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An Indigenous voice silenced
A banner with cut-outs representing Canada's missing and murdered Indigenous women. // Photo by Bruce Bumstead

An Indigenous voice silenced

By Ruth Shead

Misty Potts was a bright and engaged alumna who wanted to make a difference. Now she’s part of a long list of Canada’s missing and murdered Indigenous women.

When Misty Potts [BA/02, MEnv/10] was a student at the University of Manitoba, she changed lives.

“She inspired me to finish my undergrad,” says Kathleen Graham, who is from the Hay River Reserve, a community of about 400 people, in the Northwest Territories.

Graham and Potts met each other in Winnipeg at the Centre for Indigenous Environmental Resources (CIER), which, at the time, offered a program that could be used towards a degree at the U of M. Potts was in the cohort one year ahead of Graham.

“She was moving on to her master’s degree. I came from such a small reserve and I had no other role models. A First Nations woman going and getting her master’s degree, that kind of blew my mind,” says Graham.

Not only did Graham graduate from the U of M with a Bachelor of Environmental Studies in 2006, she followed in Potts’s footsteps and went on to earn not one, but two master’s degrees.

After Graham and Potts left university and moved to different cities for work, they kept in touch over social media. It was through Facebook that Graham found out that Potts went missing earlier this year.

“Her marriage dissolved. She was posting about that and it seemed sad. They had a child together,” says Graham. “The last I heard, she was teaching at Yellowhead College (in Alberta) as an instructor. And I don’t know what happened. I really don’t. The next thing I see on Facebook is that she’s missing.

“For some people it feels like missing and murdered Aboriginal women, it’s somebody else’s problem. And then somebody you know goes missing, it just brings it home.”

Misty Potts was last seen March 14, 2015 in Paul Band First Nation—the neighbouring community to where she grew up.  Potts was born and raised on the Alexis Nakota Sioux First Nation, about 70 kilometres northwest of Edmonton.

“We were brought up very traditional,” says Misty’s sister Eva Potts. “My dad is a hunter and my mom is a gatherer. We know a lot about medicinal plants. Where we used to go hunt and where we used to pick berries, a lot of those places are ripped up from oil well sights, pipelines and stuff like that.”

Eva explains how Misty wanted to do something to help her community, so she applied to CIER with a friend. When her friend decided not to go, Misty made the move to Winnipeg alone.

“She never really left the reserve before. It was a big deal,” says Eva. “She went by herself, she didn’t have nothing. I remember the first time I went to her apartment (in Winnipeg) she was sleeping in a sleeping bag and all she had was her suitcase full of clothes.”

AN INDIGENOUS PERSPECTIVE

It didn’t take long for Potts to make an impression. Stéphane McLachlan, a professor in the department of environment and geography, had just moved to Winnipeg himself. It was 1999 and he was just starting his career at the U of M. He would be teaching a course at CIER as well.

“I was from the Toronto area, pretty urban, and very much out of my element. The first day, she walked up to me and said, ‘What are you doing here?’ I said, ‘Well I’m teaching a course—biophysical assessment.’ She looked at me and said, ‘Well why should I listen to you? What have you got to teach me? And if you teach me why should I listen to you?’

“So right from that very early interaction, there was someone who was completely competent and bright and engaged. She was very interested in not only understanding the world, but making a difference. And I would also say that it was very clear from that first day that she was primarily interested in making a difference for her people,” says McLachlan.

McLachlan became Potts’s thesis advisor, and credits her with changing the way he approaches his own work. “This is often the case, but very much so in Misty’s and my case, she was as much the instructor as she was the student” he says. “She was very patient with this white guy who came from quite a strong science background, but who was obviously open minded and interested. And I reciprocated by mentoring her around the academic expectations.”

Potts’s research looked at the implications of the oil and gas exploration on her people. “Lots of seismic lines, road development that resulted in fracturing the traditional territories that most of her people are still dependent on and actively engaged with through hunting and fishing and trapping. And then once the deforestation was taking place, you had more permanent presence of farms and ranches moving in.

“She interviewed Elders and traditional people from Alexis as well as the neighbouring community of Paul Band (First Nation) and went on the land and documented these changes and did so in a way that incorporated both the traditions as well as the expectations around Western science,” says McLachlan.

