An Open Letter From Newcomer Women to Indigenous Peoples in Canada

[Image: “Every Child Matters” designed by K’omoks/Kwakwaka’wakw First Nation artist Andy Everson]

We are a group of immigrant and newcomer women in Metro Vancouver. We came from different parts of the world at different times; what brought us together is the Building Bridges program at the Pacific Immigrant Resources Society (PIRS). After completing the program in May, we have kept connections with each other through a WhatsApp group.

As the news broke about the recent discovery of a mass grave with bodies of 215 Indigenous children in a Kamloops residential school, we started sharing our immense emotions in the group platform. Links to current news, historical data and personal narratives as well as relevant resources were shared. The issue was brought to our attention by Joyceline, and the idea of writing an open letter to Indigenous peoples, especially to mothers who have had their children taken, came from Lidiane. The rest of the group immediately appreciated the idea of doing something to show solidarity and support in this regard. Then some of us expressed individually our thoughts in response to the historical injustice and heinous torture on the body and mind of not only the children who ended up in the mass grave, but also many survivors.

As we are writing from many locations across the traditional lands, unceded and occupied territories of the Coast Salish people, we would like to begin by acknowledging our deep gratitude to reside on these lands. Nooshin has elaborated the reasons for us to be grateful to Indigenous peoples for this, as she said,

The Canada we, [as Newcomer women], know today is a direct result of Indigenous kindness and generosity. Immigrants leave their homelands looking for better and more liberated lives. We, myself included, came here to overcome many barriers and injustices we witnessed within our respective lands and made the move to better our lives away from most of our loved ones. Without hesitation, Indigenous peoples welcomed us on their lands. They have, for millennia, also led by example in protecting these lands and demonstrated what a world free from confines can look like.

Lidiane said so poignantly why we, immigrant women, owe an apology and why the injustice experienced by Indigenous peoples should be prioritized at a time like this – 

I would like to use this space to say how sorry I feel for all that Indigenous peoples have faced and had to fight for. It is a past full of pain that no one could ever imagine. I want to apologize for thinking and saying that as an immigrant woman I lost my identity, I lost my confidence, and felt lost in this new system. How could I say that! I didn’t lose anything compared to what [Indigenous peoples] lost; I rather had the opportunity, privilege, and choice to be on the land that doesn’t belong to me! I am occupying the space that was once unfairly taken away from you. I am so sorry and I will be here to stand alongside and support you.

In a similar tone, Joyceline has shared her feelings about conveying apologies to the original peoples of this land: “Indigenous peoples, who have welcomed us from different places, deserve to be supported not just by mere words but also by deeds. We would like to apologize for what happened years before and believe that it shouldn’t happen again.”

The tragedy that surfaced in the Kamloops Residential School has broken hearts across the country, and opened up painful wounds for multiple generations of Indigenous peoples. As a refugee woman forced to leave her loved ones and a part of her soul in her country of birth, Salma went through periods of grief and sadness. She understands and underscores the importance of mourning in healing process and therefore, she wonders, “Why did those families never have any opportunity to say goodbye to their loved ones?” She added, “We must continue to honour their grief and give them our appreciation and understanding.”

As per Joyceline, “We, as women who have been endowed with the power to give birth to children, want to say that we have been utterly shocked by this news. We are deeply saddened and would like to comfort the families that had faced this tragedy.Humera, a mother of four, can feel the pain and grief of Indigenous mothers. The history of residential schools and the mass grave of 215 children made her think – 

My elder son is 18 years old but still, whenever I look at him, I feel the same love I felt when he was just born and came into my hands for the first time. I can’t imagine living without him for a moment – oh my God! How did those mothers survive without their children? They must be the strongest women in this world. I don’t even have words of condolence for those mothers’ sufferings and tolerance. I don’t think there’s anything that can compensate for all that they have gone through. I want to salute those mothers for their unlimited courage, forbearance, patience, endurance in those unbearable situations and times. I want to stand beside those mothers, by all means. I want to be with them not just to show my connection and support as a mother but also as a woman, and a human being. I strongly condemn this act.   

Farzaneh thought that everyone, especially the coming generations need to learn about this dark chapter in Canadian history. She also brought up another important point: “Not every newcomer even knows about the historical injustice towards [Indigenous] people. To acknowledge, understand and accept it is the first step towards reconciliation. I hope the government and community take this seriously.”

Joyceline pointed out that this has been recognized by Indigenous activists and lawyers as a crime against humanity. ‘We, as women and mothers,’ she said, “carry forward their request to the International Criminal Court for an investigation of the unacceptable actions taken by the Vatican and the Canadian government.”

Salma reminded us, “Let’s also not forget that today Indigenous peoples still experience the worst socioeconomic conditions in their own country.” That needs to change and we would like to work hand in hand to make those changes. As Nooshin boldly said, “We must stand alongside the Indigenous peoples and support them the way they have cared for us and these lands for hundreds of years. We remember those lost and accompany them on their pursuit of justice.

We can empathize with the pain of having the voice taken away from Indigenous peoples; therefore, we wanted to raise our voices together. We, women coming from different nationalities, are joined together with one voice to denounce the violence that has and continues to happen in this country.

In closing this letter, we would like to appreciate the moral support and indirect voices of the rest of our teammates: Hamida, Naoko, Ruth, and Sunnie. We thank the Pacific Immigrant Resources Society, and Norm Leech, for giving us the opportunity to learn about Indigenous history and perspectives. We are grateful to share our voice on this important matter.