Student project aims to humanize missing and murdered Indigenous women

By in News

In December, an undergraduate student at the University of Saskatchewan was selected by the United Nations Association in Canada to present her enterprise idea at the Active Citizens Social Enterprise, which took place from Dec. 1 to 3, 2017.

Workshops were held in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Ottawa and Halifax.

Vanessa Johnson is a third-year Métis student in the Saskatchewan Urban Native Teacher Education Program, known as SUNTEP. Johnson was selected to present during a UN training session in Ottawa on an idea that furthers one or more of the Sustainable Development Goals set by the UN.

Her project, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, aims to humanize Indigenous women with the use of social media platforms. This initiative is based on improving gender equality and building peace, justice and strong institutions, two of the 17 SDGs.

Johnson wants to change the stereotype of Indigenous women as victims and focus less on the person who perpetrated the attack. Rather, she wants to humanize these women by talking about them personally and listening to their stories.

“Indigenous women in the media are portrayed as — for the most part — weak and not overly important, unless there’s a specific stereotypical role that they’re playing, like a shaman. I grew up extremely proud of who I am, and … all these people that I know have pushed so hard against that stereotype that I don’t see Indigenous women as weak,” Johnson said.

Johnson notes there were approximately 30 other applicants from across Canada at the workshop in Ottawa, and three other U of S students were also selected. She explains that entrepreneurs were invited to speak with these young innovators about how to launch an enterprise, even without funding. Supervisors from the UN also attended to talk to the group.

The ACSE launched in 2016, and since then, it has aimed to incorporate the 17 UN SDGs into the ideas of young innovators like Johnson. She encourages other students to submit their entreprise ideas for ACSE 2018, which will open for applications this summer.

This year, there were regional workshops held in six cities, each with 20 to 30 youth innovators in attendance from all across the country. Only the top 15 submissions will be selected to attend the March 2018 Youth Innovation Summit in Ottawa, where these young innovators may receive funding and support to strengthen their social enterprises.

Johnson’s enterprise idea reflects her lived experience as an Indigenous woman, as she has been personally affected by violence against her family and friends. She explains that she sees missing and murdered Indigenous women as more than just a statistic and wants to educate the public on this issue.

“I’ve had cousins, I’ve had friends, I’ve had all these people gone, and that’s where it all comes from. I’ve had cousins [go missing] who are still open cases who will never be found. That’s just the reality of the situation. If you’re Indigenous, you know someone who’s missing; you know someone who’s murdered,” Johnson said.

As part of her project, Johnson is working to cultivate a social media presence for the families of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Those who know the woman personally can contribute to the collection of online memories about her by writing a story, sharing a quotation or a memory, and then posting it with the hashtag #shewasawarrior.

With this initiative, Johnson hopes to focus less on the statistics and stereotypes connected to Indigenous women  and instead focus more on the character and story of each person as an individual. She discusses how colonization has led to negative impacts for Indigenous communities, such as violence and stereotypes.

“I really want to drive home the fact that these women aren’t victims. They were resilient and fought, and we’ve been fighting since contact [with settlers]. We were warriors,” Johnson said. “There’s so much stuff that happens that is never in the media, you know? It’s incredible.”

Sophia Lagimodiere

Photo: Vanessa Johnson / Supplied