When it came time to defend her thesis, Potts did so in a way that reflected who she was. “She ended up coming in with her drum and singing and smudging and really grounding her research in that cultural fabric, which it had been from the beginning. And even in terms of her thesis, it was written in a very insightful auto-ethnographic way, it was in her voice. And while there’s literature there in terms of support literature, it was really in the background so in the foreground were her experiences and the experiences of her people,” says McLachlan. “It was very innovative, very much grounded in both cultures and very sharp and insightful, just like everything Misty did.”

Now other students are following Potts’s lead. “I was just working with another Indigenous person who defended a few weeks ago, who did a very similar approach to her work on food sovereignty. She really found Misty’s thesis and experience important as a model.”

A WAKE-UP CALL

When forth-year commerce student Ashley Richard first heard Potts’s story it hit close to home. Earlier this year Richard was featured in Maclean’s magazine for a project about missing and murdered Indigenous women called, “It Could Have Been Me.”

“When I was 19 years old, I was walking down the street, it was really late at night and a guy had pulled up beside me and he asked if I needed a ride. He said he was going the same direction as me and so I got into the car and it’s really unfortunate that I did because that was all it took. He ended up taking me to an area that I really wasn’t familiar with at all and then he raped me and I couldn’t fight him off. He was way stronger than me,” says Richard.

The assault happened in Toronto in 2010. Richard filed a police report, but her attacker was never found. She says that the police told her it was unusual to be assaulted by a stranger, as most victims know their attacker.

“It wasn’t until Maclean’s contacted me for “It could have been me” —that was the first time I ever thought of myself as almost a missing and murdered Indigenous woman. That did happen to me and he could have killed me and I am an Indigenous woman,” says Richard.

“I think we need to tell women ‘Don’t be ashamed because it’s not your fault.’ That night I remember he (her attacker) told me, ‘You deserve this. You were asking for this.’  Things like that. And for a while I thought, I did get into the car. That was stupid. But I still wasn’t asking for it.”

Richard says she is open and willing to talk about what happened to her, so that maybe it will help someone else. “I think you just need to raise awareness in a positive way. It’s a really terrible issue, but somehow you have to let people know the severity of it, how real it is and how close to home it is. Now it’s at our university completely. It’s not just an issue that’s out there,” she says.

A research team at the U of M is currently developing the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Database (MMIWD). “Currently, MMIWD exists to preserve the voices and work of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s advocates across Canada; to mobilize this knowledge by facilitating communication and resource-sharing that usefully expands and enhances work undertaken by these groups; and to encourage much-needed critical engagement—in and outside of the academy—concerning Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and colonial violence more generally,” says Shawna Ferris, an assistant professor in the department of women’s and gender studies at the U of M.

Ferris, who is leading the project with Kiera Ladner, Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Politics and Governance says people often try to look for similarities between or among MMIW, which isn’t necessarily helpful.  “It tracks victims, not their attackers. In doing so, we risk victim-blaming. Focusing on what the women may have done to invite attack distracts us from the fact that they were attacked. Someone always decides to enact violence; it is not the victims who make these decisions.”

LOVED ONES REMAIN HOPEFUL

Eva Potts describes her sister’s downward spiral. After splitting up with her partner Misty began smoking weed. When she lost custody of their son, she turned to prescription pills. “She just told me one day, Eva I don’t know if I can come back from this one. I just told her, yes you can. When you were 19 you left this reserve. You did everything on your own and you can do it again. This isn’t the end. Everything is going to be okay.”

Misty had agreed to go to rehab. She was staying with her mom for a couple of days before heading there, but one day when she went to the store, she never made it home.

Ferris also stresses that people who report women as missing, must immediately be believed. Eva Potts says she feels it took the police too long before they started looking into her sister’s case. “It took them about two weeks to take it serious. I think if they would’ve acted earlier they would’ve found something,” she says.

So far searches for Misty have turned up nothing, but her friends and family hold out hope. “I just hope that somebody can find her,” says Graham. “Misty was the shining star of her First Nation. That stereotype that it’s women on the margins of society that are going missing—she doesn’t fit that stereotype. We have this very highly educated woman who has gone missing.”

McLachlan echoes that sentiment. “No woman is safe, no matter how bright and privileged and able they are, any Indigenous woman can be victimized in this way and so I think it’s a wake up call,” he says.

Ferris says it’s time to recognize that violence against Indigenous women is everyone’s problem. “It’s not just an Indigenous problem, and not simply a police problem. Then we can work to change the culture of racialized violence that has resulted in more than 1,000 documented cases of MMIW in Canada.”

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