.
We’re encouraging Amnesty members to go beyond signing petitions and writing letters, to reach out directly to their Members of Parliament, through phone calls or requests for meetings, to send a message that they want real, meaningful and comprehensive action to ensure the safety of Indigenous women and girls. Is there a message that you would like see conveyed to Canadian politicians?
You know what I think about politics. I’ve been very cynical lately about the political system, including Indigenous politics, which is why I have been focusing on communities, on the grassroots, and on healing, knowing that that is where is the change is going to come.
I think that if I had a specific message for Members of Parliament, it would be to ask, do they know what healing from the loss of a murdered family member feels like? Do they know what it’s like to have so much trauma and loss and to try to heal from that? I don’t think anyone wants to know what that feels like.
I find that politics is really detached. It doesn’t make that connection to the personal. But it seems like that if you have the personal experience of what it feels like, then you’ll become the activist, that you will want to make the real changes that are needed and you will make sure that it actually happens.
Is there work going on at the community level that gives you hope?
Oh yes. That’s where my hope lies. Because I know that at the community level that healing is happening, and that women are taking the lead to make things better. Again, to me, that’s that inherent responsibility, the gift that we have as women.
The work that I have been doing in community is about empowerment and revitalization of our culture and our traditions, about understanding the historical traumas and the impact it has today, to acknowledge how it impacts today and making the necessary positive movements forward.
In my opinion we’re on a strong healing path, stronger than any other peoples. We’ve been dealing with over 500 years of colonization, but when I think about non-Indigenous people, and those colonial descendents, they’ve never healed from their own losses and traumas, the disconnection from their own traditional territories. So I believe we’re moving a lot faster in understanding the impacts of colonization, a lot more than any other peoples. To me that’s really powerful.
I used to feel the real heaviness because we had to deal with so much trauma. But now being in community, and seeing the changes that are happening, and our spirits that are waking up, and responding in a good way, I feel it’s amazing.
People are taking their power back. That’s what’s really happening, not just with our women, but with our families and our Indigenous men and our lands and our territories. We’re making all those connections between being healthy people and having healthy land.