Hundreds gathered at Montreal’s Place des Arts October 29 to show their support for the women of Val-d’Or and call for an end to violence against Indigenous women.
Participants, both Native and non-Native, held large signs with the youthful faces of missing Aboriginal women.
A Mohawk prayer was followed by a performance by the Buffalo Spring Drummers to start the vigil. Some in the audience carried gas-powered flames and battery-powered lights to represent candles during the cool autumn evening.
The mood was sombre and contemplative, as the audience reflected on the allegations made by 12 Val-d’Or women against Sûreté du Québec (SQ) officers. The women allege a pattern dating back at least 10 years in which SQ officers would pick up intoxicated Aboriginal women and drive them out of the city, before forcing them to walk home in the cold.
Some also allege they were physically assaulted or made to perform sexual acts.
These allegations have prompted many other Aboriginal people, men and women alike, to speak out against racism and police violence and mistreatment.
The contemplative mood soon changed to one of outrage and determination once a powerful mix of First Nations activists and leaders gave passionate and eloquent speeches calling on the federal and provincial governments to improve the safety of Aboriginal women.
“Let’s be clear, there is an emergency situation in front of us,” said Ghislain Picard, the Assembly of First Nations regional chief for Quebec and Labrador.
Mohawk activist and artist Ellen Gabriel called into question the official investigation into the women’s allegations, which will be carried out by Montreal police.
“We should not accept any inquiry led by government,” said Gabriel. “It should be truly independent, led by Indigenous women and their families in order for us to have justice.”
Event organizer Melissa Mollen Dupuis said her activism is motivated by a desire to make life better and safer for her newly born daughter. She noted how, as an Aboriginal person, her daughter is significantly more likely to face violence than non-Indigenous Canadians.
“I don’t want my daughter to end up on a poster of missing and murdered Indigenous women,” she said. “I want her to have a real life, to have access to everything good Canadian society has good to offer.”
Following the event, participants told the Nation that they felt that the seriousness of the allegations and deeper, systemic issues facing Aboriginal people are beginning to resonate with Quebecers.
Mollen Dupuis noted that she had just appeared on the influential and popular Radio-Canada program, Tout le monde en parle.
“It is now in people’s kitchens and living rooms, and they are talking about it. People are telling me, ‘Listen, I’m in the métro and I hear people talking about missing and murdered Indigenous women,’” she said.
Rhonda Oblin Cooper, a Cree from Waswanipi, was impressed and heartened by the turnout for the vigil, which was organized on relatively short notice. Cooper was in Val-d’Or for her daughter’s broomball tournament when the story broke on the Radio-Canada program, Enquête. Outraged by what she heard, Cooper jumped into action.
“As the story was breaking, I just felt how could we act like nothing is happening. The story then got bigger and bigger. And the allegations are very alarming. I just felt as parents we had to do something,” said Cooper.
Cooper is hopeful the attention the allegations are receiving will translate into better lives for Aboriginals. And she praised the courage of the women who came forward.
“These women opened up the door. The door had been closed. And we’d been knocking. But we hadn’t been able to get through. These women opened up the door for issues facing Aboriginal women and everything else that needs to come out.”