Write for Justice for Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women
by Jarrah Hodge
About a month ago the City of Vancouver Women’s Advisory Committee, which I sit on, met with the Missing Women’s Coalition – group of family members and community groups formed around the Missing Women’s Commission of Inquiry to look out for the best interests of the Downtown Eastside missing and murdered Aboriginal women and their families. The group was trying (again) to get through to B.C. Attorney General Suzanne Anton and wanted us to know how frustrated they were about the lack of provincial and federal action on the inquiry recommendations.
If you have not personally experienced the violence, if it has not touched your family, if reading news reports and hearing stories didn’t get you outraged and willing to act to help get justice for the missing and murdered women, imagine sitting across a table from people who have lost their own daughters, granddaughters, sisters and nieces; people who have fought unceasingly for years and years to get anyone in power to pay attention to the situation.
In addition to some steps our committee agreed to help with, individual members wanted to know what they could do to help. One very simple thing that was raised was writing letters to elected officials. But many had never done it before. Some were worried they’d breach some kind of protocol. Others were worried they might come across sounding like they didn’t know the issue. Our fabulous committee chair invited us over for a letter-writing night so we could work together (I took a picture of one of my letters,shown above).
When the RCMP report came out yesterday confirming the number of cases as much higher than previously estimated, and when I had to write letters to the editors of some media outlets that botched the coverage (see this post for background), I thought, why not write up the tips we used to write letters to our elected officials, and post them along with tips for writing letters to the editor?
Writing a few letters won’t be enough to end the violence, but it is helpful because it fights the silence. It tells elected officials that their voters care deeply about this issue; and if you don’t like your representative’s response, you have something concrete you can talk about with your friends and neighbours come election time. It tells media that you want continuing coverage that is fair to the victims and holds those in power accountable. If done well, writing letters says, “I will not stand by while you let more than 1,000 lives get swept under the rug.” The more of us do it, the more powerful it is.
The tips below are valid for writing letters on any issue, but I urge you particularly to write on this one.
We found at our letter-writing night that it was helpful and inspiring to see each other’s letters. I’m going to post the text of a letter I sent to my MP, Wai Young, in the comments below. I hope you’ll consider posting the letters you send there as well, and maybe even the responses when you get them.
Letters to Politicians
The most important thing is to write your letter or email in your own words. When elected officials start getting form letters from a group of people they usually draft a form response to send to everyone. If you take the time to write a unique letter expressing your personal feelings about the issue (while still being respectful), there should be more responsibility on them to write a personal response.
- Who am I writing to? Your letter will almost always be taken most seriously by someone you can vote for directly – your own Member of Parliament or provincial elected official in your riding. Find your Member of Parliament by entering your postal code at this site. Most provincial legislatures have similar tools on their websites that you can use to find contact info for your provincial reps.
- How do I refer to them? In Canada, anyone who’s ever been a Cabinet Minister retains the title “Honourable.” The title for the Prime Minister and former PMs is “Right Honourable.” You can Google your MP or provincial official to see if they have a title attached, but it’s totally acceptable to just use “Mr.” or “Ms.” if in doubt or if your representative has never been appointed to Cabinet. For example, in the letter above, I was writing to Suzanne Anton as a Cabinet Minister, so on the envelope I addressed the letter to “Hon. Suzanne Anton” but in the letter’s opening line I wrote, “Dear Ms. Anton.”
- Should I use snail-mail or email? Emails are ok, but ifyou send a snail-mail letter it’s most clear that you care about the issue enough to take the time, so that tends to be more powerful. If you write to an MP, use their Parliament Hill address, you don’t have to use postage to mail your letter! Just pop it in the mail without a stamp. For other addresses, you need a stamp.
- If you write a snail-mail letter, it’s okay to write it out as long as it’s legible. If you type out your letter make sure you sign in ink at the bottom and hand-letter the envelope – again, so they know it’s your own work.
- Make sure to include your address at the bottom of your letter or email so they know you are one of their constituents.
- Try to keep the letter to 1 page long, with no more than 2 clear points.
- Don’t get bogged down in statistics. Using one or two stats to support your main point is fine, but the main thing is to show you care.
- If you know your rep has done good things on this issue in past, thank them.
- Request specific action (for example, “I urge your government [government reps]/ask you to pressure the government [for opposition representatives] to immediately call a national, public inquiry into the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women”. Make sure the actions are in their power. For example, provincial representatives can’t call national inquiries, but they can put pressure on the federal government or take provincial actions.
- Request that they respond to your letter. That way if you haven’t heard back in, say, 6-8 weeks, you can call their office or email to follow up. Ultimately, even if you get a response you aren’t happy with, you have a piece of evidence you can share with other voters in the next election.
Letters (Emails) to the Editor
The most important thing is to keep it short (100-250 words). Media outlets receive many letters and the longer your letter is, the less likely they are to look at it and the more likely they are to edit your words if they do decide to publish it.
- Respond to a specific article. Reference what article you’re responding to in the subject of your email or before your letter text, if not in the letter itself.
- Find out where/how to send it by going to the news site and finding their “Contact” page. Often it’s not super obvious but it’s usually in the header or footer of the page. Or if you’re reading a print paper, find the letters page and there’ll usually be an email where you can send your own letter.
- It’s fine to use news sites’ online forms for submitting letters, although make sure you save a copy of your letter text before you hit “Submit”. That way you have it for your record and if it does get published, you can see if/how it was edited.
- Send the letter quickly – within one day of seeing an article in print, two days of seeing it online. As Canada.com says in their guidelines for letter-writing, “Unless there is a new development in this story, it’s no longer an issue for the letters page.”
- Your letter can comment on the issue in the article if you have expertise or opinion to add, criticize problematic media analysis (like the headlines I talked about yesterday), or praise a particular article. Don’t attempt to cover more than one point. Succinct letters are more likely to be published and more likely to be remembered by readers.
- Make your first sentence short and catchy. Overall, keep your language simple.
- Draw from your own experiences and feelings and appeal to readers’ emotions.
- Send unique letters to each outlet. Papers want exclusivity and if they see a letter published elsewhere, will not publish it themselves.
- Include your contact information. Lots of outlets refuse to publish letters unless you give them your address and phone number. They will only print your city but they want to make sure you’re a real person and not writing under another’s name before they do.
- Read other letters in the paper to get a sense of what they’re looking for.
Add any other tips you have, and share examples of your own letters in the comments below!