In 1996 I became involved with the February 14 Women's Memorial March in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside (DTES) through my work at the Downtown Eastside Women's Centre. I was working with Marion Dubick who was helping the women to organize the march for February 14 1997. Each week we would begin with a group of women who were interested in helping to organize the march. Tasks were assigned to each person to complete for the next meeting. Women in the DTES were very active in the community in the 1990s and often participated in the Take Back the Night march held each fall.
When I realized how the march came about I was horrified that such violence could be thrust upon another human being to that degree and was immediately taken by the importance of this work. We had a fabulous Elder working at the centre, Reta Blind, a Cree women who had lived through Indian Residential School. Reta was like a surrogate mother to the women, who for the most part were separated from their families. She would bestow her life lessons and wisdom on the women, whenever they were in trouble or had men problems.
Reta was there for the first march in 1991 following the murder and dismemberment of a woman from Coast Salish Territory. Her body parts were discarded at various places throughout the Clark Drive area, the family brought in seers to locate her remains, at each site a ceremony and prayers were offered up. Her name is not spoken today out of respect of the wishes of the family to let her rest in peace. Her death happened in late January, the women marched on February 14 that year.
Throughout the time I was working at the Women's Centre more and more women were missing without a trace. Women speculated they were taken aboard many of the foreign ships docked on the waterfront or that they had been killed through some bizarre snuff movie set scene.
Serena Abbotsway had a striking resemblance to Angela Jardine, I remember saying to her "you know you look like Angela" she said, "I know, Angela was my friend we always hung out together." Angela was missing, there was no poster of missing women, just a sheet of paper with her photo. The Vancouver Police had not realized the depth or seriousness of the situation and were rather dismissive of where the women were.
In fact, when Serena disappeared, at a community meeting the VPD had no explanation as to why they did not do an proper investigation into her disappearance. Sereena was like a butterfly in the community, she would check in to community groups at least every few days, everyone knew Sereena, so when she went missing in 2000, everyone noticed.
The gravity of the situation that was to be disclosed to the community sent people into feelings of numbness, anger, shock and grief at what the truth behind the disappearances really was. The absolute injustice of violence against women in the DTES, the dismissiveness of the police who's only interest in women was when they were arresting them and the larger community who turned a blind eye to the plight of marginalized women, living in poverty. Why should violence against women be acceptable in society?
Women in the DTES organized the march, they took action by taking over the streets on February 14 every year, they raised awareness of the violence against women in the community who were having their heads shaved by drug dealers, they marched to the police station risking arrest to demand the police do proper investigations when women fell to their deaths from the upper floors of buildings. The women are the strength of community to take a stand and say enough is enough, we are not your punching bag and we are not taking it anymore! I march for the women who cannot march, their voices have been forever silenced by violence, I march for all women experiencing violence, I march for the missing women everywhere, I march because they canʼt.
Marlene George has worked to end violence against women in Downtown Eastside Vancouver for 18 years. She is currently a student and raising a future feminist granddaughter.
Photo credits Angela Marie MacDougall and Evelyn Wemistiko-siawasis