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13 Teachings: There is no reconciliation without the voices of Indigenous women

Ontario Native Women’s Association report says the justice called for in the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls can’t come from the top down, but from the bottom up, and it starts with empowering women

It is not the norm to begin a piece of writing with a dictionary definition; it’s a bit amateurish, really. But it becomes an important detail when the word in question requires re-defining.

Reconciliation. English, noun. 

  1. The restoration of friendly relations.

  2. The process of ensuring that two sets of records are in agreement.

Ask yourself: Is it possible to reconcile one side offering friendly relations, when the other side is Indigenous women murdered at a rate 16 times higher than non-Indigenous women?

Can you reconcile one side offering friendly relations, when the other side is the family of Joyce Echaquan?

The 2019 final report from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) states that the persistent and deadly violence against Indigenous women and girls in Canada is a form of genocide.

So does reconciliation mean the punishments for and solutions to genocide are decided, funded and legislated by the hands of the perpetrators? Is that friendly relations? These are the questions Cora McGuire-Cyrette has.

The executive director of the Ontario Native Women’s Association (ONWA), McGuire-Cyrette said that this approach is simply a continuation of the Euro-centric and patriarchal system that her work seeks to upend.

“When you think about saving someone versus empowering someone, when we break that down, that’s a system of colonization,” she said.

A missionary who deeply wishes to save the souls of others, even from a genuine desire to help, is still forcefully — and often non-consensually — imposing their will and beliefs on another.

Rather than salvation, McGuire-Cyrette said, it is time for empowerment; time for self-determined solutions from those who have been harmed the most: the families, the communities, and the Indigenous women and girls at the centre of it all.

There is a historical and contemporary silencing of Indigenous women, not just when their voices are needed most, but throughout time: No voting rights until 1960; Children stolen from their mothers’ arms throughout the 1960s; First Nation women losing their status because they loved and married a non-Indigenous man – which continued until 1986. 

As McGuire-Cyrette notes, “Indigenous women have been dehumanized from legislation through to Halloween costumes.”

With this in mind, ONWA produced a report outlining solutions entitled “Reconciliation with Indigenous Women: Changing the Story of MMWIG (2020),” positioning Indigenous women, their knowledge and experiences as not only the subject of a national inquiry, but as leaders in solutions.

The report is based on decades of direct consultation with more than 5,000 Indigenous women; those who have suffered violence, those who help the suffering each and every day, policy-makers, elders and knowledge-keepers. Those who have an understanding of cultural healing, of the true issues of intersecting racial, social and economic hardships.

And because of that, the solutions took the form of teachings many Indigenous women have known their whole life, or have now reclaimed: the 13 teachings of Grandmother Moon.

Grandmother does not simply mean mother of your father or mother. To see the true beauty of grandmother, you need to look at a turtle. 

According to the stories, Turtle offered humans his shell to hold the origins of life itself, and it became Turtle Island. Then the colonizers arrived and named it North America

Though there are a great many different stories of the origin of Turtle Island, as many as there are First Nations, the people that called N’Swakamok (Sudbury) home found in it not just their calendar, but their teachings as well. 

It starts with the markings on the turtle’s shell (see image in gallery above): 13 large circles representing the 13 moons of the lunar calendar, and the 28 smaller circles around the outside representing the days of each individual moon.

They were called Mnido Giizis ‘Spirit Moon’;  Mkwa Giizis ‘Bear Moon’;  Ziissbaakdoke Giizas ‘Sugar Moon’; Namebine Giizis ‘Sucker Moon’; Waawaaskone Giizis ‘Flower Moon’; Ode’miin Giizis ‘Strawberry Moon’; Mskomini Giizis ‘Raspberry Moon’; Datkaagmin ‘Thimbleberry/Blackberry Moon’; Mdaamiin Giizis ‘Corn Moon’; Biinaakwe Giizis ‘Falling Leaves Moon’; Mshkawji Giizis ‘Freezing Moon’; Mnidoons Giizisoonhg ‘Little Spirit Moon;’ and Mnidoons Giizis ‘Big Spirit Moon.’

And each moon inspired a teaching from Grandmother Moon. 

It is using this traditional knowledge that ONWA formed its solutions framework: the report outlines 13 key recommendations, covering 28 systems in which Indigenous women face their worst struggles with racism and violence. 

Systems like health care, education, child welfare, food and income security, housing, employment and social services. 

“What we’re really showing is the intersectionality of systems,” McGuire-Cyrette said. “Of our family, of our community, of our individuality, and the reclaiming of our teachings.”

The report calls for the National Action Plan to empower Indigenous women to create self-determined solutions using their knowledge, experience and expertise, as well as by identifying and removing systemic racism.

“Beyond physical violence, Indigenous women and girls also experience violence in the form of racism, discrimination, and a lack of sovereignty over their children, self and nations, as well as through misrepresentations in literature, education, and research,” said McGuire-Cyrette. “To address violence against Indigenous women and girls, the National Action Plan must focus on these social and economic systems and their root causes.”

And it will be with these recommendations in hand that ONWA will begin work on the 11th Indigenous Women’s Working Group, comprised of Indigenous women’s service providers, to discuss specific safety issues impacting Indigenous women. 

“Both the provincial and federal government need to listen and support, and make Indigenous women a priority. That's how allyship can begin to help us move forward,” said McGuire-Cyrette. 

But she still has some concerns. 

“One of my biggest fears,” she said, “is that the women who began this work and have spent countless hours volunteering, and continue to do this work are going to be the last ones thought of during the investments in that. The government needs to look at their investment strategies, and to ensure that they (the women) are a priority, because they're the ones who are doing this work on the ground, every single day.” 

And it is not just Indigenous communities that will benefit from these teachings; the power of reconciliation in the hands of those who felt its greatest burden could also heal the rifts in non-indigenous communities as well. 

“The ongoing trauma in all of our communities, indigenous communities and non-indigenous communities, you just have to look at that,” McGuire-Cyrette said. “You're not born a racist; you're taught and learned that. And that's why we focus so much on healing, because we recognize that when we begin to heal at an individual level, the need to lash out and hurt others decreases.”

For more information on the Ontario Native Women’s Association, visit www.onwa.ca.

Jenny Lamothe is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter at Sudbury.com, covering the Indigenous, immigrant and Francophone communities. The Local Journalism Initiative is a federal government program to support local journalism in Canada.


About the Author: Jenny Lamothe, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Jenny Lamothe is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter at Sudbury.com.
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