Though the main event occurred earlier during the day in Ottawa, as night fell on October 4, thousands of candles were lit across the country at various Sisters in Spirit vigils to remember the lost souls of Canada’s missing and/or murdered women. Sisters in Spirit, a division of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, organized both the Ottawa rally and worked in partnership with volunteers to organize the other events across the country.
“Right now, as we speak, our numbers are 509. When we first started it was estimated that there was 500 missing or murdered Aboriginal women and so now we can confirm that yes there are over 500 and it’s possibly into the thousands,” said Teresa Ducharme, a community-development organizer from Sisters in Spirit.
For the third year in a row, vigils took place across Canada though the first time round there were only 11. Ducharme said the event’s increasing popularity gave her hope as it means awareness is actually being raised and the message is getting through.
“In the big picture I am hopeful that we might one day stop violence against not only Aboriginal women but all women,” said Ducharme acknowledging the serious nature of the event and its purpose.
While hundreds had flocked to Ottawa to remind the federal government that action needs to be taken to find the missing and account for the dead, the Montreal event was more intimate and sombre with less than 100 attendees.
As a crowd formed at 7pm at Dorchester Square in downtown Montreal, the Boer War memorial was plastered with posters of the missing and messages of hope for their safe return.
The event unfolded into an unlikely scene for a downtown park lined with the architectural opulence of Montreal businesses, hotels and churches. As urbanites and those visiting from various reserves came together to mourn, speak, shed their tears and light their candles, a clamour of First Nations children scurried about and hollered as though to tune out the heavy nature of the event.
As candlelight illuminated the faces of those lining the crowd, the event organizer and emcee for the evening, CKUT’s Native Solidarity News producer Irkar Beljarrs, began to introduce the evening’s speakers. First up was Elder Skye Bellefleure, who spoke and then blessed the event with a prayer in Cherokee.
Prior to speaking at the event, Bellefleur, a frontline worker at a Montreal shelter for Indigenous men and women, spoke to the Nation about why the event was so important to her.
“People have become rootless and lost their connection to each other,” said Bellefleur. Working directly with homeless Aboriginals in Montreal has given Bellefleur insight into how well those she sees are coping with the scars from residential schools, marginalization and assimilation, loss of language, culture and land.
“The last three generations have been extremely disconnected from tradition,” she went on to say. “You see people who are traveling around. They leave their home communities because there is abuse, alcohol and gangs on the reserves. They don’t know where they belong. They end up in the cities where they fall through the cracks,” said Bellefleur.
Having worked at the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal, the plight of so many of the marginalized Aboriginal missing who have fallen off the map, touches Bellefleur deeply.
“We are here tonight to remember sisters, mothers, daughters, wives, grandmothers, aunties, cousins, lovers and friends. For many of them their stories will never be told and the questions will never be answered. We can’t answer those questions here tonight but we can remember. We can fight for their justice. We can be the voice that they don’t have anymore. We can be the conscience that wasn’t exercised when they could have been helped and we can make sure that we make the streets safer for women in the future,” she said.
Bellefleur also stresses that though the vigil was about the missing and the dead, the families of those women needed to be acknowledged as their suffering continues without knowing whatever happened to their loved ones.
Like many in the crowd, Brigitte Tolley was at the vigil because she had needlessly lost the woman most dear to her in her life, her mother Gladys. Having traveled from her home on the Kitigan Zibi reserve near Maniwaki, Quebec, to Ottawa for the vigil on Parliament Hill and then on to the Montreal vigil, Tolley did so in the name of justice.
“My mom was killed by the police in 2001 so I have been trying to get a public inquiry (into her death) for her. I am just trying to get something going so that we get all the missing Native women some justice,” said Tolley.
Many Algonquins had made a similar journey from the Kitigan Zibi Anishnabeg First Nation reserve not just in honour of Gladys Tolley but because in September two teenaged girls – Maisy Odjick, 16, and Shannon Alexander, 17 -disappeared from the reserve.
Having disappeared suspiciously on September 5, many expressed their fears for the girls and hoped that the search for them maintained its momentum.
Jeff Budge, who had come with his wife, Brigitte Tolley, and their niece Tracy Tolley, felt particularly strong about being present at the vigil.
