Culture

A Fierce Love

Tanya Snow’s mother would do battle against anyone to protect her young daughter from racism in Yellowknife. Now that little girl has grown up, and understands why.

I had a bunch of missed calls from my mom.

In her voicemails she asked me, worried, to call her back as soon as possible. I’d been at work and had to pick up my son at school. I called her back. She picked up the phone, earnest, hesitant.

“You okay, Panik?”

“Yeah, I’m fine. Why, what’s up?”

“I just came back from the police station.”

“For what?”

“A young girl was murdered by a man named Raymond Cormier last week. I saw him the last day she was seen. They needed a statement from me... You sure you’re okay?”

“I’m fine… Are you okay?”

“As long as you’re okay, I’m okay,” she said.

***

She calls every other day to check in, to make sure I’m okay, and has regularly over the past few years. Most times I think her worries are projections of the things she sees from the rough neighbourhoods of Winnipeg: violence, addictions, poverty, suicide, murder. I reassure her often that I’m fine, yet her worries don’t seem to end.

I grew up in a low-cost neighbourhood in Yellowknife with my mom and younger sister. We didn’t feel poor because we had lots of food, lots of love and more. We moved from Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, to Yellowknife in the early ‘90s so my mom could go to school.

Though she had trouble with alcohol and we spent most of our childhood in foster care, I grew up in a bubble constructed by her hopes and dreams for a better future.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve felt an intense sense of security from my mother. It’s as if her love and protection follow me around like the wind. Though she had trouble with alcohol and we spent most of our childhood in foster care, I grew up in a bubble constructed by her hopes and dreams for a better future.

I give her credit for giving her best and educating us to be decent human beings. She was strict, loving and battled a lot of demons as a single mother searching for the right path after the upheaval of her residential school experience.

Mom attended residential school until grade four, when she was expelled for regularly fighting back against her teachers and principal because of the cultural and racial genocide being committed against our people. As an adult, she stands 4’ 11’’ and 120 lbs., but is part wolverine: small, cute and could tear your face off if you mess with her. 

As an intuitive nurturer, kids in our neighbourhood gravitated to our home to eat my mom’s cooking, watch TV and get scolded for tracking sand into the house. She was tough, but children and women loved her company because she is a natural protector. And protect she did, especially when it came to my feelings.

I wanted to be a ballerina when I was a kid; I was quiet and introverted. My younger sister was born feisty and could hold her own on the playground but me – I was too emotional and didn’t fight back. My mom couldn’t stand bullies that called us dirty Eskimos and what-not. She’d extract the name from the child that bullied me then go after their parents because she’d say, “There aren’t bad kids, only bad parents.”

She’d hunt down their parents and scare them into becoming better caregivers, sometimes using her fists. She wasn’t afraid of anyone, not even the cops that came by to speak to her for scaring the bullies’ parents. My peace of mind was the most important thing to her. 

In Inuit culture words hold immense power, like spell-casting, so when I heard what bullies my own age said I couldn’t believe there were kids out there that had enough anger and sadness to want to bring another person down.

Most of the time I lived in a ballerina-esque dreamland where the world is a wonderful place filled with wonderful people like Mister Rogers. Because that’s what my mom strived to show me on her good days. I am named after my mother’s father, Equak Niviatsiak, so she respected me like an elder – the same way she treated her dad when he was alive.

In Inuit culture words hold immense power, like spell-casting, so when I heard what bullies my own age said I couldn’t believe there were kids out there that had enough anger and sadness to want to bring another person down – or the fact that they didn’t have parents that cared about raising decent human beings.

***

My mom has always been a fighter. She had to be. As a child she fought off geographical displacement, hunger, sexual predators, violent boyfriends, government officials, colonial teachers and principals. Fighting was survival. She made sure I didn’t lift a finger when it came to protecting myself because she wanted me to focus on being a kid. People in our neighbourhood used to say: “Don’t mess with the Roach family or Dorothy will hunt you down.” But she drank too hard on her bad days so we spent the rest of our childhood in foster care.

