“You don’t see it the way we have walked it,” said Bernie Williams, cofounder of Walk4Justice, a British Columbia-based organization that is devoted to raising awareness concerning Canada’s 582+ missing and murdered Aboriginal women.

Williams, whose mother, two sisters and brother were all murdered in Vancouver’s downtown eastside, had come to Montreal along with Walk4Justice cofounder Gladys Radek, to participate in a roundtable discussion organized by Montreal collective Stolen Sisters and the McGill University Aboriginal Law Association (ALA) on March 10.

The event was held in conjunction with a 13-day McGill-based program focused on increasing awareness about violence against Aboriginal women and was organized by the ALA and the McGill Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism from March 8-20.

Radek and Williams, who are Vancouver-based frontline workers, began their organization several years ago in response to the alarming number of missing and murdered women in Canada who are unaccounted for. Throughout their journeys on foot, the two, along with supporters, have travelled BC’s infamous Highway 16 (a.k.a. Highway of Tears) and have walked from Vancouver to other provinces to raise awareness, guest speak and educate whoever they can on the issue. While travelling across the country, Walk4Justice displays photos of the missing and murdered on their placards as well as on the sides of their van.

“We rely on donations and volunteers. The majority of walkers are family members who have lost a relative whether it was last year or 40 years ago. These family members are the ones who share with us their pictures, their stories and the injustices that have been happening for all of these years.

“There is the lack of investigations, the lack of police support and victim’s services. There is also a lack of services for the women who are leaving dangerous situations that leads to a serious problem in Canada where women are not being protected and we are talking about all women,” said Radek.

The rate of women going missing is statistically higher for Aboriginal women and because Aboriginal women are also statistically poorer and live in areas where they have less access to social services and other resources, they are more vulnerable than any other population in Canada.

Radek has a personal connection to the cause – her niece disappeared along the Highway of Tears in 2005 while fleeing her community and abusive partner. She was never seen again.

According to Radek, BC has statistically the highest rate of missing and murdered women however she and Williams feel the province is doing little about it. She said she frequently hears police speak on local newscasts pointing to how BC’s topography contributes to the situation.

“They blame the mountains, they blame the scenery – everything but the real issues. They say it’s easier to hide a woman and easier to kill a woman in BC because we have this rugged terrain,” said Radek.

Though Walk4Justice has been gaining recognition across the country as more and more Canadians learn about the atrocities committed against Aboriginal women, Radek said she feels betrayed by those who originally led the movement: the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC).

Having already stripped the funding for research into the situation that was done through NWAC’s Sisters in Spirit Initiative (SIS), the Harper government has publicly stated that because of its negative connotations, the title SIS be no longer used. Rumours suggest that NWAC might even lose its most recent funding of $3 million if it continues to make reference to SIS, use the photos of the missing and murdered women that it published in its research documents because the federal government is trying to avoid the negative PR.

During interviews with Walk4Justice, Irkar Beljaars, the host of Native Solidarity News on Montreal’s CKUT radio station, added his own horrifying account of this at a protest he organized on Parliament Hill on February 14.

“I helped organize the February 14 vigil and rally in Ottawa. A few days before the event, NWAC tried to stop us and tried to silence this activity. They asked us to change aspects of it, change the posters and not use the words ‘Sisters in Spirit’.

“My sources told me that NWAC had been pressured by the Status of Women Canada (who funds them) because their funding was being threatened. NWAC president Jeannette Corbiere-Lavell actually showed up at the rally and told us that they couldn’t support us because of the pressure from the Harper government to shut up anyone who is speaking out about it.”

So while Walk4Justice works to raise awareness about the plight of Aboriginal women in Canada, it seems the NWAC is working on behalf of the government to silence these voices.