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Activist Communique: Killing Sisters in Spirit

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On Friday Oct. 29, 2010, the Federal government announced the end of (by lack of funding) the Sisters in Spirit (SIS) program -- disappearing the program just as women disappear -- to the point that not even the name or logo of Sisters in Spirit may be used.

The announcement was dumped into the Friday afternoon news cycle, just as was the Federal government's announcement that it had to agreed to ratify the UN Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples [and may I note the announcement was made by a woman, Conservative MP Rona Ambrose].

As defined by its creator the Native Woman's Association of Canada (NWAC), SIS is/was: a research, education and policy initiative driven and led by Aboriginal women. Our primary goal is to conduct research and raise awareness of the alarmingly high rates of violence against Aboriginal women and girls in Canada."

The government instead announced the creation of a government's national strategy that includes the promise (and we all know how much currency a government promises carries) of $10 million for a national police support centre for missing persons and unidentified remains that won't be operational until 2013 at the earliest. The new centre will rely on missing persons reports filed with local police forces. From the local police station reports, the new database will provide linkages to other cases if they exist (what about complaints of racism and the charge that local police officers ignore or do not follow up on these missing persons reports?).

[You can read more about the announcement here and the Nov. 9, 2010 press release response by NWAC here.]

It sounds like the government is basically taking the place of SIS, true to the adage of 'burning down the old village and building a new one' -- but with a database and centre who's politics it can control.

With no new funding for the Sisters in Spirit program or database, what is to become of the names of the missing women, the important stories and memories and evidence collected over the past five years? What is to become of the 582 women in the datebase? Are they to be disappeared twice?

According to the government, the current Sisters in Spirit datebase includes the inclusion of cases of women not vetted by the police. Also according to Status of Women Canada officials have said rules around the funding's source program prevented the use of government money from research and policy work. They have asked that funding proposals not include the name Sisters in Spirit or any plans to use the money for the database.

But to me, this still sounds like an issue of the government wanting control over (every) aspect of First Nations affairs, control over the living and the dead.

Regarding the announcement of the death of Sisters in Spirit, according to a report by APTN , "The Conservatives kept the country's leading Aboriginal women's group in the dark until the last minute on plans to announce a so-called national strategy on murdered and missing Aboriginal women, the group's president said.

Native Women's Association of Canada president Jeannette Corbiere Lavell said she was only informed by the government the day before Status of Women Minister Rona Ambrose stood in the Vancouver police department to say her government was following through on their $10 million commitment."

According to Jorge Barrera's article re-posted on rabble.ca: Sisters in Spirit program used by feds to 'squeeze' Native Women's Association of Canada "The Conservative government opposes the use of the name Sisters in Spirit and any work on a groundbreaking database on murdered and missing Aboriginal women cases, and this is impacting any future funding the Native Women's Association of Canada expects to receive for new projects on the issue.

If the database of the hundreds of murdered and missing women cases turns stagnant, it remains unclear what could take its place. Before the database came into being, it was up to individuals posting on scattered websites to keep the search for missing Aboriginal women going. Politically, it appears the Conservatives have now turned the page on Sisters in Spirit.

'That project was finished. Don't mix apples and oranges,' said Conservative MP Shelly Glover, parliamentary secretary for Indian Affairs. "That project was finished, now we're working with them to pursue other projects."

Upon learning of SIS's demise, Jennifer Tourand Malone from London Ontario said, "I am shocked and very perplexed to hear that none of the much need $10 million funding announced by The Status of Women Minister Rona Ambrose will be allocated to Sisters in Spirit."

Over the past 5 years, SIS has not only established a database to bring to light the 582 missing indigenous women, but they have extended their mandate to include tool kits that can be used by family members and police, and are in the process of developing policies and procedures that can assist to curtail the cycle of violence in indigenous communities. Given that there already exists an organization (SIS) that displays such goodwill and recognition at all levels of government and also within the public conciousness, would it not be more prudent to further develop this already existing organization?

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