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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Listen for their voices

Posted: 08/23/2014 1:00 AM | Comments: 0


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August 20, 2014. 7:22 p.m.

On the docks.

Tonight, the air has water in it.

The muggy air has water and the Red River so much more, the way it flows relentless towards, each molecule of H2O engaged in a deathless pilgrimage no human life can match. The water has seen some of us being born, it has seen some of our lives end. Tonight, it sees where three dozen people are gathered silent by the river bend.

Five days ago, Faron Hall went into the water here. Two days later, they carried Tina Fontaine out of its grasp. Tuesday night, two thousand people gathered by these banks, to mourn where Tina's journey ended and then carry on her walk. But tonight, three dozen sit in silence, after elders, Grandmothers, sing and speak. Seven ducks bob along the water's surface, cocking their necks to listen to Tina's mother weep.

They invited all to come and fill the water with prayers. I don't know how to go there, never learned. So my prayer will be these words.

I scratch them onto real paper, something I haven't done for many years. I bought this notebook at a drug store on the way here, a cheap school notebook and five plastic ballpoint pens. It's been so long since I've crafted letters with my hands, my writing spins. The letters collide and tilt apart, capitals mingling with scribbled lower-case. I notice how my hand forces some words to crash and fall against the margins of the page. There's just not room for them, I guess.

There is a little girl here. She twirls close to where the dock drops into the water. She is wearing a picture-perfect dress printed with pink roses. Her mother gently takes her hand and tugs her back, just enough to keep her from tumbling into the river. She doesn't know to fear it, yet. Doesn't know the river's grip demands our caution, and respect.

Over the river, a train of oil tankers announces its crossing with a screech, the ceaseless wail of industry insensate to this dockside grief.

To think: 500 years ago, there was no System in North America, no legal orders taking children from their homes. There were no homeless, in the way we know them now. What does it say that this now sounds idealistic? It was a fact of how societies were designed, societies that stood for countless generations. We could do the same now, you know. But it has to be chosen. It has to be made priority.

Instead, we are left to follow the thread of how we went from that, to this: a society that guarantees some will be forced out, left out, abandoned in the water.

"The system is broken." The Grandmothers say those words tonight, and we all know they are right. Tina Fontaine fled the system, at least twice, and we don't need to have known her to surmise she was searching for somewhere that she could name herself as home. Nobody runs when they feel like they belong. But the System weighs heavy and unyielding as a concrete block, and if she fought -- well, just remember, we only ever fight things that are externally imposed.

What if the system was more like the river is now, what if it could ebb and flow...

Over the river, they are building handsome houses. Their smudgeless windows stare unblinking, stoic.

We can still create a system that, for Tina Fontaine and every child like her, runs more like water. Ready to lift and carry its daughters, making room to fit them exactly as they are. Indigenous women have been naming solutions, though their stories are not mine to tell: search for Leanne Betasamosake Simpson's work on restoring Nationhood. Read Sarah Hunt's spectacular and clear-eyed column in Wednesday's Globe and Mail.

"We need no more excuses, no more condolences, no more lists of missing women," she wrote, and everyone should read the rest.

Or, we could shrug and keep enabling the status quo, knowing that its failures will be borne time and time again by the bloodied bodies of women and girls.

"Society should be horrified," Winnipeg police homicide investigator Sgt. John O'Donovan said. Horror is not enough.

(Our silence broken by the buzz of a water bus. It cuts its motor and drifts by on the current, five faces watch the silent women on this dock.)

Maybe no help is coming, from a government that drags its feet on a meaningful inquiry, or meaningful systemic change. Maybe we must do this on our own. Somewhere in Manitoba right now, there is a hurting child who next year will be gone, stolen from this world. And if governments or individuals will not stand alongside or behind indigenous women, then let them at least have the sense to be quiet while they are speaking, and giving shape to their community's own healing.

The Grandmothers told us what they need tonight, though their words are not mine to share. Their voices are out there. Listen, listen, listen. For Tina Fontaine, for Cherisse Houle, and for Hillary Angel Wilson -- whose mother Gwen held a vigil for her own slain teen, tonight. For Sunshine Wood, and Tanya Nepinak and Claudette Osborne-Tyo; for Lorna Blacksmith and Fonassa Bruyere, and all the other names I cannot fit onto this page -- that is my prayer. That is my only prayer.

Tonight, the air has water in it, you can feel it clinging to your face. But which belongs to the sky, and which to our eyes -- who can say, who can say.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 23, 2014 D3

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