This October 4 marked the 7th Annual Sisters in Spirit Memorial March and Vigil. About 200 people gathered at Place Émilie-Gamelin in downtown Montreal to call attention to Native women who have been killed or gone missing.
Sisters in Spirit (SIS) was a research program initiated by the Native Women’s Association of Canada. From 2004 to 2010, SIS documented over 582 cases of Native women who had gone missing or were murdered. In 2010, the Conservative government cut the funding for this program.
Despite the end of financial support for SIS, the quest for social justice is still alive in the annual Sisters in Spirit Memorial March and Vigil, which continues to take place every October 4.
The SIS march has grown rapidly and this year 158 cities in Canada and abroad hosted marches and candlelight vigils.
The Montreal branch of the Sisters in Spirit Memorial March and Vigil was organized by Missing Justice, a political advocacy group that is part of Concordia University’s 2110 Centre for Gender Advocacy.
The first annual Sisters in Spirit March and Vigil was founded in 2005 by Bridget Tolley, an Algonquin woman who turned activist when her grandmother was killed in a hit-and-run involving a Quebec police officer.
Tolley’s call for an independent investigation into possible police misconduct was denied by the provincial government. With the support of SIS she took to the street to draw attention to Aboriginal women all over Canada whose murders or disappearances were not given proper investigation due to racism and sexism.
The Harper government has ignored calls by the UN Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women for an inquiry into these murders and disappearances.
This year’s ceremonies began with the Buffalo Hat Singers who filled Place Émilie-Gamelin with their drumming and singing. Afterwards several speakers were invited to give their take on this endemic violence.
Nina Segalowitz, the Inuit throat singer who has worked with Aboriginal survivors of violence, commented on the resilience of Aboriginal women. “We’ve had 500 years of a lot of oppression, a lot of violence against us from all over and yet we’re still here today standing strong.”
Irkar Beljaars, a Mohawk activist who started the Sisters in Spirit March in Montreal, commented on the growth of the movement despite the lack of government recognition. “When I started this seven years ago we had 30 people. The second one had 50 and every year since it has grown. Everybody Native and non-Native alike has to join and march with us.”
Other speakers spoke on behalf of the Quebec Branch of Amnesty International and Quebec Native Women Inc.
Before the march set off Mohawk hip-hop group Essence performed for gathered protestors.
Families were invited to get in the front of the march, which set off with a minimal police escort.
Amid chants of “Our Native Women are under attack, what do we do? We fight back!”, the march headed westward along de Maisonneuve.
The march’s destination was Phillips Square where candles were handed out and a moment of silence was observed to commemorate all the Native women who have fallen victim to violence.
After the moment of silence, Aboriginal rights activist Ellen Gabriel addressed the crowd illuminated by candlelight. “We need to bring all our sisters home…and until people like Stephen Harper understand that they’re not going to get anywhere because they think they have the power. But I can see from this crowd we have the power to make change.”
The annual SIS marches have increased the pressure on the Harper government to launch a public inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women.
In light of the record turnout for the SIS marches and vigils, Liberal Aboriginal Affairs critic Carolyn Bennett released a statement “calling on this Conservative government to take immediate action to deal with this systemic problem, including establishing a public inquiry on missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls.”