October 4 is no longer just a day when Canada’s Aboriginal peoples bow their heads to mourn the loss of over 582 documented missing/murdered Native women as larger portions of the nation are mourning with them.
Despite this, the number of victims is increasing and we may never see an actual count of them all.
Six years ago, Bridget Tolley, an Anishnabe woman from the Kitigan Zibi reserve, began a movement marking a day for vigils across Canada to remember and honour all of the Aboriginal women who had been lost, never to be seen again and often without justice.
Tolley’s mother is one of them and the vigils are held on the anniversary of her death. Gladys Tolley was killed while walking home along the highway through her reserve when she was tragically struck by a Sûreté du Québec cruiser that had apparently been speeding.
According to Tolley, justice was never served in her mother’s case because the investigation into the tragic death was botched at best and after a decade of pushing for an inquiry, nothing has happened.
This is what brought Tolley to the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC), begging for assistance and support as she felt alone in her struggle.
Fortunately, Tolley was able to get help from NWAC’s Sisters in Spirit (SIS) Initiative, a special team under the association that the federal government was providing funding for over a five-year period to research how many Aboriginal women had gone missing and why the justice system had failed them in so many instances.
This was particularly exemplified in the case of Robert Pickton, the serial killer who had killed almost 50 women from Vancouver’s Downtown Lower Eastside, many of whom were Aboriginal.
It was in Tolley’s mother’s name that the vigils began but in the last six years the movement has taken on its own life with over 83 Canadian cities participating in the annual event with other special events happening in conjunction with the vigils.
The annual Montreal event brought Tolley back to the city for the sixth annual event held by a growing number of supporters.
As evening fell, several hundred supporters clamoured around a monument in Cabot Square to hear speeches by Tolley, her friend Sue Martin, whose daughter was murdered, as well as other speakers and members of the recently formed group, Families of Sisters in Spirit.
Tolley explained a little bit about this to the crowd when she took the megaphone.
“I am the founder of the SIS movement. We are here tonight to honour and remember our missing and murdered Aboriginal women. Last year, the government took away the funding for the SIS initiative at the NWAC.
“We just can’t let this go however. These are our sisters in spirit and we want to continue to honour and remember them. When the government took the money away from NWAC, we as families started Families of SIS. We as families continue to fight every day without funding from anyone and so we are not going to sit around and wait for NWAC or anyone to get their funding.”
In 2010, after earmarking $10 million to go into addressing the issue of Canada’s missing/murdered Aboriginal women, the Canadian government decided to strip NWAC of all of its research dollars, promptly handing over the sum to the RCMP to carry out the task of handling the situation. Some of that funding went to form a new database, despite the fact that SIS had created one that allowed for all of the specific details and cultural references to remain relevant and show how these important facts contributed to each situation. The new RCMP database would no longer be for just Aboriginal women but everyone in Canada and a portion of that funding also went to a wiretapping program. New numbers on murdered and missing Aboriginal women have not since been reported despite the fact that new cases have been in the media.
In light of this and the fact that the federal government has also called for NWAC to drop the name Sisters in Spirit as they felt it had developed a negative image for Canada, a division was born between the NWAC movement and the families of the victims.
The Families of Sisters in Spirit held their own vigil on Parliament Hill on October 4 at noon with over 300 supporters and several New Democratic Party MPs to rally the federal government for change. Hours later, during the evening NWAC held their own event.
Montreal journalist and CKUT radio host Irkar Beljaars was one of the speakers on Parliament Hill for the Families of SIS vigil and told the Nation that it was one of the most powerful he had ever been to.
“I definitely feel as though the message is penetrating with the NDP. They were there and showed up with several MPs. Gatineau MP Françoise Boivin, the NDP critic for the Status of Women said they were there to ‘Kick some Conservative ass!’”
Holding a photograph of her daughter Terrie Anne Martin-Dauphenais, Sue Martin took the megaphone and talked about the special ceremony that the Families of SIS held over Dauphenais’ ashes while on Parliament Hill that day.
“Today was a hard day for each and every one of us family members as today I took my daughter’s ashes to Parliament Hill and did a sacred ceremony to give her release from this world so that she can be free from pain,” explained Martin.
As she began to speak about her daughter, Martin was hassled by some of the Native street people who often spend their days drinking in Cabot Square. They had decided to participate in the event that day, lending an even more serious tone to the event as some were visibly inebriated and one woman was sporting two black eyes. Martin later told the Nation that she could never be angry with these women as she felt that they too were victims of this government.
Responding to the women who were shouting at her with patience, Martin carried on, telling her story and making her plea to the public.
“This is not easy. I have been doing this for six years and this has been one of the hardest days because it was very personal as I have brought my child’s remains with me. Today is the last time I will ever touch her remains as they will now be sent to Calgary, so that she can be buried with her older sister, Sherri.
“I don’t want another family to feel what we are feeling as this is a life sentence. We have to live with this pain each and every day,” said Martin.
