Onkwehonwe Week in Review: August 10, 2016

Mount Polley Mine shut down on second anniversary of largest industrial disaster in Canadian history

The Secwepemc Women’s Warrior Society (SWWS) blockaded the entrance to Imperial Metal’s Mount Polley Mine on August 4, near Likely, British Columbia. Two years ago, a tailings pond failed and spilled 25 million cubic metres of mining waste which devastated Hazeltine Creek and parts of Quesnel Lake, which are home to the world’s largest sockeye salmon run.

According to a statement released by the SWWS, the action was taken because, “Imperial Metals has refused to clean up the toxic tailings left on the Land and in the Water and has not been made responsible for any of the mass destruction it has caused and continues to cause to and in Unceded and Unsurrendered Secwepemc Territory.”

“That the province has continued to issue the Mount Polley Mine permits to re-open and operate at full capacity is not only unacceptable, but criminal. The province’s active aiding and abetting of Imperial Metals’ large scale industrial destruction on Secwepemc Lands is a continuation of genocide against Secwepemc people. These actions have not and will not be tolerated.”

On January 30, 2015, an independent Expert Engineering Investigation and Review Panel was struck in order to assess the cause and range of the damage caused by Imperial Metals. Their report suggested that the disaster was preventable, but made worse by repeatedly raising the dam to hold more tailings without the addition of proper supports. Experts found the pond had been a recipe for disaster made worse by efforts to increase its capacity.

British Columbia Auditor General Carol Bellringer wrote a report examining the regulatory framework overseen by the Ministry of Energy and Mines. It found that the province fails to adequately monitor mine operators increasing the risk of serious accidents. In response, Bellringer recommended that this responsibility be removed from the Ministry of Energy and Mines because of the Ministry’s vested interest in the promotion of energy projects and handed to an independent body instead. The government rejected that recommendation.

The report also highlighted the fact that individual mining companies do not have to provide bonds large enough to cover environmental restoration in the event of an industrial disaster.  Those who live off the land and the taxpayers are the ones who pay the cost when industry creates environmental disasters.


MMIW Inquiry announced; Policing will not be investigated

Last Wednesday, in Gatineau, Quebec, the Canadian government announced a $53.8 million investment into a formal inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould said that the inquiry, “will focus on the root causes of the disproportionate rates of violence against Indigenous women and girls and the extent of the vulnerability to violence. We need to identify the causes of those disparities and take action now to end them.”

The Commission will have the power to call testimony from witnesses but not to re-open cases. Human Rights Watch articulated the inadequacy of Canada’s efforts to investigate the root causes of systemic racism. “Disappointingly, the Inquiry’s final terms of reference do not specifically mention policing. They refer instead to the ‘underlying social, economic, cultural, institutional and historical causes’ of the violence and the ‘institutional policies and practices implemented in response.”

“Holding police accountable for misconduct is essential for ensuring Indigenous Women and Girls safety going into the world.”

Indigenous leaders and academics also expressed mixed feelings about the inquiry’s focus.  Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett said policing will be a priority but experts say that needs to be reflected in the inquiry’s formal terms of reference.

“What we really want to see is an examination of the root causes, not just the things that we know,” said Pam Palmater, chair of Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University. “We know that poverty makes people more vulnerable. We know that lack of housing and education makes Indigenous women and girls more vulnerable. But we want to get at some of the root problems that have never been addressed like police racism and sexualized violence committed by police and foster parents and child welfare agencies against Indigenous women and girls.”

Dawn Lavell-Harvard, president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada is also concerned about how the government will support families who testify during the inquiry. “When you re-open wounds like this you cannot just have someone coming and testifying and then send them home.”

Indigenous academics point out the ineffectiveness of past inquiries, like the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, whose recommendations were not implemented and say that the Canadian government has the responsibility to make the findings of the MMIW inquiry binding.   There are huge systemic issues that cannot be done overnight, so the foresight needs to exist wherein accountability exists and can be acted upon.


Indigenous midwives reclaiming their roles in Cree communities

The Cree Board of Health and Social Services has been pushing for traditional midwifery practices to return to the communities. After decades of sending women to birth their children in hospitals in Southern Quebec, the Cree Board of Health and Social Services has decided that now is the time to make birth a sacred process once again.

“When we welcome the spirit into the human body, we are in the presence of the divine. That hit hard,” said Kathy Shecapio, intermin assistant director of the Cree Health Board’s Nishiyuu department. A spiritual disconnection has been identified in Western medical practices. Last week, in an effort to normalize traditional birthing practices once again, a traditional birth was re-enacted by traditional and modern midwives. Together, they shared their knowledge and rituals.  Soon, “modern” midwives will provide perinatal and birth services in Cree communities. They’ll be trained by traditional midwives so that the spiritual elements of the birthing ceremony can continue. “The very act of a baby being passed from person to person and welcomed and kissed and returned back to the mom is very touching for me,” said Jasmine Chatelain, who is helping to design the Cree Health Board’s midwifery program.

“It has really shown me how deeply and profoundly important it is that family and community be present when a baby is born.” For decades, Cree women have been separated from their families and sent to Chibougamau, Val d’Or or Montreal to give birth. Paula Napash, who played the mother in the birth re-enactment gave birth to all three of her babies in the French town of Val d’Or, a three hour flight from home. “I found it took more time to deliver my child because I was stressed about my other child back home,” she said.

The Cree Health Board has a plan to hire registered midwives in all Cree communities in Quebec. Women with low risk pregnancies could choose to give birth at the local health centre.  The plan also includes training Cree midwives with university programming, as well as year of apprenticeship. Consultation continues with elders, clinical staff and community members.

Kathy Shecapio says that any questions of “security” is not only about the physical risks of birthing in remote communities but also the cultural risks of sending women out of the community. “Removing women from the communities and their culture is like an extension of the residential school system,” Midwife Jasmine Chatelain agrees. “I believe that to support women and their families to be empowered and have self determination around something as basic as giving birth will feed into a more healthy population in general,” she said. “What I’m hearing from everyone is that the benefits outweigh the risks.”


Wampum belts create space for learning and growth in Newfoundland

On the East Coast, an innovative project rooted in ancestral methods of Indigenous story telling, communication and agreement making has started. Kelly Ann Butler, the Aboriginal Affairs Officer and the Indigenous Student Caucus at Memorial University in Newfoundland, developed the wampum making project. Creating these story telling devices using thousands of white and purple beads.

Images for the wampum belt were sought out through an open call out. They were looking for designs to represent each Indigenous nation in the province. “We had such a good response, we have extra designs that aren’t going to fit on the main belt, so we already have plans to make a second belt … everyone that submits a design will have their design woven.”

The belt has been worked by as many as 70 different people. The theme of the belt is that we are all connected. “It’s a common theme … we’re all connected in some way,” said Butler. “It’s a really easy way to focus on differences that we have, but there are a lot of things we have in common, as well.”

Weaving of the belt began in January at the Greenfell campus of Memorial University. Since then, it has crossed the province. Butler said that crafting this belt has become a community building experience and a spiritual one, as well.

“Some people just sit right down, pick up the needle, and go to town. And others are kind of timid. They’re afraid that they’re going to break it or something’s going to go wrong. Once they start working on it, they realize it’s not hard,” Butler said. Participants thought the project to be unique and reminiscent of the earliest relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.

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