Métis teen activist and athlete speaks out for missing and murdered indigenous women
19-year-old Tracie Léost uses her voice (and running shoes) to advocate for indigenous peoples in Canada.
“Tracie, you have the ability and voice to make a change, so why don’t you?”
19-year-old Tracie Léost remembers when her indigenous studies teacher challenged her with this question — and changed her life. After learning that thousands of indigenous women and girls have gone missing or been murdered in Canada over the past 30 years, Tracie asked her teacher to explain why more wasn’t being done to address this issue. He couldn’t give her an answer, but encouraged her to become part of the solution. So she did.
Tracie is a proud Métis woman — Métis are one of three recognised indigenous peoples in Canada. Tracie’s heritage has always been an important part of her identity. She was jigging and square dancing by age 3 and playing the fiddle by age 4. But it wasn’t until her indigenous studies class in grade 11 that she learned of this epidemic of violence against indigenous women.
Competing in the 2014 North American Indigenous Games (NAIG) motivated Tracie to take an indigenous studies class. An accomplished high school runner, Tracie couldn’t believe the support she received at NAIG. “It was huge for me to be an indigenous person in an environment where we were all being supported, because I know a lot of us had never experienced something like that before,” she said of the competition.
A speaker during the NAIG opening ceremony inspired her to become more active in supporting the rights of indigenous peoples: “One person said: ‘We are the generation that picks up the broken pieces. If anyone in this stadium makes a change, it’s for these people around you.’ I always say, that’s where that seed was planted. The moment I left that stadium there was this fire that was burning inside.”
Tracie returned home with three bronze medals — and a determination to learn more about her heritage. So she signed up for two semesters of indigenous studies. Her teacher gave her the assignment to pick one missing or murdered indigenous woman and to tell her story. He wanted the class to put faces to the epidemic.
As Tracie researched the issue, what she found astonished her. In 2014, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police reported that over 1,200 indigenous women had gone missing or been murdered since 1980. However, other organisations say that over 4,000 missing or murdered indigenous is a more realistic count due to a history of police under-reporting or failing to properly investigate cases of missing indigenous women.
Tracie discovered that the Canadian government hadn’t prioritised the issue. “I read an article about [former Prime Minister] Stephen Harper denying an inquiry into the epidemic because it wasn’t high on Canada’s radar. That was a huge slap in the face to me because he was kind of saying indigenous women aren’t important.”
Determined to help bring a voice to the voiceless, Tracie turned to what she loved: running. She planned a four-day 115-kilometre run that began in Oak Point, where her family is from, and ended at a monument for missing and murdered indigenous women in Winnipeg. Tracie’s route took past her family’s two Métis communities and along Highway 6, where dozens of indigenous women have disappeared. She hoped her run would raise money for the victims’ families and awareness about this epidemic.
The run tested Tracie mentally, physically and spiritually. After the first day, the blisters on her feet were so bad that she couldn’t wear sneakers, so she ran in her moccasins instead. Despite these challenges, Tracie persisted. “Anytime I felt like giving up, there was just this feeling of so many women being with me,” she said. “I felt like my soul and my spirit weren’t alone.”
Tracie raised over $6,000 for the Families First Foundation. Her story received national attention. Musician Cass McCombs asked Tracie to be in his music video for “Run Sister Run” where they recreated her run. Vogue.com wrote an article about Tracie and the making of the music video.
In 2017, Tracie spoke on Parliament Hill for Canada Day about her advocacy for missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. She competed again at NAIG last summer and became a torchbearer at the 2017 Canada Summer Games. Later this year, Tracie is receiving a 2018 Indspire Award, the highest honour bestowed on indigenous peoples.
Tracie sees increased awareness of this national crisis since she began her activism. In September 2016, the Canadian government launched the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
“Although we have an inquiry right now, there’s so much more that needs to happen for that inquiry to be successful.” Tracie says. The inquiry experiencing problems — delays, numerous staff departures and concerns from the affected families that the inquiry will not properly track the number of missing and murdered women or examine the root causes of this violence.
“There’s so much more to the crisis than just the death or the disappearance,” Tracie explains of this complex issue. “You have to think about residential schools and the Sixties Scoop and poverty and these cycles of violence and addictions. There’s so much that goes into it and there’s so much to know. It’s not simple and it’s not easy and it’s not going to be something that’s going to change in a night and there’s so much you have to understand.”
Indigenous peoples have suffered from persecution in Canada. The residential schools Tracie mentioned refer to a period from the 1880s to the 1990s when the Canadian government removed over 100,000 indigenous children from their homes and forced them to attend government-sponsored, religious schools. They intended for indigenous children to forget their heritage, assimilate into “Canadian” culture and adopt Christianity. In addition to being separated from their families, students at residential schools faced emotional and physical abuse. More than 6,000 children died in residential institutions.
The Sixties Scoop refers to a period from the 1960s to the 1980s when child-welfare service workers removed an estimated 20,000 indigenous children from their families and placed them into non-indigenous adoptive homes or foster care.
As a result of these practises and other forms of discrimination, indigenous peoples are more vulnerable to violent crime, homelessness and substance abuse than the rest of the population. These factors combine to make indigenous women and girls particularly at risk.
Tracie hopes to help educate others about these issues and this history of persecution: “In my own mind, I believe if you’re not a part of the solution, you’re just a part of the problem. So you don’t have to do something like run 115 kilometres in four days, but support the cause, want to educate people, want to understand. It’s those things that make a huge difference.”
To help inform her advocacy, Tracie is studying to become a social worker at university. “Knowledge is what flourishes activism,” she said of her studies. A successful advocate is not only motivated by the injustices she witnesses, but is also educated on why they are occurring.
When I asked Tracie what advice she would give to other young women looking to speak out, she suggested they begin with small projects: “There doesn’t have to be one thing or one way.” Tracie finds time to support a number of causes. At college, she coaches hockey as part of a programme that encourages inner city youth to participate in athletics. In lieu of holiday presents this December, she asked friends and family to help her collect hygiene products for a local women’s shelter.
“The best advice I could give is to put your heart and soul into whatever you choose to do,” Tracie recommends. She hopes that other young female activists will join her and “push the boundaries that society sets for women.” It’s hard, Tracie acknowledges, but every boundary can be broken.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tess Thomas is editor of Assembly, a digital publication and newsletter from Malala Fund. She loves books, cats and french fries.