“What is missing?”: Marie Clements’s New Opera about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women

Violence against Indigenous women and girls is pervasive in Canada. The National Inquiry  Interim Report, (Our Women and Girls are Sacred) cites an estimate that Indigenous women are “12 times more likely to be murdered or missing than any other women in Canada, and 16 times more likely than Caucasian women” (at pp. 7-8). And the Native Women’s Association of Canada points out that numbers alone communicate little about the lives of Indigenous women and girls, or the calamitous losses experienced by their families and communities.  As NWAC point out in their discussion of the Faceless Dolls Project,  “each statistic tells a story.”

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The cast of Missing (photo credit: Dean Kalyan)

In a new chamber opera that debuted in 2017 in British Columbia, librettist Marie Clements and composer Brian Current portray ongoing colonial violence against Indigenous women and girls and emphasize the need for difficult learning.

Missing, performed in English and the Gitxsan language, immerses audience members in a discomfiting comparison of the divergent life chances of two young women with similar aspirations. Ava, a white law student, passes by a hitchhiker on the notorious Highway 16, the “Highway of Tears” where so many women have gone missing. After a car accident, she glimpses the body of a high school student, a character Clements names only “Native Girl,” who stands in for the multitude of lost girls and women.

Ava returns to her studies after recovering and encounters Dr. Wilson, a guest lecturer, whose discussion of missing and murdered Indigenous women challenges students to move beyond fleeting sympathy to grapple with their own complicity. “What is missing,” Dr. Wilson asks the students, in a society that “can’t recognize another human being as another human being?” One of Ava’s classmates disavows shared responsibility for the structures and histories that make Indigenous women vulnerable to violence; she angrily insists that they are to blame for their own “bad choices.”

forever-loved-FINAL-cover-small.jpgThe student’s defensive reaction in the opera, and her reliance on problematic stereotypes, will be familiar to many instructors. Maxine Matilpi explains that “when we dispel lies and deal with the omissions from their prior education, non-Indigenous students tell me that they would rather we didn’t spend so much class time on colonization or racism; they find it uncomfortable and frustrating, even irritating” (See her article “Personal Political Pedagogy with Respect to #MMIW” in D. Memee Lovell-Harvard and Jennifer Brant, eds, Forever Loved: Exposing the Hidden Crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Canada (2016), p. 264).

But in the opera, Ava, is not defensive.  She has been transformed by her near-fatal accident, and is receptive to Dr. Wilson, who instructs her in the Gitxsan language and then mentors her when she becomes a new mother. The care and cultural teachings that Ava receives are further reminders of what the other young woman was deprived of by her assailant, while scenes of her mother’s limitless grief portray how badly she is missed. As Ava encounters Native Girl in uncanny ways, she learns to reach out to her, offering care and witnessing.

Marie Clements, an acclaimed Métis playwright (she is also the writer and director of the new film The Road Forward), when interviewed about Missing, said that her desire was to create a work in this Opera that would engage the empathy of Indigenous and non-Indigenous audience members by portraying “a Canadian story . . . one that we’re all responsible to.”

The disappearances and tragic deaths continue, and at the first hearings of the National Inquiry, families have described losses that extend across generations. Marilyn Dumont, a Métis poet and professor, commemorates Helen Betty Osborne, a high school student who had to move away from home to attend high school. “Betty,” Dumont writes, “if I set out to write this poem about you / it might turn out instead / to be about me / or any one of /my female relatives.”

Clements’ opera is a great resource for those looking for ways to engage with the difficult realities of our shared colonial histories in ways that make this story one that we are all responsible to.

SOME RESOURCES:

Chantelle Bellerichard, “New opera about MMIWG tells a story ‘that we’re all responsible to,’ says co-creator” (Oct 29, 2017) http://www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/mmiwg-opera-to-premiere-in-vancouver-next-week-1.4375797

Sarah Petrescu, “Power of Opera Gives Story of Missing Indigenous Women Emotional Depth” (Nov 21, 2017) http://www.timescolonist.com/entertainment/power-of-opera-gives-story-of-missing-indigenous-women-emotional-depth-1.23099825

Interim Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, “Our Women and Girls are Sacred” (2017) http://www.mmiwg-ffada.ca/files/ni-mmiwg-interim-report-en.pdf

Highway of Tears Symposium Recommendation Report (2006) http://www.turtleisland.org/healing/highwayoftears.pdf

Jorge Barerra, “100s of Faceless Dolls Disappear” (Oct 10, 2017) http://www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/mmiwg-faceless-dolls-disappear-1.4363768

 

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Thinking about “The Law of Evidence” through the Structure of Indigenous Language

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My new favourite book

With classes nearly over this term, I happily turned to my “Books to Read!” pile.   At the top of the pile was a new book by Marianne Ignace and Ron Ignace, Secwépemc People, Land and Laws (McGill-Queen’s Press, 2017).

