There’s nothing happy about this anniversary: on Friday, October 4, supporters came together in hundreds of rallies across Canada (and around the world) for the 8th Annual Sisters in Spirit March and Vigil for Missing and Murdered Native Women. The number of October 4 events honouring missing and murdered women has grown consistently from 11 in 2006 to 216 this year (including events in Malaysia, Peru and Australia). Though three years ago, the Canadian government cut all funding to Sisters in Spirit (a branch of the Native Women’s Association of Canada), one of the event’s central organizers, support for the event continues increasing even without government funding.
Small events were held at Val-d’Or and Chibougamau’s Friendship Centres, while in downtown Montreal, around the monument in Cabot Square, about 150 supporters arrived early to hear the opening blessing by John Cree as well as statements by a series of other speakers. By the time the crowd took to St. Catherine Street, they had grown in size, stretching for several city blocks as they marched through downtown toward the vigil planned at Philips Square, chosen symbolically because it faces The Bay. There, organizers distributed candles for the vigil and announced a minute of silence in remembrance of so many women lost to so many communities, before moving on to the evening’s second set of speakers, including a young Inuit rapper and a hoop dancer.
Considering the evening and the history of the October 4 events, Aurélie Arnaud, the communications officer for the Quebec Native Women (FAQ-QNM), said, “I wouldn’t say [the situation of missing and murdered Aboriginal women] has improved. We continue hearing about women disappearing almost every month. Women keep being murdered everywhere. We still need to put programs in place to stop that. What we see as different is the level of participation. It’s amazing.”
Arnaud thanked the activism by Idle No More for making Aboriginal issues visible to the non-Aboriginal public. “They raised the issue of Aboriginal people to another level, and that helped to gather so many groups to be here and to support the issue.”
Montreal Idle No More organizer Melissa Mollen-Dupuis agreed, saying, “I’ve seen an [increase] of people coming to the walks. People are getting more educated about First Nations. I call it the Oka effect. In 1990, when I was 12, people would ask, ‘There’s still Indians in Quebec?’ Now, instead of being surprised, they ask, ‘OK, what’s the issue?’ Knowing a little about Idle No More is already something big, because it’s really hard to be in the media as an Aboriginal movement.”
Arnaud, who delivered a fiery but optimistic speech at Cabot Square, said, “[FAQ-QNM deals] with violence against Aboriginal women in our daily work. We have to deal with the lack of justice, with impunity. As an organization, we work with social services, we work with police forces to teach them how to deal with Aboriginal women, to teach them what Aboriginal women will expect in matter of security, and to try to add a sense of controlled sensitivity to their work. We know about dealing with all those services, and we know about Aboriginal women who go to cities also and expect to be understood at the level of all those services.”
This work, Arnaud says, means that FAQ-QNM has a good sense of what changes are necessary, and for that reason they have called for the development of a national plan of action on missing and murdered women (a call she repeated during her speech).
“Because the murdering and the disappearing has to stop,” she said. “And it will stop if we put into action different levels of work and projects.”
Mollen-Dupuis pointed to the fact that cuts to Sisters in Spirit have not weakened the demands for justice.
“The movement around Missing and Murdered Aboriginal women is being upheld by the population, not by the government – they’re ignoring the problem. And also, we’ve seen with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a lot more presence of First Nations in the forefront of mobilization.”
Yet even though the memorials originated in Quebec, in response to the death of Kitigan Zibi’s Gladys Tolley, killed by a Sûreté du Québec cruiser on October 4, 2001, Arnaud said that there is still some resistance to recognizing the severity of the issue in this province.
“People don’t see that this is so much a Quebec issue,” she said. “It happens out west, people think.”
Part of the problem, Arnaud said, is that people imagine Aboriginal women who’ve disappeared or have been murdered to be a problem that takes place far away – either up north or out of the province entirely.
“We have cases here in Quebec of women who’ve disappeared or been murdered, but we don’t hear about it very often. Maybe they don’t make the link about how many Aboriginal people do live in [a place like Montreal], and do feel the threat. They might see people in the street, but they don’t make the connection that they are threatened, that [Aboriginal] women feel that they’re less secure than other women living in Montreal.”
Still, Arnaud is optimistic about the drive for justice for missing and murdered women, and she thinks the movement will continue to grow until it achieves its aims: a national plan that greatly reduces the number of Aboriginal women who fall victim to predatory violence.
“What’s different is the level of participation. It’s amazing. We have to thank Idle No More for that. They raised the issue of Aboriginal people to another level, and helped to gather so many groups to be here and to support the issue.”