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Widespread Aboriginal Violence Within Aboriginal Canadian Families

"First Nations man charged of killing his wife, their three young children and a female relative."

On February 11th, a Manitoba man was charged with the first-degree murders of his girlfriend and their three young children, as well as a teenage niece. 

In a horrific crime, the details of which are still unfolding, Ryan Howard Manoakeesick, a 29-year-old Ojibwe man from the small agricultural town of Carman, left the five victims dead across south western Manitoba. 

According to the RCMP, the body of Manoakeesick’s girlfriend (Amanda Clearwater, age 30) was found first at 7:30AM when police responded to a call regarding a hit and run between Carman and Winkler. Roughly two-and-a-half hours later, police responded to a report of a burning vehicle outside St. Eustache and found the bodies of the three children (ages 2.5 months to six years), dead at the scene, having been dragged from the car by Manoakeesick. He was apprehended at that time. 

Further investigations took the police to Carman, where they found the body of Clearwater’s 17-year-old niece.

At the time of this writing, RCMP has not provided specifics on the manner of the victims’ deaths, though autopsies are underway.

It is a truly terrible state of affairs, and it is made worse by the fact that this was, to some degree, avoidable. 

In 2019, Manoakeesick, under the influence of a meth addiction, locked himself in a stranger’s garage wherein he became ‘confused and delirious’, lashing out at the overhead door and causing significant damage thereto. 

Police marshalled to the scene to detain Manoakeesick who was then taken to be treated for psychosis. He was released later that day, and before the sun could set, the police were again summoned to a nearby Tim Hortons to confront Manoakeesick whilst he assaulted and berated the staff. 

He was found guilty of mischief to property and sentenced to 18 months probation and ordered to undergo addictions and mental health treatments.

In 2021, Manoakeesick was charged yet again with two counts of impaired driving causing bodily harm after driving his vehicle into a van carrying nine people. 

He was, as is tradition, released back into the wild and ordered to re-appear before the court at a later date in August 2023, but his lawyer lost contact with him, and a warrant was issued for his arrest before the scheduled date. 

He was later arrested in July 2023 and, you guessed it, released on bail. 

This man, it appears, has a history of violence, even if that violence is borne from drug-induced stupor. This was so evident that the judge who sentenced Manoakeesick in 2019 gave some him oracular advice stating, that ‘[a]t the end of the day if you do something, it’s going to cost you your family.’

And cost him his family, he did.

I mention these past events in order to shed some light on the present evaluations of this man’s heinous crime. 

There has been, rightfully, a deluge of support and condolences offered to the grieving family and local communities, with the Manitoba Premier, Wab Kinew, himself part indigenous, offering heartfelt urgings on Manitobans to support each other in this tragic time. 

‘There is no context, there is no explanation that can make this OK… But I want to say to the people of Manitoba that we are not helpless in the face of darkness. We can find support in community…’, he said.

In addition to the calls for solidarity and kindness, there have also been some more peculiar statements, such as these from Cathy Merrick, the Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs. 

In a public statement, Merrick said, 

‘Violence is not our way… [it is] something that we have learned as a people…’

‘I’m sure the man loved his children. I’m sure that he’s sorry that he had to pull them out of the vehicle.’

‘We only get one chance at life. We have to respect it. We have to ensure that our relatives respect life, so they don’t end up in the systems — so we have a lot of responsibility as leaders, as mothers, as kookums, that we be responsible as to how we teach our children to be respectful.’

 

Now, it takes a certain amount of effort to not dish out some low blows in response to such statements. That said, I don’t intend to make light of this tragedy nor put down any of the grief that many are feeling. What I do intend to do is to critique what Merrick et al are saying in light of the tragedy they purport to speak for. 

Being charitable, I can say that Merrick is likely reeling from the burden of having to speak for and support a community of her people that has, yet again, experienced heinous violence committed from within. It mustn’t be easy to learn about, acknowledge, and publicly speak of such gruesomeness. 

That said, charity aside, what are we to think of the tenor of Merrick’s statements? 

Are we honestly to look back at North American history and not acknowledge the violence and brutality of its numerous native peoples? Are we to think that ‘her people’ were taught infanticide and murder by the White Man? 

Of course not. Such conclusions are preposterous given what we know of pre-colonial ethnic violence.

There are numerous examples of Amerindians giving Europeans a run for their money when it comes to violence. We have the examples of Aztec colonialism and sacrifice, the Comanche wars, the genocides of the pre-Inuits, the Iroquois genocide of the Hurons, the running battles of the Great Plains, and the like. 