So many of the summers of my life have been spent on the shores of the Shuswap Lake. The smell of the forests, the feel of the winds, sound of the water, the taste of thimbleberries… all that has been imprinted deep in my heart.  I had been looking forward to spending some time with this book, to continue to learn about the history of the land, the people, and the laws of this place that I so love.  I am only into the 4th chapter, but I am not disappointed.  I can already see that this is going to be a book I will be carrying around with me.

In line, then, with my new goal for myself (to do at least one blogpost a week on what I am learning), let me share one of the amazing things I learned today from the this book.  I learned that the Secwepemc Language is an amazing resource for learning about law!  I finished reading Chapter 4 (“Secwepemctsin: The Shuswap Language”) this afternoon, and then spent the next hour walking up and down the halls of the law school, hunting down colleague after colleague to make them listen to what I had learned (Val, Pooja, Jess, Simon, Tim, and Bob have got to hear my enthusiasm first hand!).

The big discovery for me (on p. 138 of the book) was something called “Evidentials”.  This is a form of suffix that does not exist in English grammar.   In Secwepemctsin, as I understand it from the chapter, a suffix can attach to a verb, in a way that lets the speaker tell the listener about the evidentiary support for the statement.  That is, it indicates how the speaker comes to know the truth of the statement:

  1.  from first hand knowledge,
  2. from hearsay (what others have said), or
  3. because there is physical evidence of the action.

In short, as the Ignaces point out here, when people are telling each other about things that happen in the world, they are also sharing information about the evidence that exists for the statements made.

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Page 138

Of course, we can share information about evidentiary support in the English language: it is just a matter of adding more detail.  And when it comes to legal action, those evidential details matter a lot: if you appear as a witness in  a common-law court, you will be asked how it is you come to know what you know; the presence of physical evidence to support the claim is alway relevant; there are all sorts of rules to govern hearsay evidence.  That is, there is much to explore around evidentiary rules related to the relevance, credibility, reliability and sources of statements.

But there is something so interesting in how such questions are organized in Secwepemctsin in part through grammar.  Questions of evidence seem to be woven into the structure of speech and thought (rather than being separate questions emerging primarily in the context of formal legal settings.)  An orientation towards evidence is embedded in grammar itself.

What is so beautiful to me (or do I just mean mean ‘surprising’?)  is that the structure of Secwepemctsin itself, as a language, orients itself towards transparency in the  practices of validating knowledge.  Grammatically, people tell each other not only what they know, but HOW they know it.  This means speakers are grammatically required to make (suffix based) choices about the actions they describe, and listeners have the capacity to make choices about further inquiries needed on the basis of what they hear. Given suffixes, they can determine whether to seek further information from others, or to validate information by looking to physical traces to support what they have heard.  Certainly, this requires speakers and listeners to engage their own faculties of reasoning in conversation, by reminding them that all statements have an evidentiary status of some sort.  This is such a sophisticated and nuanced structure of thought.   I have been reading a number of Secwepemc stories in English, and I have a new appreciation for the ways that that the stories, in their original language, would be carrying additional information and nuance.

This encouraged me to go back to the TRC calls to action, and the section on Language.   Call #14 says “We call upon the federal government to enact an Aboriginal Languages Act that incorporates the following principles:

(i) Aboriginal languages are a fundamental and valued element of Canadian culture and society, and there is an urgency to preserve them.

There are interesting challenges in thinking about how each of us is invited to make the TRC Calls to Action “our own”.  Call 14 aims at the federal government, and it asks for legislation:  it is easy to see this call as within purview of others.  And yet, there is something important in acknowledging that we are each in some way called to think about our relationship to the PRINCIPLES that are identified here.  In learning more about Secwepemctsin (the language of the Secwepemc peoples), and about the place of evidentials in that language, I came to appreciate the importance of the principle expressed in TRC Call to Action #14: ‘that Aboriginal languages are a fundamental and valued element of Canadian culture and society’.   There are very good reasons for all Canadians to begin to learn with and about the Indignenous languages of this country.

One starting point might be this book.  Certainly, its discussion of Evidential Suffixes, is a wonderful way to draw insights from Indigenous Language and Indigenous Law into the Evidence Law classroom!  Can’t wait to learn more from what Marianne Ignace and Ron Ignace have brought together in this book!