In the summer of 2004, while working as a producer for CBC News Sunday, I undertook a road trip to research Traces of Missing Women. My intent was to gather memories of Indigenous women who had been murdered or disappeared and create a video collage of images and words spoken by mothers, daughters, aunties, sisters and other loved ones to bring some light to a subject that had yet to be worthy of headlines or significant media coverage at all.
My journey took me from Toronto to Vancouver and back. Zigzagging from north to south through B.C. and Alberta, through the Prairie provinces and around the shores of Lake Superior, I put 17,000 kilometres on a rental car over a period of seven weeks. There was not one single First Nations or Métis community that I visited that didn't have a story to share. In all, rushing to cover ground and make my deadline, I only had time to conduct 45 interviews -- 45 heart-wrenching stories of loss, grief and pain.
It was evident from my first encounters that there would be a common thread: all of the family members and friends I spoke to who had lost a loved one. Not only had they all experienced the devastation of loss by violence of someone precious, but they had also suffered from the treatment they experienced at the hands of those they went to for help. They were received with blatant racism at worst, passive indifference at best. Fearful and desperate for help in their search for their missing friend or family member, they had instead to endure insult upon injury.
Many times the interviews I conducted repeated the same words: "nobody cared, nobody did anything." Over and over again I heard of police who shrugged the disappearances off and offered speculation instead of investigation. Despite evidence of foul play they were told: "she's probably partying," "drunk" or "drugged up," or "visiting friends."
If the police did show up at a family's door after a grisly discovery was made, to convey the worst possible news a relative could expect to hear, it was done most often in a reprehensible manner blaming the victim who they somehow implied had it coming. It's a thread that continues in court proceedings and in the media coverage -- or lack of it.
A Sault Ste Marie woman spoke of her mother's death, which supposedly never warranted a police investigation: "If she had been blonde and from a different neighbourhood, I'm sure they would have been all over it and it would have made headlines." But so many of these disappeared Indigenous mothers, daughters, aunties were not deemed newsworthy. Or if the crime was reported on, the women were reduced to dehumanized stereotypes, underlining the gaping hole left behind for family, friends and community.
What is at the heart of this staggering societal indifference? Is it guilt and the need to displace, make disappear -- as the women have been made to disappear -- the experience of colonization and genocidal policies that puts settlers in a place of privilege while securing the ongoing theft of land and resources? Scholars such as Andrea Smith and Sherene Razack provide an analysis of the violence as systemic and central to the colonial project. Razack argues that the violence constitutes the colonizer's identity -- the white male settler asserts his dominance over the land, and his ability to go anywhere and do anything when acts of murder are committed go for the most part unpunished.
In the case of Helen Betty Osborne, the young schoolgirl from The Pas, Manitoba, the complicity involved the whole town that kept silent. Four boys raped and stabbed Helen Betty to death with a screwdriver (over 70 times). One boy's mother washed the evidence off his clothes. That same boy boasted about the crime shortly afterwards so that the whole town knew, but kept the secret for years.
There is a lot at stake here. Great shame to bear, and a loss of privilege if the violence were to actually stop in all its forms, and decolonization were to be achieved.
Organizing against the silence
No More Silence, a Toronto-based group of Indigenous women and allies, has been organizing events to raise awareness about the disappearances of at least 600 Indigenous women in the last 20-30 years. No More Silence has always understood the disappearances in the context of ongoing genocidal policies.
Activists in Vancouver were the first to organize a memorial march in 1991 in response to the murder of a Coast Salish woman on Powell Street. The march was planned for Valentine's Day to express compassion, community, and caring for all women in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Unceded Coast Salish Territories. Twenty-one years later, the women's memorial march continues to honour the lives of missing and murdered women in at least 12 cities, including Vancouver, and now there are marches planned in at least 12 other cities, including Victoria, Montreal, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Penticton, Calgary, Kelowna, Merritt, Thunder Bay, London and Toronto. Information about events across the country are compiled here.
On November 24, Toronto No More Silence carried out Part II of an event entitled "The Silence is Broken: Now What?" It was a follow-up to an event held in July, which was attended by over 80 people. Part II was held during Indigenous Sovereignty Week to underline the systemic colonial causes of the violence and highlight the correlation between violence on the land and violence against Indigenous women. This event was also well attended: about 70 women as well as some men participated with the express purpose of strategizing towards solutions.
A screening of the short film Don't Need Saving: Aboriginal Women and Access to Justice was followed by statements by Lee Maracle (Writer in residence at the University of Toronto), Darlene Ritchie (Atlohsa Native Healing Services), Krysta Williams (Native Youth Sexual Health Network) and Audrey Huntley (No More Silence). The speakers each facilitated a discussion circle looking at local and national organizing in the short and long term.
Some of the priorities the groups discussed included: broadening the support for the February 14th memorial rally, held yearly since 2006; addressing the vacuum created by the Harper's government ending the Sisters In Spirit research; and strengthening and supporting important resources for vulnerable women such as the Native Women's Resource Centre and Anduhyaun, Native Women's Shelter. Videos of the statements and group discussion at the November 24 event can be viewed online.
No More Silence has been excited about the resolve and commitment of individuals and organizations that have supported and endorsed this year's February 14th event in Toronto. Numerous individuals committed to joining an organizing committee. Plans were made to precede the February event with an arts event and poetry slam in January, and a men's committee was formed with the goal of providing food for the feast and debrief following the rally.
Relationships are being built among community groups, and many have promised to help with mobilizing their networks towards making this year's February 14th the biggest Toronto has ever seen. It is time to raise our voices in unison: violence against Indigenous women must stop!
No More Silence is reaching out to individuals and organizations with an interest in social justice to request your support and participation. There are many ways to be involved. Apathy is not an option. If you're in Toronto, come out on February 14th; demonstrate to ensure that violence against Indigenous women is no longer considered acceptable.
For more information about the February 14 demonstration in Toronto, contact audreyhuntley [at] gmail.com
Audrey Huntley lives in Toronto. She is a wanderer, storyteller, documentary filmmaker, community researcher and writer/producer of mixed European and Indigenous ancestry. This article was first published in the New Socialist webzine.