CONSULTATION - Local elders

Reflecting on the inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women

Community officials discuss ways to strengthen vulnerable populations

  • Jan. 6, 2016 3:32 p.m.

Through January, the Red Deer Express is publishing a series involving several community groups and how the inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women affects them moving forward. Interviews with local elders, community supports and City staff will be included to also help examine what the inquiry means for Red Deer as a whole.

Many communities across the country have been affected by missing and murdered women, but an important piece of finding out why this happens is exploring the social issues that perpetuate these tragic circumstances.

The people affected by these missing and murdered women are of First Nations, Metis and Aboriginal status but also come from a wide variety of other cultures. According to local First Nations elders, there are many roles for people to play in creating social change and seeking justice, not only within the Aboriginal community, but outside it as well.

This article features the perspectives of several local Elders in the community who have taken time to explain some of the ways they feel people can be involved in addressing and preventing the national issue that is missing and murdered Aboriginal women. As well, these conversations focus on moving forward towards reconciliation and changing attitudes in the community.

“I think each of us Elders has a different role to play because we each have a different perspective,” said local Elder Lyle Keewatin Richards.

“I’ve done a lot with politics and advocating over the years, but I don’t do sweats and ceremonies and those things. Each of us has a different sort of perspective on how we support the community.

“I think that’s a big thing – how we support the community. It’s about helping where people need the help.”

Keewatin Richards said one of the big questions he hears in the community, in terms of reconciliation and social change, is “What’s next?”

He said one of the main issues he sees as a resonating point of view is that Aboriginal and First Nations people are still being told to change, and their cultural identity is still not being accepted.

“There is a point of view that we need to be converted and changed. As long as people don’t see us as a legitimate way of being, where their way is better, there will always be a mistrust and misunderstanding of who we are. As long as people are seeking victory over us, that’s what will happen,” he said.

“People are still redefining who we are in society by defining who we are through the perspective of their heritage – not ours.”

Rodney Soonias, another community Elder, added to this notion by saying there is a gross misrepresentation of Aboriginal people within bodies of power in society.

“Our culture has been disenfranchised by every major facet of society for years. One of the issues in this City, and this country, is that First Nations people are under-represented in all major areas, from government, to health, to education, to law enforcement. There should be Aboriginal representation in education, the business community, City officials – all of it. It shouldn’t be something we have to beg for,” Soonias said.

The Elders recognized that within modern society, Aboriginal people still do not have much representation in areas that are deemed influential in a society – city or provincial government, the medical community, the provincial and local business community and more.

Soonias said that a small step ahead in preventing such issues as missing and murdered women is to have a better representation of Aboriginal people in influential parts of society.

He listed the business community, language and heritage committees, medical communities, education and law enforcement of examples where he feels there needs to be more Aboriginal representation.

Another perspective of preventing the issue of missing and murdered women – among other issues – is creating a connection between those who identify as part of the Aboriginal community and those who don’t. Community Elder Theresa Jonasson Larsen said that people need to step outside of their comfort zones and learn more about creating a sense of belonging.

“First Nations and Metis people need a sense of belonging,” she said.

“They had such a divine connection to a land that was completely severed. Young people are really angry about what’s been handed to them – this violent history. What the language, the singing and ceremony reminds them is that before all of that anger, there was beauty. We come from a beautiful, beautiful people and we need to remind young people of that.”

Jonasson Larsen said that a big passion of hers, and where she feels her role as an Elder is, is working with youth and empowering women in the community.

She said she feels people need to become more connected to creating a place where people feel like they belong in the community.

“I would really encourage people to get out of their comfort zones and sit in on things. Get in on the meetings and discussions and together we can start to move these things along a little quicker,” she said.

“We all have to get more active.”

Lynn Jonasson, another community Elder present in the discussion, said another way to combat issues of missing and murdered women is to let go of the anger that he sees still present in the community.

“There is so much anger and other feelings that we get rid of through ceremonies. We try to heal through the sweat lodges, and the songs, hearing our language and having the places that we need to heal,” he said.

Jonasson works with people with addictions, and said this experience has given him some insight into facilities Red Deer could benefit from. Two of those examples are an addictions treatment centre, and a culturally-based women’s centre. He says both of these would help the community to address underlying issues that lead to women being hurt.

The Elders in the Red Deer community often take on many roles – teachers, advocates, counsellors, friends and more. They are a small part of the community that seeks justice towards missing and murdered women and are pivotal in the community for recognizing the needs of those who reach out to them.

This series will continue on Jan. 13th.

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