Braving frigid temperatures and forgoing romantic afternoons with their sweethearts, over 200 people gathered on Valentine’s Day to take part in the 19th Annual Woman’s Memorial March.

The purpose of the event was to bring together Canadians of all backgrounds to show a united commitment and to support women who experience violence.

Though this event has been held in many cities across Canada, it was a first for Montreal.

This march was started in 1991 by a grassroots organization of women from Vancouver’s downtown eastside, Coast Salish Territories. In order to express their sadness and anger by the alarmingly high number of missing and/or murdered women from their community, the group chose Valentine’s Day to march in honour of their lost loved ones.

The Montreal event was organized by Justice for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (in short, Missing Justice), a local activist group dedicated to advocating for Canada’s over 520 missing and/or murdered Aboriginal women who the Canadian government has yet to account for.

According to Missing Justice’s Maya Rolbin-Ghanie, the group’s role in organizing the event was to provide a forum for those who have experienced this kind of loss more directly, the families and loved ones of these women.

Earlier in the week, on February 11, Missing Justice hosted a panel discussion on Indigenous women and violence, in order to promote the Valentine’s Day event.

Rolbin-Ghanie said she was very pleased with the turnout, particularly because of the momentum the cause has garnered in the last 18 months. In the past two years, the media has covered the issue frequently. But despite this, little has changed, as women still go missing and their families still suffer.

“What has to happen now is that the government needs to put its money where its mouth is and show that it cares. They seem to neglect any calls for acknowledgment, funding or public investigation,” said Rolbin-Ghanie.

Bridget Tolley, an Anishnabeg woman from the Algonquin Kitigan Zibi reserve near Maniwaki, Quebec, led the march while carrying a photo of her beloved mother, Gladys Tolley, who was fatally struck by a police cruiser in her community.

Speaking to the marchers upon their arrival in Parc des Amériques, Tolley described how the only investigation into the two Sûreté du Québec officers who were driving the cruiser was carried out by one of the SQ officer’s brother and had a number of inaccuracies which she calls a “cover up.”

“In the weeks, months and years since my mother’s death, the police that were supposed to be there to serve and protect were confrontational, refused to share information about the case with my family or communicate with us in English and treated me as a troublemaker because I wanted the officers to be held accountable for my mother’s death,” Tolley told the crowd.

Tollley has been fighting to no avail for an independent inquiry since 2001.

Celebrating the woman she loved most, Tolley said she was surprised to see so many braving the cold to march in solidarity with her.

“This is what I actually wanted, for them (the missing and murdered) not to be ignored. It is awesome to have so many come out and do something like this,” Tolley said.

Tolley is also part of why the Native Women’s Association of Canada’s Sisters in Spirit (SIS) initiative now holds vigils for these women every October 4. She reminded the crowd that since the movement began in 2006, the vigils have grown from 11 to 72 in 69 communities in 2009.

Kary-Ann Deer, who worked for Quebec Native Women Inc., also took the stage as a speaker and as a performer with her female traditional Native drumming group, Odaya. She spoke of the importance of keeping the movement going and creating a better future for the next generation of women because every woman has value, no matter if they are an addict or a prostitute.

“A lot of people are still asking questions about where our women are going and what is happening with our people. It is really important that we never stop asking questions and that we don’t let it get us down,” said Deer.

Many of the speakers also reminded the marchers that the SIS movement, which was started in 2005 to research and advocate against violence against Canada’s Indigenous women, still has not had its funding renewed. Being the only organization that has acquired data on this subject, should their federal funding not be renewed, the data may never be used for its intended purpose to change amongst Canada’s justice systems, police and government.

SIS has been waiting to hear about its funding renewal since the fall of 2009.