What we are encouraged to do, however, is to look at the assorted instances of indigenous peoples’ under-performance and re-affirm that, despite myriad data sources, there is nothing wrong with indigenous people that ending White Supremacy wouldn’t fix. 

One such piece of data shows that 26% of all deaths among indigenous people are caused by ‘injuries’ which is four times greater than the average Canadian population. Injuries, in this context, consist of motor vehicle collisions (MCVs), drowning, and fires. These data exclude instances of self-harm, which are terribly high. 

Children under 10 years old are most commonly killed by fires and MCVs, and children 10-19 years old more likely to die from drowning and MCVs. 

This disproportionate risk of injuries to indigenous children is due to several factors with varying levels of explanatory efficacy: from increased likelihood of living in substandard housing and local shortages of healthcare personnel, to cultural alienation and the legacy of residential schools. 

The most significant contributor to injuries is alcohol and substance abuse, as it is affects risk-taking behaviours, and parenting skills for some. As such, alcohol ‘is a significant contributor to MVCs, lack of seat belt use and drowning incidents.’

So, even if it comes to pass that Manoakeesick’s three children died by accident in the car, say by his reckless driving, that aspect of the case would, sadly, fall into an already existing pattern of indigenous child mortality.

Now, lest anyone think I’m blaming the victims, here, I will acknowledge that this aforementioned pattern exists within a larger context of indigenous-government relations, to be sure. 

Recent reports with Juliette Hastings, the mother of the slain 17-year-old girl, indicated that Child and Family Services (CFS) had consensually placed the 17-year-old girl into the care of Manoakeesick and Clearwater, despite the mother’s protestations. 

Apparently, Hastings, who was the cousin of Manoakeesick’s slain girlfriend, told CFS that the household was unsafe due to his history of addiction and mental health problems. 

According to Hastings, CFS didn’t do any safety checks or criminal background checks, stating:

[CFS] didn’t do their job. They just said ‘OK, she’s good, let’s go. I’m not going to listen to the mom’… I’m the one fighting for her by the power of God to keep her safe. And he has kept her safe. And the only time he didn’t keep her safe is because those assholes didn’t listen…  this could have been avoided.

There is some confusion in her statement. 

She says that CFS didn’t do any checks, but also implied that CFS did do some checks because when ‘those assholes didn’t listen’ (ie: didn’t check) that was the ‘only time [Manoakeesick] didn’t keep [her daughter] safe’. 

That minor quibble aside, I do sympathise with the mother’s plight and acknowledge that CFS is riddled with structural issues often resulting in maltreatment of children. Nonetheless, I cannot help but maintain that Manoakeesick was the sufficient condition for this tragedy, and since he was not a targeted focus by the justice system, the situation would only remain dire.

Attempts at righting the wrongs of the various federal and/or provincial government systems that are deeply entrenched in indigenous communities have been offered and implemented with minimal success. Such suggestions are echoed by Chief Merrick who also mentioned in her public address that ‘[her people] need culturally appropriate services’ to ensure ‘that they don’t get caught in-between’ their own people’s culture and what could only be settler colonial culture. 

Perhaps some more culturally appropriate services could be of use to some people, but what Manoakeesick needed was to be institutionalised and shaken from his addiction. As was warned in 2019, he was a lit fuse on a bomb that would go off sooner rather than later, and I cannot help but think that a lax approach was taken towards his sentencing and detainment because of his race. 

Progressive and culturally sensitive restorative justice programs that emphasise intergenerational trauma and healing wouldn’t have saved these lives. The unsexy and mechanical process of removing people like Manoakeesick from society until he got well would have. 

Not only could these lives have been saved by his confinement, Manoakeesick would also have been dealt with justly. Instead, we’re getting ever-loosening treatment of our society’s criminal element, from bail reform to government-funded drug consumption sites. It doesn’t make much sense when one thinks of justice.

But perhaps we have dualling notions of ‘justice’ here. 

Indigenous peoples may have been taught the sort of tragic violence that is apparent in this case, and perhaps many others, but European notions of justice just haven’t taken, yet.  

While we’re being told that indigenous people have learnt of this sort of violence – as though for the first time – what they really need to learn is justice. But they won’t because they can’t accept that there are things wrong with indigenous people that ending White Supremacy won’t fix. Blaming Whites is ineffectual at alleviating these, though it may be efficacious in alleviating a sense of shame and guilt. 

Merrick and people like her can talk about how Residential Schools aimed to ‘kill the Indian in the child’ or that the Canadian child welfare system ‘kills kids’, but these are more often than not symbolic statements. If they were serious, they’d leave the poetics aside and actually talk about what is afflicting their people and how to punish wrong-doers. 

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