It was Valentine’s Day.

A day when lovers express their affection with love and gifts, including candy and flowers. Particularly red roses, a symbol of beauty and love. 

Also a symbol of secrets, joy and pain.

But for thousands of Indigenous rights activists, it’s become a day where they raise their voices and renew their demand for a national public inquiry into the murdered and missing Indigenous women in Canada.

A day to remember more than 600 women who’ve been murdered or gone missing in the last 30 years.

More than 20 years ago, a vigil was held on this day in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. On Thursday, marches and rallies took place across the country not only to honour and remember the women but to demand an end to the poverty, abuse and violence Indigenous women face on a daily basis.

In a report released Wednesday, Human Rights Watch said “The Royal Canadian Mounted Police in northern British Columbia has failed to protect indigenous women and girls from violence.

“Women and girls Human Rights Watch interviewed also described abusive treatment by police officers, including excessive use of force, and physical and sexual assault.”

In spite of this alarming discovery, the Montreal Gazette reported that “Prime Minister Stephen Harper has brushed off renewed calls for a national public inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women.”

In Toronto, over 500 people gathered outside police headquarters on Thursday afternoon for the 8th annual ceremony for murdered and missing women.

Eight years ago, Indigenous rights activists decided that they wanted to do something meaningful to draw attention to the murdered and missing Indigenous women in Canada.

“We wanted to have ceremony,” said Wanda Whitebird of the Bear Clan, a member of the Mi’kmag Nation from Afton, Nova Scotia.

“We wanted the families to never be forgotten. And we wanted the women to never be forgotten.”

And they chose Valentine’s Day because, sadly, many women will not live to see another Valentine’sDay.

“And we hold our daughters and our nieces and our granddaughters a whole lot closer than we used to because we know that one in three of our aboriginal women are likely to go missing,” said Whitebird.

Almost every day, an indigenous woman goes missing or is murdered in Canada.

“And it has been normalized,” said Audrey Huntley, co-founder of the coalition group No More Silence, which addresses the injustice and impunity surrounding the murders and disappearances.

“For years aboriginal women have been telling their stories of having been raped by the police but we have not been heard.”

But slowly things are changing.

Human rights organizations and the United Nations are pressuring the government to investigate allegations of misconduct by the authorities as well as to hold a national public inquiry.

“But only with the involvement of Indigenous, grassroots women leaders,” said Huntley.

“It must allow the voices to speak who actually experienced these atrocities. Unlike in Vancouver with the recent sham inquiry that concluded on the Picton farm murders, where 20 groups boycotted because they did not have the ability to participate.”

Doreen Silversmith had two cousins and a friend who were murdered.

“All my life I’ve been struggling, said Silversmith of the Guyohkohnyo (Cayuga) Nation. 

“And I’ll probably be struggling until I take my last breath as long as there is oppression like this. I’ll be fighting for justice for all oppressed people – not just First Nations.”

Last year, Blu Waters came to the annual ceremony for the first time. On April 14, 1977, her Kokum (the Cree word for grandmother) was raped and murdered in Toronto. 

Waters, 16-years-old at the time, was in the house at the time of the murder.

“So unlike a lot of people, I knew who did this,” said Waters. “This person was given 15 years (in prison) for taking an innocent life. A life of a 65-year-old woman.”

After serving only 10 years, he was released into the community.

“He didn’t only take the life of that one person that day,” said Waters. “He took the life from a lot of other people.”

People whose lives she’d touched during her 65 years, including Waters and her brother who she had raised, teaching them many valued life lessons.

“And I only hope that one day my life can be as fulfilling and as intricate as her life was,” she said. 

After 36 years, Waters still doesn’t feel there has been any closure for her. Last year was the first time she could come and stand outside police headquarters on February 14 and address the crowd.

“That’s 35 years of holding all my emotions inside and not acknowledging those things that happened,” she said. 

But last year she decided it was time for her to speak out.

“Just as it’s time for all of us to speak out and say enough is enough,” said Waters. “We’re not going to take it any longer.”

Waters wants the police to put these perpetrators away for a long, long time. Not just 10 or 15 years.

“Because what they take from us is not only the life of the person,” she said. “But they take the life out of society.”

Because of all the lives they’ve touched.

People like Margaret Crow Bluebird, who gave birth to five daughters, but died prematurely after being struck with a brick trying to break up a fight.

“All I have is good memories of my mother,” said Candace Perrault, one of her daughters. “Her case was dealt with lightly. I heard he didn’t do much time.”

Perrault has suffered through a series of domestic violent relationships, almost losing her life last year when her partner beat her with a golf club.

She spent three days in Sunnybrook Hospital and he was charged with attempted murder.

“I believe my mother saved my life that day,” said Perrault. 

“She was 32 years old and eight months (when she died) and when this happened to me I was exactly the same age.”

Perrault believes she’s still alive because she needs to finish what her mother was unable to do.

“I don’t know what that is yet,” said Perrault. 

“But the Creator will sure let me know when I’m ready.”

John Bonnar

John Bonnar is an independent journalist producing print, photo, video and audio stories about social justice issues in and around Toronto.