When Laurie invited me to the ground search, my initial reaction was to balk.
“I will try and make it,” I wrote back.
This was what I had signed up for.
I had never seen a dead body, except for my grandmother's when I was eleven, which does not count, because she was painted up and dressed in her familiar blue dress-suit, her hair all styled and stiff.
The uncertainty of seeing one—or not--was hard to take. The thought of either prospect made me very sad. I much preferred the somewhat less plausible: a living, kicking, breathing body, finally home from a long journey, ready for her next phase of life.
I am part of a Montreal collective that talks to and organizes with families who have lost mothers, aunts, daughters. We work on convincing the media that a missing Indigenous woman is priority coverage, and should be treated as such, not only in Canada, but all over the world, where Indigenous women continue to go missing and be violently killed—a natural consequence of centuries of rape, murder, and forcible capitalism. The group is called Missing Justice, short for Justice for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.
Maybe what made me start caring about missing Native women has a lot to do with growing up brown in a small, white town. Necessary to get into my racial background? There are many experiences that can give us a healthy level of skepticicm toward the establishment and how it treats people based on who they are in relation to itself.
When I was younger I was the only brown person at my school, besides my brother. One white boy told all the kids that I was that way because I had eaten something that made me sick. I hated his guts after that, but the following year he was kidnapped by his father and taken out of the country, so there was no point in hating him anymore.
Also, my family spent a horrible year living in suburban Alberta, just outside of Calgary, when I was about sixteen. Cars full of drunk, white boys would screech past and yell horrible things about Native people at my brother and I, assuming that we were.
I went to the ground search, along with several others from the collective, as much out of solidarity with each other as with Laurie's family.
Laurie Odjick's sixteen-year-old daughter Maisy had been missing for over eight months, and so had her friend Shannon Alexander. They have since been missing much longer. Both girls are from Kitigan Zibi, an Algonquin community about four hours north of Montreal.
I have heard details about that day: Maisy lived on-reserve, and Shannon lived off, but Maisy had been spending the weekend at Shannon's in the neigbouring town of Maniwaki. Shannon's father had to go help his son paint a house, and both girls walked him to the bus station.
The police had not stumbled upon any clues, leads, ideas, or even suspicions. Laurie has tried harder than anyone to find out what happened to her daughter, and has even done some investigating of her own, in order to feed information to the police. But without acknowledgement, a favour is void.
I assume that part of being a police officer, unless you are exceptional, is mentally tagging any emotional input as tainted. It is the problem of ego, which humans commonly manifest by adopting the attitude of their hierarchs—better to maintain power, emotional or otherwise, than accomplish anything.
If the case triggers an emotional reaction in a police officer by reminding him of someone he wants to protect, like his own daughter, then the story may end differently. But this is unlikely to occur if the officer's history is at war with the missing girl's, still, in between the lines in children's textbooks.
I have seen pictures of them, though I have never said hello before and I know they existed at all because they are not here. They are both very beautiful. The “MISSING” posters that people have put up in bus stations and community centers and emailed to each other do a limited job of describing them: Maisy is almost six-feet tall, 125 pounds. She has short brown hair, a pierced left nostril and two piercings on her lower lip. Shannon is five-foot-nine, 145 pounds, brown eyes and short, dark-brown hair. She has acne, (which I have never noticed in her pictures), pierced ears and wears a silver necklace with a feather on it. She was 17, and Maisy 16.
That they are beautiful is destabilizing because I imagine that beauty makes one more susceptible to vanishment. One minute you're beautiful, and the next, you are shining in ethereal magpie's beak. But there is no solution to beauty; you can't simply blot it out and hope to avoid loss, because to shield it is a loss in itself.
We line up in the woods outlying the reserve to receive instructions. Our search leader is enthused. I can tell that she is fulfilled by this work. She can let her paid government job gel for a day to volunteer her time in wilderness areas with more breatheable air than there is in her office. Here, she can teach others the art of navigating space and time in a straight line. It is counter-intuitive to many: You must not circumvent. You must move through obstacles that stand in your way. You should find it within yourself to see through objects. Your focus must be straight ahead, just as that of those on either side of you.
If you wear glasses like I do because seeing clearly has never come naturally to you, or has stopped coming naturally to you, it is easier; my peripheral vision is blurry in a way that makes it futile to glance to the side. It really helps with keeping you on track, an incessant reminder that there is only one direction, and that is forward.
