Creative writers and artists should seek permission from families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls before publishing their work, panelists told an audience in Halifax on April 18.
The panel was assembled in response to a recently published book of poetry titled, “Who Took My Sister?” by Shannon Webb-Campbell. The book contained a poem that had a graphic description of Loretta Saunders’ death, an Inuk university student who was killed in Halifax in Feb. 2014.
“This is not an anomaly,” said Raven Davis, Halifax artist and host and organizer of a panel called Our Narratives, Our Right, Our Voices. “This is not just specifically an Indigenous issue. This is not just about Indigenous protocol… it’s just basic human decency.”
The publisher, Book*Hug, issued a statement saying it was unaware that Webb-Campbell didn’t seek permission from the Saunders family before including the poem in the book. As a result, the publisher pulled the book from sales.
The panel, which was held at Dalhousie University, discussed ethical responsibilities of writers, artists publishers and the media when writing about missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Panelists included Indigenous writers Delilah Sanders, Deirdre Lee and Arielle Twist. Cheryl Maloney, who works with the Nova Scotia Native Women’s Association, was also a part of the panel.
“We put too much power in the hands of publishers, editors, writers…we are all storytellers and we all contribute to this narrative and this society that finds Indigenous women and girls missing and murdered or the stark realities that Indigenous peoples face,” Delilah Saunders, sister of Loretta Saunders, said.
Saunders compared her family’s interaction with a UK-based video production company that produced an episode about her sister’s murder for the television network, Investigation Discovery, with the lack of interaction with Webb-Campbell, a writer of Mi’kmaq/settler descent.
She said Arrow Media UK kept in contact with her family before the episode of her sister’s death aired in March.
Loretta Sauders “saw herself in these stories.” – Delilah Saunders
Saunders has spoken about accountability and ethics inside and outside the Indigenous community including before the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Membertou in Oct. 2017.
She says there are so many other facts about Loretta that can be acknowledged including her dedication and having completed three years of high school in eight months.
“I think the importance of being mindful when contributing to a narrative and being mindful of how you are attributing a narrative is really important,” she said.
“The reason Loretta did the work that she did writing her honours thesis on missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, was because she saw herself in these stories…so there is a way of retelling these stories,” she said.
Arielle Twist, a Cree writer and sex educator from George Gordon First Nation, Sask., now living in Halifax first informed Saunders of Webb-Campbell’s poem.
As a writer, she said a key principle is one should not assume the voice of someone else but instead to write how someone else’s experiences relates to you.
After receiving online accusations about the call-out’s intent of Webb-Campbell and her publishers, Twist said there is a need for recognizing the work in private and care with words she refers to ‘calling in’ that goes into a public ‘call out’. She references her Tweets.
It’s up to @shannonwc and how she continues to act and react to critique, how she will apologize going forward, and how seriously she and @bookthug realize this is.
I hope there’s room for learning, I hope that compassion can exist in a way Shannon couldn’t write from. Hope. — Arielle Twist (@ArielleTwist) March 29, 2018
“It’s not about f*cking up, it’s about how you deal with it when you f*ck up,” Twist said.
Panelist and Halifax poet Deirdre Lee said slam poet communities also run a fine line with encouraging ‘pain for points’ and her own caution to only represent herself.
“Our intention was not one of punishment or hurt… but we need to get okay with being uncomfortable, because a lot of times when you are uncomfortable, that’s when you are learning,’ she said.
In a Facebook post which has since been deleted, Webb-Campbell apologized to Delilah Saunders and her family over the way she described Loretta’s death and for not contacting them before publishing the poem.
Venus Envy, a sex shop and bookstore in Halifax, was one of the sponsors of the event. Manager Marshall Haywood said the store had planned to hold a book launch for Webb-Campbell and sell her book before the publisher pulled the book from sales.
“The writers intent may be quite different from the impact it has,” Haywood said in an interview. “Because she didn’t check-in with the family before publishing it and her publisher really should have done their due diligence.”
“One of the positive things that has come from the discussion around Shannon Web-Campbell’s book has been a greater awareness on writer’s responsibilities to Indigenous communities, whether they are apart of indigenous communities or not,” he said.