On October 4, 72 communities organized vigils and marches across Canada to remember the over 500 missing or murdered Native women in Canada. Though some groups estimate the number to be much higher, the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) has said that there are 521 confirmed cases of Native women going missing or have been murdered in nearly 30 years. And the situation is only getting worse with several more cases just this past year.
Native groups have called on the federal government to investigate these cases but so far their pleas have fallen on deaf ears. The United Nations and Amnesty International have made similar requests and all have been ignored by Ottawa. Only the Manitoba government has taken steps to curb the problem by creating a task force that will work with Native groups to investigate the 78 confirmed cases in that province.
In Montreal, Missing Justice, a grassroots organization that formed last April, took up the task of organizing this year’s vigil and march. The weekend began with a panel at Concordia University to discuss the root causes and impacts of violence against Native women. The panellists included Melanie Morrison from Kahnawake (sister of Tiffany Morrison, missing for three years); Craig Benjamin, campaigner for Indigenous Rights with Amnesty International; Yasmin Jiwani, a Communication Studies professor at Concordia and former researcher and coordinator of the BC/Yukon FREDA Centre for Research on Violence against Women and Children, and Kary Ann Deer, member of the Board of Directors of Projets Autochtones du Québec.
Morrison, whose sister Tiffany went missing June 18, 2006, spoke of the trend of ignorance when dealing with the police who did not take the case seriously at first. Tiffany, who has a young daughter, was in a taxi returning home from a concert when she disappeared. “She always called if she was going to home late so that no one would worry,” said Morrison, who has been lobbying and finally received help from Pattison Outdoor Advertising to try to put up a billboard with Tiffany’s picture on highways 132 and 138, both of which go right by her home of Kahnawake. Morrison, with the help of the Quebec Native Women (QNW), held a vigil on the anniversary of Tiffany disappearance.
Deer, who worked closely with Morrison at the QNW, shared her experiences of dealing with the ignorance of the justice system and the complacent media. “There are a lot of prejudice and negative stereotypes placed on our Native women and that is wrong,” said Deer. “We have to break down the stereotypes. No one took the Morrison family seriously and this happens in a lot cases.”
Many families deal with the knuckle-dragging by police, the media and the government. These stories are all too familiar says Deer.
Benjamin of Amnesty International echoed Morrison and Deer sentiments about the ignorance from all levels of Canadian society. “Part of the violence that is experienced by Native women is the public’s indifference. That is a big part of the reason why this issue has been ignored for so long,” said Benjamin. “This is the reason we see the failure of justice. This is the reason the police do not feel compelled to investigate to the same extent that they would a non-Aboriginal woman. This is the reason the politicians do not feel compelled to change that indifference. So what we have to do is change the public’s opinion on this issue.”
Jiwani spoke about how history has portrayed Native women, the uses of negative stereotypes to describe the struggles of Native women and of First Nations’ culture within Canada. He also pointed out the attack on Native women by the establishment, such as the justice system, government and police.
“How many Aboriginal journalists are there to tell the stories from the Aboriginal communities because that is important in order to get the message out?” Jiwani questioned. “If 500 soldiers were killed in Afghanistan, there would be an uproar. But 500 Aboriginal women have disappeared or have been murdered in Canada and no one cares.”
The panel took place at Concordia’s De Sève Theatre, where about 150 people attended many of whom attended the march and vigil two days later on Oct. 6.
People began to gather at Cabot Square around 5:30pm, and Tiohtià:ke, the Native Friendship Centre drum group, began drumming at 6pm. QNW president Ellen Gabriel opened the event with a prayer which was followed by speeches from Missing Justice, the NDP and Amnesty International.
As the march began, the police did their best to stay out of the way while doing their jobs as the hundreds of marchers walked down St. Catherine Street in the heart of downtown Montreal. As we past the bars and strip clubs, the chants got louder demanding justice from a government that has been inept up to this point.
The further we marched, the larger we got. When we arrived at Philips Square after dusk we lit up the small square with hundreds of candles. Each one was a reminder of a fallen sister, daughter, mother, grandmother, niece and aunt.
The first speaker was Anne St. Marie of Amnesty International who asked, “What are we waiting for?” She spoke of the last five years, the Stolen Sisters’ report, and the amount of progress that had been made but also how much more was needed to be done with this issue. She expressed everyone’s thoughts by asking how a government could ignore the issue for so long.
Crissy Swain, of Grassy Narrows, Manitoba, recently finished a walk from Kenora, Ontario to Ottawa, where a ceremony was held on Parliament Hill. “I’ve been thinking about what I wanted to say here tonight. The only thing I can think of is that back in 2001, I gave birth to my first baby girl and at that time there was a woman from my community who had been murdered. I felt sorry for my daughter because of all the things she has to go through as an Anishinabe-qwe (woman), and everything she would have to face when she grew up.” Swain then began to drum and sing a song for the missing and for Mother Earth because she is also a woman.
The next speaker was Gabriel, who spoke about how happy she was to see such a mixed crowd of people and how the numbers had grown substantially from the 25-30 people just two years ago. Her message was about equality and understanding when dealing with police and the justice system. That violence against women needed to end and that the men in the audience needed to tell their brothers to stop the violence. “It’s not okay to beat your wives, your girlfriends and your daughters. You have to have a good relationship with your daughters’ fathers so that when they grow up they know that they are valued and are worth something.”
Gabriel spoke of what colonization had taken away from Indigenous people, such as the ability of Aboriginal men to take care of the women. “Colonization, the Indian Act and residential schools took that away and now we live in poverty,” said Gabriel. “Today when we talk about injustice for Indigenous women, I call upon you, Indigenous men, to pull up your socks and work with the women.”
Gabriel talked about government neglect, the money spent on war when none was spent on peace. The billion-dollar bailouts for the auto companies when Aboriginal communities were falling apart. She urged that we work with police and community leaders to ensure that Native women are protected. And she spoke of Harper’s comments that Canada has no history of colonialism.
Cheryl Diabo, who came with her two children, was the final speaker of the night. She spoke about how important it was to have events like the Sisters in Spirit; she spoke about the importance of the land and of community. After her closing song, there was a moment of silence, followed by Tiohtià:ke, who closed out the evening with a final song.
This was the 4th annual Sisters in Spirit vigil in Canada and next year the five-year initiative will end. What happens then? That will depend on how many people were touched by the issue. But I can say for certain after seeing the turnout at the vigil, there will be more in Montreal for years to come.