The girls had disappeared, but their wallets and the money inside of their wallets had remained on the desk in Shannon's father's apartment. I have pictured it, and lost myself in the details, real or imagined, many times while trying to focus on other things: the worn plastic change purse with the frayed edges thumbed only moments before the unexpected. The striped backpack, a worn Guatemalan print with too-thin straps, for light items, like a change of clothes for sleeping over. The objects themselves so uninterrupted in their routines as to suggest that nothing has changed—an inherently false notion, but an honest mistake. It doesn't take long to disappear, and no heavy lifting is required.
She has the voice of a nature-guide. “Try and stay in a straight line, in order of the numbers assigned to you, while you're walking. I know it can be difficult on this sort of terrain, but do your best. If you notice someone to either side of you going too fast, let them know to slow down and realign. If you see any clues, just yell out your number, and everyone else will stop. I will then come over to wherever you are as quickly as possible to have a look. I'll record it, and we'll move on. If it's something that needs to be investigated further, I'll radio in for help. A clue can be anything at all: an unearthed area, a piece of fabric, any object that seems out of the ordinary. Don't hesitate to call it out.”
“What about beer bottles?”
“Yes, beer bottles count.”
Maisy and Shannon went missing about three days before the Walk4Justice arrived in their territory; Parliament Hill; unceded Algonquin land. I do not know if they would have attended the speeches. Dozens of Native activists, Elders, and frontline workers (and some bearing all three descriptions) departed from Vancouver on June 21st 2008, National Aboriginal Day, and spent the next three months walking to Ottawa. For the Canadian government they carried a message: a list of 3000 women and girls' names, the vast majority of them Native. “Call a Public Investigation!” has been the resounding demand for decades. Many of the names have never been read in your daily paper, or online. For justification's sake, many that have received attention have been called bad mothers or promiscuous or runaways by police and the media.
If you read between the lines what they are really trying to say is that Native women open their legs too easily, and way too wide. They can't stand the thought of so much pink. Everybody knows—it's not a serious colour and as such, it is not worth going out of one's way to search for.
But people forget where they come from.
Pink undermines the system, pokes fun, points and laughs, her huge bosom heaving and jiggling.
Most of the women have never been found. Most of the cases are unsolved. Who is that strange-looking man in the crowd? Maybe he knows something.
The list was only meant to cover the last two decades. In a fuschia folder it was presented to one of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's aids: a thin man in a grey suit. The bright folder did little to offset his dulling state. I thought, his name must have been drawn randomly from a grey box: “Who wants to go get that rose-coloured list?” Silence.
“I will deliver this list to the Prime Minister,” said the aid, and was met with scattered applause and a few snickers. He did not stay for the rest of the speakers. I followed him for about three blocks, just to make sure the fuchsia did not land in a grey gutter.
To maneouvre my body, I have to break branches with every step. My arms and legs are propellers to cut the thin limbs down. I am a large-scale disruption; we are a machine designed to scour and destroy. We are a detector that leaves no corner unafflicted in our quest for what may or may not lie below the surface. It is a mining operation. I am a domineer.
There are twelve people in my team but over 200 have shown up to take part in the search. Most are from Ottawa. Most are women. Most are white. Laurie has done a really good job of getting her daughter some media attention. Each team is assigned a small section of land.
One young journalist by the name of Brendan boasts that he has attended every search and press conference since the girls' disappearance. He cites himself as evidence that the media do not really play racial favorites. The lack of media attention in this case, according to Brendan, is Maisy and Shannon's age. Young children that go missing get more media attention, as a rule, he says.
I am told that there are many more people searching this time around than there were at the first search, back in December, because of the weather.
The Ottawa people are embarassingly non-Native, but I keep this to myself. At least I am brown in colour. I have been asked if I was Anishnaabe, or Native, on more than one occasion, even by First Nations people a few times. Of course, I have also been asked if I am Mexican, Hawaiian, Ethiopian, “Indian,” Peruvian, and others. I am generally expected to speak Spanish. I am one of those colours. Even though my mother is white, and I was raised more or less white, I feel very unwhite at times and more authentic in political environments with other brown people.
