Their spirits live within us: Marching for murdered and missing Indigenous women

| February 16, 2011
The 20th anniversary of this memorial march in Vancouver. Photo: Kim Elliot.

February 14 -- Valentine's Day -- is a day to honour love and honour those loved ones who have passed onto the Spirit world.

It can be a painful time filled with memories and grief, but also a time to unite together to demonstrate how much we honour the presence of others in our lives -- even if they no longer alive.

So on this day to honour love, marches were held across Canada -- Vancouver, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Toronto, London and Montreal -- on the national day of action for justice for murdered and missing Indigenous women. A national day of action which -- to quote Che Guevera -- is driven by a state of love for our community's women and all the caring and wisdom they represent.

First Nations communities across Canada have been carrying the burden of this sadness for generations as they have walked this trail of grief. They are stepping out of the shadows and coming forward. First Nation communities and the allies demand that these murders and the disappearances stop.

According to research conducted under the Native Women Association of Canada's (NWAC) Sisters in Spirit program, over 580 Indigenous women have been murdered or gone missing, most of them over the last 30 years.

I concede that the number is much higher as Gladys Radek from Walk4Justice estimates over 3,000 women are known to have gone missing or been murdered in Canada since the 1970s, with at least 80 per cent of these women being from First Nations.

Two years ago, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women issued this statement: "Hundreds of cases involving aboriginal women who have gone missing or been murdered in the past two decades have neither been fully investigated nor attracted priority attention."

It is unclear how Canada's recent ratification of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples will improve matters.

On another front, on Sept. 27, 2010, the Lieutenant Governor issued an Order in Council establishing the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry to be led by former B.C. attorney general, Commissioner Wally Oppal, with the conduct of the investigations made between Jan. 23, 1997 and Feb. 5, 2002, by police forces in British Columbia in respect to women reported missing from the Downtown Eastside of the City of Vancouver.

In a presentation by MP Libby Davis (Vancouver East) regarding the Inquiry on Jan. 19, 2010, she commented:

"I'd like to say to you today, Commissioner Oppal, that I believe your biggest challenge is to produce a report that cannot be ignored, nor forgotten, nor dismissed. It must be a report that addresses the deeply disturbing and egregious wrongs done by our society to the most defenseless people in our community. Your report must have built-in mechanisms that ensure its active follow up. All of us as witnesses, experts, victims, families, friends and advocates must compel you to issue a report that is bullet proof, hard hitting and will cause shock waves as to what went wrong and why."

And in support of the Feb. 14 national day of action, Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo released a statement calling for an independent inquiry: 

"The Assembly of First Nations continues to urge the Federal government to work collaboratively with Indigenous and women's organizations on an action plan focused on prevention and the safety and security of Indigenous women."

The national feelings ran deep.

Angela Marie MacDougall of the Battered Women's Support Services, stated at the Vancouver Downtown East Side rally that, "this is the most pressing social issue of our time."

In Ottawa, there was a rally to protest the Federal government's funding cut announced on Oct. 29, 2010 to Sisters in Spirit program by the Native Woman's Association of Canada (NWAC).

In Toronto, people gathered at a Toronto police headquarters for the 6th annual No More Silence march to partake in a Strawberry (Heartberry) Ceremony before marching to the coroner's office.

Demonstrators held placards with the names of murdered and missing women, including a placard for Carolyn Connolly who was murdered on Aug. 2, 2001 in Toronto. No one was been charged with her murder

In London, there was a march through the city centre in support for justice for murdered and missing Indigenous women. Darlene Ritchie from the At lohsa Native Family Healing Services told the crowd, "It's your little sister, your daughter, your granddaughter, your cousin, all of them missing...Their lost legacies and the potential legacies of their children are immeasurable."

In Vancouver, on the 20th anniversary of this memorial march, children laid red and yellow rose petals along the walk; the red roses honoured the dozens of women who have been murdered in the Downtown Eastside, the yellow roses were in memory of the women who are still missing.

The marches for missing and murdered Indigenous women began its legacy in British Columbia in 1991 in response to the murder of a woman on Powell Street in Vancouver.

The most recent disappearance appears to be that of 23-year-old Nikita Jack, who, according a press release released just yesterday, went missing on Feb. 10, 2011, from her Surrey, B.C. residence. She was reported missing by her family on Feb. 12, 2011, with her parents stressing she would never leave her three-year-old daughter.

The first question that comes to my mind: How would I feel if I had a daughter who went missing? What if my sister simply disappeared? Or my mother or auntie vanished?

It's a painful but necessary question to ask. I pondered this question and others during Toronto's march and realized that all these missing Indigenous women is tantamount to genocide. Yes, that's an ugly word that makes most Canadians uncomfortable but please do not turn away.

How else do you account for such numbers? Almost 3,000 missing women since the 1970s? Let's be honest, if it were 3,000 white-skinned women, would the response to this epidemic of violence and death be different?

I know that's a hard question but we must answer honestly.

Even relying on the more modest statistics from NWAC, the list of missing and murdered native women in Canada grows: Out a total of 582 cases, 393 died as a result of murder or negligence. And 115 remain missing. Only 53 per cent of the cases involving native women was someone charged, whereas the average rate for charges in a homicide in Canada is 84 per cent.

Think about it.

For more information on how you can help, please see:

Women's Memorial March (B.C.)

Highway of Tears (B.C.)

Justice for Missing and Murdered (Montreal)

No More Silence (Toronto)

Native Women's Association of Canada (Sisters in Spirit program)

Red Circle Alert

Toronto's Aboriginal Missing & Murdered Women Awareness Conference March 3-4, 2011 at the Native Canadian Centre Toronto.

Krystalline Kraus writes the Activist Communique blog for rabble.ca.

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