How this Indigenous activist is working to share the stories behind the statistics

TVO.org speaks with Tamara Bernard about creating safe spaces to honour and pay tribute to murdered and missing Indigenous woman and girls
By Jon Thompson - Published on Feb 06, 2020
Tamara Bernard recently won a 2020 Northwestern Ontario Visionary Award for leadership. (Courtesy of Tamara Bernard)

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THUNDER BAY—The cameras were ready to roll, but Thunder Bay-based Indigenous academic and activist Tamara Bernard wouldn’t stay on script. It was 2014, and she was shooting a promotional spot for CTV’s See Me campaign, meant to raise awareness about missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

The commercial’s script referenced the 1,181 Indigenous women and girls who had been killed or had disappeared between 1980 and 2012. However, Bernard took issue with the limited timespan, which didn’t include earlier deaths, such as that of her great-grandmother, Jane Bernard, who had been killed alongside her cousin Doreen Hardy in Thunder Bay in 1966. “They wanted me to use the statistics as a quote in part of the commercial. I refused to say it,” says Bernard, who is also known as Tamara Kwe after the Anishinaabemowin suffix for woman.

The producer agreed with Bernard’s point of view, and the show went on.

Bernard’s TV appearance — and her desire to look beyond the numbers — is just one example of her activism, which began in London in 2005 at Fanshawe College. Since then, she’s worked with artists and in academia, founded a research business (also called Tamara Kwe), and presented two Tedx Talks; recently, she won a 2020 Northwestern Ontario Visionary Award for leadership.

“In a way, she’s leading us,” says Paul Berger, the chair of graduate studies and research in the Faculty of Education at Lakehead University, where Bernard is currently pursuing her PhD. “She’s doing stuff that’s definitely well beyond what I’ve read in the literature. The methodology is being invented by her as she goes.”

TVO.org spoke with Bernard, a member of Kiashke Zaaging Anishinaabek, or Gull Bay First Nation, about her work and how she uses storytelling to break stereotypes.

TVO.org: How would you define what you do?

Tamara Bernard: Reflecting on the past decade in my work, there's a recurring theme: I’m adding the bread to the bones. Where the bones are like the statistics — the misrepresentation or the stereotypes — I’m adding bread to that by countering it with a different community- or family-informed story. This is the lived reality. This is the truth.

TVO.org: When did you decide to pursue this idea academically and through activism?

Bernard: I never got to learn who [my great-grandmother] Jane was, and for my grandmother, it was really difficult for her to talk about her — and rightfully so. It's a very trauma-triggering life event that's happened. All I ever knew was about her death, and I did not want that to define my identity: that woman being taken in my family's maternal line destructed that intergenerational passing of that knowledge and those skills, learning who I am as an Anishinaabe kwe. Upon that reflection in my healing journey, in going to ceremony, I realized I had to start sharing my story.

I felt like we were very caught up in having these marches and photos of women bringing awareness — and I participate in all those marches, don't get me wrong — but I had this moment where I realized we need to start sharing stories of who these [missing and murdered Indigenous] women are, to move with the grief in a strength-based way. Not by marching and holding a photo, or using the bloody hand smear over the face to make that symbolic stance of the violence that's happening in our country, but to do it in a loving and honouring way and paying tribute in whatever way, shape, or form that the families want to share the story.

TVO.org: Can you give an example of how you bring together formal research and storytelling in your work?

Bernard: What I ended up doing was going to the Nipigon Museum, going the Nipigon Library, and archiving these historical events that my nokimis shared to bring that validity behind it. I did end up finding some [photos] of Jane’s registration [papers], with her name, within the Lake Nipigon communities. And that's the way you got to work around the system.

TVO.org: Why is doing this so particularly important right now?

Bernard: Because we're so focused on that aftermath [of colonization], which feeds those negative notions and stereotypes. We really need to be asking our grandmothers, “How did you have drinkable water? How did you harvest blueberries? Can you tell me what was [in] your medicine garden? How did you cure disease? Did we have a trap line? Where was it?”

Those things build the identity of our youth. Social determinants of health show that for more positive social well-being, you need to know your identity.  The more that we do not have that relationship with the land and the water, the more our identity deteriorates. So I continue to encourage conversations about how our grandmothers — which is not that long ago — lived off the land and how that needs to be integrated into mainstream education and public education spaces to go learn.

TVO.org: You talk about misrepresentation and stereotypes. What’s the hardest part of dispelling these?

Bernard: We need to encourage these public spaces of learning, these public education spaces. That’s where I mainly specialize, these public exhibits that honour Indigenous womanhood beyond just being missing and murdered. Having these public spaces of education not only invites Indigenous folk to come in and share stories and ceremony but it invites non-Indigenous folk to come into a safe space where they don’t have to worry about being judged for not knowing more than the stereotype or that misrepresentation. I believe it creates pathways for reconciliation. For me, the challenge within that is building the relationships within our communities for them to not only feel safe to express their story but to share them in that public medium. Due to the legacy of the residential schools, a lot of survivors were silenced. Especially for women, who are targeted with higher rates of violence, it’s hard to talk about.

TVO.org: For your next project, you’re in discussions with the Thunder Bay Art Gallery to curate an art show with work by the families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Tell us about that.

Bernard: My hope is to work with fly-in communities that didn’t have the opportunity to come for the national inquiry hearings or do testimonies, or even have a chance to participate in the amazing exhibits, like Walking With Our Sisters, or the marches here in Thunder Bay. My goal is to go out to these communities and do self-determined ways for them to share stories on a loved one who has been taken.

It’s Indigenous art-informed and also land-based informed. We’ll be using materials that are from their community, restoring that relationship with the land. For us to understand who we are as women, we need to understand the land where our ancestors thrived. Part of the work I’m hoping to hold in this exhibit — beading, quilting, art, dance, drum or rattle, or whatever it is — it’s materials from the land. After they’re done sharing story and they feel they’ve made their peace with their loved ones, it will be hosted at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery. This is very unique because the family has the freedom to express their honouring and pay tribute to their loved one in whatever diverse medium they want to use. That’s where it’s different from any other Missing and Murdered exhibit to date.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northwestern Ontario. It's brought to you in partnership with Confederation College of Applied Arts and Technology. Views and opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the college.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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