Women's Worlds 2011: 800 march on Parliament for murdered and missing Aboriginal women

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Photo: Elizabeth Pickett

Women's Worlds 2011 is a major international conference taking place in Ottawa-Gatineau from July 3 to 7, 2011. It is 'a global convergence to advance women's equality through research, exchange, leadership, and action' with speakers and performers from a diversity of backgrounds and countries. rabble.ca is proud to be the exclusive online media sponsor.

The Aboriginal Women's Leadership Circle, a volunteer advisory body comprised of Aboriginal [First Nations, Inuit, Métis] women, collaborated within WW 2011 toward the development of wide-ranging thematic and artistic content.

The Opening Ceremony on Sunday night featured a celebration of Aboriginal culture while Monday night's "Indigenous Feminisms Rock," entertainment followed by a two-hour talk-show-style conversation led by Jessica Yee of the Native Youth Sexual Health Network. The show featured special guests Lee Maracle, award-winning author and artist, Qwo-Li Driskill, a poet, author and Two-Spirit Queer activist, and Andrea Smith, co-founder of INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence. This event provided the lead-in to a march on Parliament Hill on Tuesday.

Eight hundred feminists from the congress marched to Parliament Hill in solidarity with their missing and murdered Canadian First Nations sisters. Among the marchers were women from the U.S., Denmark, Norway, Sweden, South America, Latin America, Thailand and southeast Asia along with Indigenous women from territories across Canada, all were demanding that the federal government and all citizens continue to confront and investigate the disappearance of First Nations women and girls.

The march was led by the Nemisak Singers playing traditional hand drums and welcomed to Algonquin territory at Parliament Hill by Algonquin Nation Elder Bertha Commanda. Ms. Commanda gave a brief history of the Harper government's egregious treatment of "Sisters in Spirit," a project of the Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC) that laid the groundwork for research into the disappearances and deaths of close to 600 women and girls across Canada over the last three decades.

Sisters in Spirit compiled a database showing that 153 women went missing between 2000 and 2008 alone. Late last year, Conservative MP Shelly Glover, the parliamentary secretary for Indian Affairs, declared the project "finished" and focused a new $10-million national strategy to deal with murdered and missing women cases on police initiatives, denying further funding to Sisters in Spirit or any other indigenous women's group. A new national police support centre for missing persons and unidentified remains will not be up and running before 2013. It is not known what will happen to the data collected by Sisters in Spirit but it seems likely that it will be merged with data of all missing Canadian women, thus erasing the significance the of extremely high numbers of missing Aboriginal women and girls.

Commanda told the gathered women that First Nations women would now require non-government money to preserve and add to the database and to undertake private investigations of cases of missing women and asked us to join in urgent fundraising initiatives.

Laurie Odjick, mother of Maisy Odjick, a young Aboriginal woman who disappeared in 2008, also spoke to those gathered about her struggle for assistance in finding her daughter and vowed to fight on in Maisy's name on behalf of all missing and murdered indigenous women. Jeannette Corbiere Lavell (President of NWAC) offered a passionately critical history of the Harper government's indifference to the specific issues facing First Nation women and the government's intransigence with respect the importance of the continuing contribution of their mothers, sisters and brothers in efforts to stop the violence, to repeated applause and chants of "shame" from the crowd.

Following Corbiere Lavell's remarks, the crowd observed a moment of silence, followed by words from Elder Jo MacQuarrie of the Metis Nation of Ontario.

NWAC is calling for a national action plan to deal with the issues raised by the work of Sisters in Spirit while Battered Women's Support Services, also participating in the Congress and the march, is calling for a national inquiry or Royal Commission. However, Canada's status of women ministers, having just concluded their annual meeting in Gatineau, Quebec, declared their solidarity with Aboriginal women but failed to call for a national action plan on the issue. CBC News reported that federal Status of Women Minister Rona Ambrose stated that "this is an incredibly unsettling and difficult issue for all of us in Canada to deal with, across the country. There are hundreds of missing and murdered aboriginal women." However, she added "governments at all levels are already doing a lot."

Amnesty International Canada says that Canadian police forces and governments have done little to prevent the long understood pattern of racist violence against Indigenous women and has stated that "[all] levels of government should work closely with Indigenous women's organizations to develop a comprehensive and coordinated programme of action to stop violence against Indigenous women."

According to Statistics Canada, Indigenous Canadian women are five times more likely to die of violence than other women.

Elizabeth Pickett is an internet-based feminist freedom fighter, a mother, a grandmother, a blogger, and a poet, seething in Whitby, Ont.

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