NDNs at UBC: Safety is not being scared of wearing beaded earrings

This article contains mentions of violence against Indigenous people and missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and Two Spirit people.

Safety feels like playing League of Legends with friends at 3 a.m., sitting in IKB until midnight and watching your friends leave on one of those silly electric scooters with a skateboard behind it.

Safety does not feel like being scared of going out while wearing beaded earrings at night, crying on Valentine’s Day or paying an extra $20 to get medication instead of showing your status card.

Contrary to my friends’ beliefs, being a ‘racially ambiguous,’ ‘educated,’ confident person who dresses like a (stylish) grandpa has not and will not save me from the fate of my Indigenous sisters — simply put by Mary Teegee in Jessica McDiarmid’s Highway of Tears, “because I am an Indigenous woman, I am six times more likely to be murdered than my non-Indigenous sister.” My life is connected to those of every Indigenous woman, girl and Two Spirit person because of the violence we face daily. You may know what Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Two Spirit (MMIWG2S) is, but you probably don’t understand its reality.

My life began near the Highway of Tears. But, I didn’t think much about the highway as a kid or teen. I moved to New Zealand, where highways were consistently interrupted by towns and mountains and seas and our parents’ generation grew up hitchhiking. It was only when I was about to return to Canada that I was brought back to my birthplace. Back to the highway.

To prepare me, my sister gave me a list of things to avoid — what to do and not to do as an Indigenous woman. She warned me that I looked more Tsawout than Μāορι and that my racial ambiguity wouldn’t pass as easily in Canada as it did in New Zealand. She taught me about the Highway of Tears, told me to stay away from similar highways, to be cautious of men, to not go out alone and to always tell someone where you are and where you are going. Situations that would be safe for non-Indigenous women were not situations that would be safe for me. The people meant to protect me were not to be trusted; colonial roots, ulterior motives and the knowledge that taking me instead of my friend would result in less punishment.

Armed with this knowledge of one of Canada’s biggest issues, I returned. Immediately, I realized that allies didn’t really care. It wasn’t always a lack of motivation — it was also a lack of understanding and education. The fear implemented in us from birth was not implemented in non-Indigenous people as well. My friends have fun meeting people of their own ethnicities, so they didn’t understand why I don’t like strangers knowing I’m Indigenous. They didn’t understand how my safety as an Indigenous woman is different from the safety of a non-Indigenous woman.

They especially didn’t understand why I was crying on the phone to my sister on the other side of the world because I had a bad day where I was reminded of the grandmother I never met and the girls who never returned to their homes; of their vulnerability and my own. Ironically, on this day while my friends celebrated love, I mourned my missing and murdered sisters and siblings.

February 14 marked the 31st annual Women’s Memorial March in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, a memorial march organized to remember the lives of the Indigenous women, girls and Two Spirit people.

On this day, I realized the chasm between me and my non-Indigenous friends. How was I supposed to tell them how scared I was? How much sorrow I felt every day, but especially this day? I did not know how to do it. My stubbornness and pride refused to show weakness or portray my people as weak. We are vulnerable, but we are strong — we are as strong as we can be. The issue is not with us but with those who hurt us.

I guess this is me telling them then and me telling you now. Our tears are real, and we feel so much pain. Our pain is built into the society you live in. If there’s one thing you owe us, it is to educate yourself. Even if you’ll never be able to live our pain, try to understand it. We will smile and cry and persevere, fight for our futures and look after our own, but nothing will change unless you change. Help us to end this war we find ourselves fighting.

No more stolen sisters.

To educate yourself, start with their stories: Highway of Tears by Jessica McDiarmid tells the stories of some of the lost Indigenous women and their families.

To learn about the No More Stolen Sisters movement, visit https://www.amnesty.ca/what-we-do/no-more-stolen-sisters/

To learn about the federal inquiry into MMIWG2S, visit https://www.mmiwg-ffada.ca/

To learn about the Annual February 14th Women’s Memorial March, visit https://womensmemorialmarch.wordpress.com/.

Aquila Underwood is a second-year student planning to major in political science and First Nations and Indigenous Studies. She was born in Canada but raised in New Zealand and is Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Te Āti Awa and W̱SÁNEĆ. 

NDNs at UBC is an open-form column written by Indigenous UBC students. If you’re interested in getting involved, submit pitches or completed articles to opinion@ubyssey.ca.