Speaking for the first time in Montreal, Pamela Hillier took the megaphone to talk about her own experience, having more recently joined the ranks of Families of SIS, having lost her 16-year-old daughter Hillary Bonnel. She was joined at the megaphone while holding hands with her five-year-old son.
“My daughter Hillary was 16 when she went missing. This happened two years ago on September 5. She was found on November 13, buried in the woods.
“The man who did this to my daughter had been released from prison, after violently raping the mother of his children. He was not rehabilitated. Why was he let out?
“Some people cannot be rehabilitated. We have to protect our women and our children and keep them safe.
“Value your daughters, your mothers, your sisters, your aunts, your grandmothers. Value them because you never know when they are going to be taken away from you,” said Hillier.
As vigil participants began to march from Cabot Square, down St. Catherine Street to Phillips Square where more speeches would take place and candles would be lit for the missing/murdered, Tolley spoke privately with the Nation.
She explained that indeed there is now a division between the families and NWAC as, due to pressure from the government not to use the name Sisters in Spirit, Tolley and the other families had formed their own group to support each other and continue their own fight despite their lack of funding.
She explained that after NWAC had lost their funding, the families had asked for the backing of NWAC at a series of different marches and events that took place throughout the year but NWAC President Jeannette Corbiere Lavell had told them no.
Tolley said that after refusing to give the families their support for marching events in December and in February, when NWAC finally put on an event in July, the families were told they could not participate.
“I felt I had been slapped in face. How can the families of these women not lead or take part in a march for the murdered and missing Aboriginal women? We are the ones who fight every day and it isn’t just about whether we are being funded or not. This is something ongoing that is part of our lives.
“We asked them again if we could be a part of this march and once again they simply refused,” said Tolley.
It is for this reason that the families now have their own movement.
Tolley said they had met earlier that day with several MPs in Ottawa to plead for more funding to support the families in Eastern Canada as they don’t get any help and the families feel that NWAC isn’t fighting for them anymore.
“It is very hard on a family to be alone and this was what I don’t like. What really hurts me is when I turn on the TV to see that yet another girl has gone missing and there is a grandmother looking for her. You know, grandmas don’t (necessarily) know that much about computers and they can’t always go out and put posters up and there is this poor woman asking for support on TV. It just kills me when I see that kind of thing,” said Tolley.
Meanwhile in the rest of the province, other events were held to honour and remember the missing and murdered women.
Earlier on that day, the family of Tiffany Morrison unveiled a special memorial for their daughter whose remains were found in the woods just outside of her home community of Kahnawake in the summer of 2010. Morrison was last seen in a taxi on her way home from a Montreal bar in 2006, her murder remains unsolved.
The new memorial was placed just yards away from where Morrison’s remains were found, on the side of a newly created bike path. It consists of three small walls made of piled stones and a plaque featuring Morrison’s face and story.
“The three-sided wall was something that I came up with because I didn’t want it to be a boxed gravesite. I figured that this way, with the three walls and turned sideways, it is as though we are holding her.
“The plaque is there to remind people that she was a person, not just a story or a statistic so that people can relate to us more. It was donated to us by Beesum Communications,” said Melanie Morrison, Tiffany’s sister.
Despite the sadness that has surrounded this story, Morrison said that creating the memorial site has been a wonderful experience as it has brought out so many generous community members who have given their time and money to help the memorial become a reality.
“It has given my parents a sense of relief in that they know her site is always going to be there so that our family members can go there to be close to her. For us, this is where her spirit is because of what happened to her. Her remains may be in the cemetery but she will walk there until such time that she gets justice served. This has made them so much happier than they have been in a very long time and this is what I wanted,” said Morrison.
At the same time, Morrison said there hadn’t been much movement in her sister’s case since the discovery of her remains and she wanted to remind the public that there is a $10,000 reward for any information that leads to the arrest of the person responsible for Tiffany’s death.
Over in Eeyou Istchee, Chibougamau had its own, albeit small, vigil for the missing and murdered.
The Chibougamau Eenou Friendship Centre (formerly the Cree Indian Centre of Chibougamau) held an early evening event just outside of their facility for those interested, unfortunately only a handful of people showed up.
“We were really hoping for a larger turnout obviously but it is important that it was held regardless as to how many people were there. I am happy for those that were there and that we still had the event,” said coordinator Wendy Maloff.
Still, Maloff said it was incredibly important to hold a vigil on October 4 because there is a need in the north to attention to the fact that violence against Aboriginal women is still an issue and still needs to be addressed.
At the same time, Maloff said in recent weeks she had been told by some members of the community that they didn’t feel a vigil was necessary because violence against women isn’t that big of a deal in the north and so Maloff felt the need to go ahead with the vigil to bring this misconception into light.
“I don’t know if this is a lack of information or a denial thing. Some people don’t want to talk about it so they would like to pretend that it hasn’t happened up here,” said Maloff.
Within the Cree communities alone, two women have been murdered in recent years – Minnie Natachequan of Whapmagoostui whose life was taken along with her two young sons at the hands of her former partner in 2008 and 16-year-old Tara Joly of Waskaganish who was murdered in 2009.
Their names remain part of the SIS’s documented 582.