The 10th annual march for missing and murdered Indigenous women in Montreal October 4 was an emotional affair. Organized by the Missing Justice Collective and the Montreal Centre for Gender Advocacy, the event saw close to a thousand people gather in Cabot Square before walking down Sainte-Catherine street to Phillips Square, carrying signs and banners commemorating loved ones lost over the years.
The theme of this year’s event was justice. Notable guests included Mohawk activist Ellen Gabriel, Melissa Mollen Dupuis of Idle No More and Nakuset of the Montreal Native Women’s Shelter and the Urban Aboriginal Strategy Network, among many others.
Speakers took to the podiums in Cabot and Phillips squares prior and following the march to share stories of loss, sorrow and anger. Others expressed hope in the opportunity provided by the upcoming federal election and the promises made by the Liberal and NDP parties should they come in to power.
Elder and Kahnawake resident Kawennotas Sedalia Fazio was pleased with the turnout at the march but said that First Nations men and women alike organize and participate in these types of events mainly because they have no choice.
“Events like this are kind of a last resort for us,” she told the Nation. “We’re not a people who like to protest and be loud and be out there disturbing whatever peace there is. But in instances like this where we’ve asked for help over and over again and nothing happens we have no other options. It’s only events like this march that can bring about any change.”
In a stirring speech, Fazio asked the audience what would happen if the sun, the sky, the waters, the plants and the trees decided one day to stop doing their work of bringing life to earth, affirming that it is everyone’s responsibility as human beings to care for the planet and those who inhabit it.
“How much longer is this going to go on,” she asked in an interview with the Nation. “How many more girls, mothers, sisters, daughters are we going to lose before they [the Canadian government] recognize that this is a problem? Because right now they’re choosing to ignore us.”
Fazio recalled the case of Tiffany Morrison, a Kahnawake woman who went missing in 2006, noting that while the police said they were doing everything in their power to find her it was a construction worker who found her remains in a wooded area close to her home.
While the RCMP says that the number of cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada total around 1200, activist groups such as the Native Women’s Association of Canada and the now defunct (courtesy of funding cuts by the Harper government) Sisters in Spirit have compiled research and statistics indicating that the number is actually closer to 3000.
A few positive notes from the Montreal march were the number of non-Natives involved in the demonstration.
“It’s heartwarming to know that there are at least some non-Indigenous people on our side,” said Fazio. “But is it enough to push the powers that be to do something? We don’t know and only time will tell. It’s been 10 years [we’ve been protesting] and so far it hasn’t changed anything with the government. In the government’s eyes everything’s okay. No matter how much we march, how much we plead. If the government changes will it make any difference? Again, only time will tell.”
The demonstrators marched past throngs of shoppers and passersby to the beat of traditional drums and honour songs, drawing curious stares from onlookers.
“You go on social media and you’ll see 100 good comments, and then you’ll see those 10 comments of people who just don’t care,” said Fazio. “The worst thing we can hear as Indigenous people is ‘just get over it’. It’s not something that happened 100 years ago, it’s something that’s ongoing, that’s happening each and every day of our lives.
“It’s hard for me,” she continued, “I feel I have a close connection to everyone. They’re our women. It’s not just a connection to anyone that I know personally; it’s the connection that these are our people. I don’t care where they were from, what Nation they were from. Where are they and why is no one doing anything?”
Cheryl McDonald, also from Kahnawake, lost her sister Darlene in 1988. Unbeknownst to her family, “Darlou” was dealing with a situation of domestic violence and depression and felt she had nowhere to turn to for support. McDonald said that after years of suffering in silence she found comfort rallying behind the countless other Indigenous Canadians who have been through similar circumstances.
She told the crowd that gatherings like these are about personal and collective healing, summoning the strength and willpower necessary to move forward and ensure that future generations of First Nations men, women and children are educated, informed and have access to the resources necessary to tackle issues such as these.
Performances by the Buffalo Hat Singers and Kahnawake dancer Barbara Diabo rounded out the gathering in Phillips Square as candles were distributed and lit and sweet grass burned in memory of the women no longer with us.
“Let us pray that next year we will gather again not to beg for an inquiry,” said Fazio in her closing remarks, “but to celebrate the fact that something has been done to protect our women.”