On September 19, I had the honour, along with Theresa Ducharme, to emcee the Walk4Justice rally on Parliament Hill. Walk4Justice participants arrived in Ottawa after walking nearly 5000 miles from Vancouver. They started their journey in June, traveling through different communities and meeting with supporters who added their stories to the growing list of missing and murdered women. The Walk4Justice was born out of frustration by individuals who felt they were constantly being ignored by the police, the justice system, the government and society as a whole.
Gladys Radek, co-founder of the Walk4Justice, stated, “We need justice. We need closure. We need equality, But that isn’t going to happen if there isn’t accountability.”
The walkers were joined by about 150 supporters and group representatives, including several NDP and Liberal politicians, among them Romeo Saganash, Oliver Chow and Charlie Angus. Others included Jeannette Corbiere-Lavell, President of the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC), and Chief Billy Williams, Squamish First Nation. Groups lending their support were the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) and Missing Justice, the Montreal-based collective.
One of the last to speak was National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Shawn A-in-chut Atleo, who thanked all the supporters in attendance. “We come out here to stand beside you and behind you so that your words can penetrate walls behind us and bring justice to those who have been murdered and are still missing.”
The challenges facing Native women today are immense and often disheartening. In Vancouver last month I was taken aback by the sheer despair of the Downtown Eastside. The differences between rich and poor were startling; the moment I crossed from East Hastings Street to the West was like night and day. On one corner, dilapidated buildings, and on another million-dollar condos rose up into the sky looking over the poor and downtrodden. The Walk4Justice’s demands are simple: a national task force to investigate missing and murdered Native women, healing centres for battered women to get the support they need, and a national inquiry into violence against Native women. Though there is a similar inquiry going on in BC right now, supporters feel it will do little to curb the problem.
One of many who showed up to the rally was Brenda Osborne whose daughter went missing in 2008. “My daughter has been missing for three years, one month and 25 days as of today. When am I going to receive justice?”
And that is where a lot of the frustration comes from: the lack of empathy from the government and police forces that prefer to pass on the blame rather than take responsibility for not doing anything.
Beverly Jacobs, the former head of the NWAC, echoed that sentiment. “We’re dealing with racism, sexism and societal indifference.”
When you think of societal indifference think of the story of Ashley Machisknic, 22, who was thrown from a fifth-floor window of the Regent Hotel in Vancouver last September. Police ruled it a suicide, which sparked a protest from community leaders and family members who insisted that Machisknic was not suicidal. Walking past the Regent Hotel my first thought was “How could anyone live in such a place?” And the answer is that they don’t have any choice.
In the time the walkers left Vancouver in June and arrived in Ottawa on September 19, 37 new names had been added to the list of missing and murdered – 37 life stories, 37 mothers who will never be heard again. “That is an act of genocide,” said Bernie Williams, cofounder of the Walk4Justice.
The absent Minister for Status of Women Rona Ambrose offered a prepared statement in which she stated, “We are with you in spirit.” To which one of the walkers responded, “Shame!”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been quite silent on the matter of missing and murdered Native women, which does not bode well for the supporters of Walk4Justice and the Sisters in Spirit. Last year Harper pledged $10 million to help fight the problem, but the money has since been allocated to the RCMP and the Status of Women Canada, both of which have no concrete plan to deal with issue of missing and murdered Native women.
So now that Harper has a majority government, we will get more of what we do not need: fighter jets and prisons. My question is this: does Harper really respect the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, or is he just playing politics?
Irkar Beljaars can be heard on Native Solidarity News every Tuesday on CKUT 90.3 FM. Find him on Facebook and Twitter (mohawk_voice).