But Native is a different colour than any other. And I am not it. My roots are buried deep and scattered far, and my land is either a memory within a dream or else I am standing on it, and standing up for it, because that is how we're supposed to understand who and where we are.
Some of the white women from Ottawa are wearing goggles so their eyes don't get poked out. Some carry broomsticks or hockeysticks to push branches or thorns out of the way. Nothing of consequence has been found. We have been at it for hours. People continually yell “six!”, “three!”, and “eleven!” whenever a beer bottle or some shard of plastic appears. Nothing else really, but expectation with every held breath.
I had nightmares for two weeks after Missing Justice got its first email. A woman who said she had a good idea who might be responsible for Maisy and Shannon's disappearance. She gave a name.
Around the time of the girls' disappearance, she wrote, he came home to his wife (her sister), in the wee hours of the morning, smelling of smoke, with blood on his hands.
“I would prefer to remain anonymous if possible please as I have my children to be concerned about.”
I sat there panicking for a good long while then. For a few minutes, I couldn't really move. I told myself that this was the ideal use of my caring.
The police never followed up on the letter. Something about there not being sufficient evidence.
Ever since I then, I look as far ahead of me and behind me as I can every time I leave my apartment, whether at night or in broad daylight. It is counter-intuitive, but I make regular efforts to see through objects instead of around them. Hard as it is to see through the jarring number of windowless vans on my block, I rush past them; I take their opaqueness for corruptibility. I fit the bill. I am not just flattering myself. I find excuses not to walk alone in the dark. I hate to be alone in my apartment at night. My boyfriend and I are on the ground floor of course. Try as I might not to, I always end up living on groundfloors, or in basements. It's tough because you really can't walk around naked or partially clothed without the risk of being seen by several people in a string of passersby. Even when I'm fully clothed, the strangers' gaze gets to me. Sometimes I stop what I'm doing, get up, and look out the window after them just to make sure they haven't stopped to ponder my vulnerability or anything equally sinister.
In the daytime, I'd simply rather be seen than close myself off to the light. At night, I sometimes close the blinds, but you can see right through the cracks from outside, so I often leave them open, even at night, because the thought of being looked at through the blind's slits leaves me reeling. And, I like to see who's looking.
“Eight!” I see something, a clue. Fabric sticking out of the ground. Stripes: brown, yellow, orange. Not very fashionable.
The police dismiss it as irrelevant: it is a towel used in the locals' grow-op, they say.
I manage to get a police officer present at the search to have coffee with me in the community cafeteria.
“I hear this is the first time the Search and Rescue people have been contacted to do a search by the family instead of the police. Why is that?”
“We have no reason to believe they're here. If we did, we would have called a search.”
“You believe they ran away?”
“I can't tell you what we believe.”
“Why have the family not received any police reports in eight months?”
“We can't give what we don't have.”
“Are you aware that First Nations women and girls are at least five times more likely than other women in Canada to die as a result of violence?”
“I can't give you that information.”
“No, I'm telling you.”
“Look, I will not play the racist card. We give this case the same attention as we would a Caucasian person from Lac St. Jean.”
We do not find anything in the woods. We break for lunch half way through the day; some leave and others stay on to continue the search. While we are sitting and eating lunch on the side of a dirt path sheltered on both sides by bush, I notice a man eating quietly, with a woman beside him. Unlike the others, they are not talking to anybody else. Every now and then they murmur to each other. I cannot take my eyes off of them, and it is because they are from here, Native, and barely anybody in this search party is. I really want to talk to them. I feel ridiculous and--white--sitting in a little group of casually and audibly chatting people. I want to say hi, but feel silly. I stop talking to others. I keep looking over in the couples' direction, hoping for a break in their eating and murmuring, an “accidental” moment of eye contact.
What I am really wondering is how they know Maisy and Shannon. They could be family, is my sinking thought as I silently denounce the light chatter around us.
Eventually I do get a chance. I ask them where they came from that day, and he gets my meaning.
“I'm Maisy's father,” he tells me.
“We live in Six Nations. Actually have to head back pretty soon,” he says, stretching, gesturing to the woman beside him who smiles weakly. He does not look more than thirty. Maisy must have been born when he was about sixteen—her age. He is very thin, and looks tired.
I want to give him a hug.
“Long drive,” I say, and he nods.