Beneath the indigo twilight sky, a shawl-covered woman whose head is ringed with stars and circling hawks holds a candle in her hands, its warm light glowing up to her face. Above her, in huge letters, the words “JUSTICE for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.”
Montreal’s Missing Justice commissioned the mural, which takes up the entire side of a three-storey building on that city’s main drag, Boulevard St-Laurent. Artists Fanny Aisha, Guko and Monk-E, Missing Justice completed the mural July 18, when it was revealed to the public with an evening of celebration.
“We’ve talked for probably three or four years about how it would be great to have some artwork around this issue in the city, just to have a presence,” said Missing Justice member Monica Van Schaik. “The whole idea about Justice for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women is that women are going missing, so they’re not here anymore. We thought it would be very powerful to put something in place so that they do have a presence, they do have a place within the city.”
Artist Guko says that he initially entered the project simply because organizer Fanny Aisha was his friend, but that once he was on board he began to understand its importance.
“[Aisha] had the goal of making a mural, and invited me to participate,” said Guko. “I found it was a good collaboration, so I worked with Monk-E to make the mural. Before starting the mural, I met with Missing Justice and Sisters in Spirit. It really inspired me to search. A mural is a good way to reach people with an important message.”
The image of the woman in the mural is taken from a photo of Kahnawake’s Kahawinontie (Cheryl Diabo), a member of the Bear Clan, who was photographed during an earlier march in support of Missing and Murdered Women. Kahawinontie was on hand for the event.
“I’m really glad they caught me at that moment, because it’s really a strong message,” she said. “To me it represents the sadness of loss, but at the same time there’s hope in the light that’s there in the hands. It shows that she’s not letting go of that [hope], and it’s a really strong message. I didn’t realize I was projecting that when I was there, so I’m really happy to be able to contribute, even though I did it indirectly.”
For Kahawinontie, her participation both in the march where she was photographed, and her presence at the unveiling, had to do with the basic principles of Kanien’keha:ka/Mohawk society in which she was raised.
“In our society,” she said, “everybody is born with a responsibility to each other. Everybody has that respect for one another, and we’re all supposed to strive to seek out justice. I was raised that way. That’s what led me here to Missing Justice.”
Many other speakers, musicians, and Kahnawake’s impressive mother-daughter hoop dancing pair Barbara and Emily Diabo, were on hand for the evening. The speakers included Kitigan Zibi’s Bridget Tolley, who pioneered the movement seeking justice for Missing and Murdered Women after her mother, Gladys Tolley, was killed by a police car in 2001. Tolley expressed enthusiastic support for the mural.
“When Bridget Tolley joins us, it’s always like this spirit and this energy is here,” Van Schaik said. “It’s such a blessing to have her here, because she’s just so powerful and passionate. It definitely made me happy to have been part of this project, and to have someone like Bridget coming and seeing it, and feeling so empowered by it. Because that’s the idea.”
While the focus is often on BC’s infamous Highway of Tears, Van Schaik emphasized that cases like Tolley’s remind us that there are also Quebec women who have also gone missing and been murdered.
“When Tiffany Morrison passed away, we realized this issue was here as well, in Montreal, and in Quebec, but there wasn’t very much action or awareness about it,” she said. “So Missing Justice started from there – that was our inspiration, to start to build awareness that this issue is happening here as well as in the west.”
Kahnawake Elder John Cree is a familiar face at the vigils and marches for Missing and Murdered Women in Montreal. As on many previous occasions, he gave the opening and closing blessings for the evening of the mural’s unveiling, both in English and in Kanien’keha/Mohawk.
Speaking afterward, he said, “The whole thing has been silent too long. People weren’t listening. With our people, we don’t tend to go and make a big thing about it. We deal with it among ourselves. But there comes a point where you have to go out and join forces. And we have to fight like hell.”