My mother warned me of the way the world could be, and for a long time I didn’t understand what she was talking about. She protected me so hard I didn’t know how harsh the world could get.

Honestly, as a foster kid I saw some strange shit in other peoples’ homes: hunger, bullying, alcoholism, kids disrespecting their parents, parents not enforcing rules or teaching manners. Still, foster care was nothing compared to what my mom had to face.

She continued fighting when she lost, permanently, the custody of my sister and me when I was 13. She moved away to Winnipeg and slipped into the gang scene. We didn’t keep in contact until I became a parent. 

In August 2014 she was a witness in the Tina Fontaine case. That’s when she called me, after seeing Raymond Cormier around Tina’s neighbourhood before the 15-year-old’s body was found in the Red River. He was tried for second-degree murder but not convicted. My mother warned me of the way the world could be, and for a long time I didn’t understand what she was talking about. She protected me so hard I didn’t know how harsh the world could get. She blocked out discrimination, hate, violence and normalized respect and decency so I would always know and accept being treated like a human being.

Now I’m beginning to understand. 

***

I wake to the sound of a woman screaming – her boyfriend beating her in the apartment above me each week – and remember how much I need to respect myself.

When I go to a pub for brunch and get pursued by men that are curious about my “nativeness” when all I want to do is eat; when I go for a jog around City Hall and get cat-called; when I am verbally harassed walking down the hallway of my apartment building; when I'm walking past the swimming pool on my way to work and a man I don't know grabs me, chases after me, I begin to see the world differently – as it is.

When I'm at the emergency department and my son has a fever of 39 degrees and a local pediatrician asks me if I’ve been drinking or have a history of substance abuse problems or a history of mental illness BEFORE looking at my child who's had a fever for days; when I’m at work and denied promotion because, ‘I'm a single mother and therefore, less reliable’ – this is my reality.

Indigenous women are the fruit of the earth, the original royalty on the land infected with colonization. Disrespecting us is like disrespecting the hand that feeds you.

Women that babysat me as a child have been murdered either by boyfriends or shot and killed by police here in Yellowknife. My mother’s been brutally beaten by Winnipeg police and now has permanent vision and hearing problems. My aunt, who I never met, was a child when she was sent to Ottawa for tuberculosis treatment and never returned. 

Tina Fontaine’s death renewed calls for an inquiry into why so many Indigenous women and girls go missing. After two years of testimony, Reclaiming Power and Place, the Final Report of the National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls was released in June. The report is violent truth seeping through the cracks of the “friendly Canadian" facade. 

The ink on the page carries weight, tainted history continuing today. 

The paper breathes life to the truth. My mom’s truth. And now, my truth.

So when Andrew Scheer, the leader of the federal Conservative party, disagrees with the report’s conclusion that Indigenous women’s and girls’ deaths amount to “race-based genocide,” I ask him to look up the dictionary definition of genocide: “The deliberate and systematic extermination of a national, racial, political or cultural group.”

What were residential schools for? Why didn’t the Canadian Government return my aunt after she was treated for tuberculosis? Why is there forced sterilization of Indigenous women? Why are there reservations across Canada without clean drinking water? There are healthy Indigenous families that have overcome systematic oppression and yet Indigenous populations are over-represented in the foster care system and in prisons. I’ve had social services called on me before. Meanwhile, Canada’s Auditor General released a report last winter stating that NWT Health and Social Services is failing to ensure children within its system are looked after and the department had still not implemented recommendations made four years ago.

Indigenous women are the fruit of the earth, the original royalty on the land infected with colonization. Disrespecting us is like disrespecting the hand that feeds you. The ground will quake, the sky will tremble and the ocean will cleanse our world of impurity until all women are respected and the spirits of the missing and murdered are redeemed.