Maya Chacaby has lived on the street. She has been abused. She has been, as she puts it, “missing but not missed.” According to the Native Women’s Association of Canada, 55 per cent of murdered or missing Aboriginal women are aged 31 or under.
Chacaby spoke to a small gathering at Durham College for a special lecture on missing and murdered indigenous women hosted by the Aboriginal Student Centre.
Chacaby is Anishinaabe, Beaver Clan from Thunder Bay. She teaches sociology at York University and is a researcher with the Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centre.
As participants entered SW209, they were offered an opportunity to smudge, a traditional ritual used for healing and energy cleaning, then invited into a circle of chairs surrounding Chacaby.
“These circles are real healing spaces,” said Chacaby.
Chacaby started with a healing song then read a chapter from a soon-to-be published book about indigenous women. Chacaby’s chapter of the book focuses on her experience and gives insight into the lives of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls.
The Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) has created a database of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls. As of 2015, NWAC had gathered information about 582 cases. According to an online fact sheet, 67 per cent of these are murder cases with death a result of homicide or negligence and 20 per cent are cases of missing women or girls.
Chacaby wants society to know what is like to be one of those missing women: how the social services system failed her and labelled her the problem.
Chacaby spent time in mental institutions and says they tried to rehabilitate her rebellious streak. She did not want to be rehabilitated.
“I couldn’t be fixed in the way the institutions wanted because they reproduced my missingness,” says Chacaby who went on to describe her friends breaking her out of those institutions, wheeling her down the street in a wheelchair, hospital administration running after her.
When social services tried to put her in the school system, she refused. That education was not the one she wanted. She wanted to be taught about her language and her culture.
“What was the point of learning about a culture I didn’t identify with?” she asks.
Chacaby says, “I wasn’t going to be some docile woman who took whatever society gave me.” Chacaby was going to fight for her right to be an indigenous woman and live her truth.
She wants to unsettle the system.
More than 150,000 indigenous children were taken from their families and forced to attend residential schools in the 1920s. The last school was closed in 1996. These children were not allowed to practice their culture or speak their language. Instead they were forced to speak either English or French. It has been said, the Canadian government wanted to ‘kill the indian’ in the children.
Chacaby asks us to remember the Gradual Civilization of Indians Act, described by the Canadian Encyclopedia as “a state effort to use government policy to assimilate Indigenous peoples to the economic and social customs of European settler society.”
Chacaby says many women who are missing won’t be truly found because they have nowhere to go to.
She asks, “What’s really missing here? Not just the girls. What’s missing is a place to come home to. Home is language. Home is culture.”
“Who is really missing?” Chacaby asks. “The girl with cuts on her arms. She is missing right in front of you.”
Girls go missing because they are lost. They have no access to language culture. Resources for indigenous women are limited. It is a matter of denying your culture in order to receive services such as beds in homeless shelters. Maya Chacaby says when she was looking for support services, it was better not to be native.
“Before we end this missing and murdered issue. We need to find a social environment where we do not feel lost,” says Chacaby.
According to Chacaby, many women who are missing will face abuse if they return home. She wants women to create a home children want to come back to.
Once the lecture was over, Chacaby invited the circle to share their thoughts. The room was filled with emotion. Many people thanked Chacaby for sharing her story. Some told their own. One woman shared her story of violence and abuse. Another woman spoke about being a mother and said she understood the importance of children knowing they can always come home.
Jacob Charles, an Anishinaabe man who recently moved to Oshawa, attended the lecture. In the healing circle after the lecture, he said he had had to learn how to respect women.
“This is the second time I have heard Chacaby speak,” says Charles, who likes that Chacaby speaks fluent Northern Oji-Cree. “I love her message.”
At the end of the lecture, Chacaby asked the gathering to do two things.
She wanted the people there to unsettle the system. She didn’t specify how this was to be done but everyone has his or her own way, she says.
The second thing she wanted everyone to do is find each other. By finding each other she means connecting with someone every day.
“If you already know someone,” says Chacaby, “dig a little deeper and see what else you can find out. This way we can all be found.”