“This is all coming from our community. It really hits us because (the missing) are people from home. I know those girls and they are young teenagers,” said Budge.
His niece Tracy then piped up and said, “This was my first year coming to the vigil and it was not what I expected – it’s actually a lot better. This is a good experience for me to support all of these missing women from across Canada. It’s very emotional, but like everyone is saying, if we always come, hopefully things will turn out better for us.”
Throughout the vigil the names of many missing Quebec Aboriginal women were read out and their memories honored, as a slew of different speakers came, spoke and went. Not all of them were women and not all of them were Aboriginal as the problem is not exclusive to either group but to everyone.
Anne Lagace Dowson, the New Democratic Party candidate running in the downtown Ville Marie riding, spoke to the crowd. Remarking on how much this event reminded her of the marches in the streets that happened after the 1989 Ecole Polytechnique massacre where 14 women were murdered, Dowson burst into tears while addressing the crowd.
A CBC journalist prior to her political life, Dowson has reported repeatedly on such issues as missing women, violence against women and sexism.
“We know that there is class-based and race-based discrimination here in Canada, in Quebec and in Montreal and that the police tend to turn a blind eye to poor people, people of colour, First Nations People and sex-trade workers. I find it so sad that nothing is being done about it,” she said.
Dowson was also quick to point out that there are approximately 30,000 homeless people within Montreal’s downtown core and that many of them are marginalized Aboriginals.
Amid his own crowd of friends, Concordia University student Drew Pissenault bowed his head in solidarity with those in the audience while holding his candle high. Having heard about the vigil from Native friends, when asked what brought him to the event he responded simply, “How could I not be?”
“My belief is that caring has to start somewhere and if it starts with one person, that is what it is going to take because one person is going to become five and then 10 and then 100s. All it takes is one person to care,” said Pissenault.
Standing beside him, his friend Sarah Anderson agreed.
“I am a woman in Canada who has been through violence and I can’t sit down and shut up while this is going on. I am a good little Jewish girl who showed up,” Anderson said, explaining her presence and how the issue for her transcended racial boundaries.
At the same time, Anderson could not help but acknowledge that if it were her who had gone missing, the effort to find her or bring her justice would be more intense, have more funding and last longer simply based on her ethnicity. Aboriginal women are not extended the same courtesy.
As the event drew to a close, Beljarrs felt elated to have seen the crowd more than double since he organized the 2007 event. But he made a point to tell people there that it was their responsibility to bring at least one other person to the 2009 vigil.
When it was all over he spoke to the Nation.
“I am so happy that people came, like that busload of Algonquin people who showed up,” Beljarrs said.
While addressing the crowd at the vigil, Beljarrs spoke of what really motivated him to organize the event – his mother. Beljarrs was raised by a single Mohawk mother who, at 18, was gang-raped while working as an artist in Montreal. Tears flowed down his cheeks as he spoke of how decades later, his mother died having never seen any justice in her rape case as the police did not take it seriously.
“I have been doing this for three-and-a-half years and I am going to do it for 300 more. I will do it until I bring every single one of my sisters home and I will never quit.
“There are too many evil people in this country who do very evil things and seeing the number of people showing up today warmed my heart. It means a lot when people understand what you are going through and here are people who understand. Some have lost their women, lost a sister, lost a cousin, lost a daughter and that is just devastating. I have a five-year-old niece and I can’t imagine losing her,” said Beljarrs.
The NWAC-sponsored Sisters in Spirit vigils will take place every October to raise awareness for these women and help to either bring them home or get them the justice they deserve. Any community is welcome to hold its own vigil and can do so by contacting NWAC through its website: www.nwac-hq.org/en/index.html
Maisy Odjick, 16, and Shannon Mathewski Alexander, 17, from Kitigan Zibi Anishnabeg in Maniwaki, Quebec have been missing since Saturday, September 5th 2008. Maisy has brown eyes and short brown hair; she also has 2 piercings on her bottom lip and on her left nostril. If anyone has seen either of these girls please contact our local police @819-449-6000, or Maisy’s mom, Laurie Odjick, @ 819-441-3055. Please pass on this information to anyone you may know.