The 4th annual Sisters in Spirit Vigil draws hundreds in support of Canada’s Native women

Montreal: On October the 4th, 72 communities organized vigils and marches across Canada to remember the over 500 missing or murdered native women in Canada.  Though some groups estimate the number to be much higher, the Native Women Association of Canada has said that there are 521 confirmed cases of native women going missing or having been murdered in nearly 30 years.

The situation is only getting worse with several cases just this past year.  Native groups have called on the government to investigate these cases but so far, their pleas have fallen on deaf ears.  The United Nations and Amnesty International have made similar requests and all have been ignored by the federal government, only the Manitoba Government has taken to steps to curb the problem by creating a task force that will work with native groups to investigate the 78 confirmed cases in that province!

In Montreal, Missing Justice, a grassroots organization that formed last April took up the task of organizing this year’s vigil and March.  The weekend began with a panel at Concordia University to discuss the root causes and impacts of violence against Native women.  The panellists included Melanie Morrison from Kahnawake (sister of Tiffany Morrison, missing 3 years), Craig Benjamin, Campaigner for Indigenous Rights with Amnesty International, Yasmin Jiwani, professor in Communication Studies at Concordia and former researcher and coordinator of the BC Yukon FREDA Centre for Research on Violence against Women and Children and Kary Ann Deer, member of the Board of Directors of Projets Autochtones du Quebec.

Melanie Morrison addresses the panel

Melanie Morrison, whose sister Tiffany went missing June 18th 2006, spoke of the trend of ignorance when dealing with the police who did not take the case seriously at first.  Tiffany, who has a young daughter, was in a taxi coming home from a concert when she disappeared.

“She always called if she was going to be home late so that no one would worry,” said Morrison, who has been lobbying and finally received help from Pattison to try to put up a billboard with Tiffany’s picture on highway 132 and 138, both of which go right by her home of Kahnawake. Morrison, with the help of the Quebec Native Women’s Association, held a vigil on the anniversary of Tiffany disappearance.

Kary Ann Deer, who worked closely with Morrison at the QNW and sits on the board of Directors of Projets Autochtones du Quebec, shared her experiences of dealing with ignorance from the Justice system and a complacent media.

Kary Ann Deer speaks on the panel

“There are a lot of Prejudice and negative stereotypes placed on our native women and that is wrong,” said Deer, “we have to break down the stereotypes.  No one took the Morrison family seriously and this happens in a lot cases.  Many families deal with the knuckle dragging by police, the media and the government.  These stories are all too familiar!”

Craig Benjamin of Amnesty International echoed Morrison and Deer’s sentiments about the ignorance from all levels of Canadian society:

“Part of what’s happening, part of the violence that is experienced by native women is the public indifference, the apathy.  That is a big part of the reason why this issue has been ignored for so long,” Benjamin said, “this is the ground of which we see the failure of Justice, this is the ground of which the police do not feel compelled to investigate to the same extent that they would a non aboriginal woman.  This is the ground that the politicians do not feel compelled to respond to change that indifference.  So what we have to do is change the public’s opinion on this issue.”

Yasmin Jiwani talked about how history portrayed native women, the uses of negative stereotypes to describe the struggles of native women and of First Nations culture within Canada and the attack on native women by the establishment ie: the justice system, government, police ect ect.

“How many aboriginal journalists are there to tell the stories from the aboriginal communities, because that is important in order to get the message out,” Jiwani mentioned, “if 500 soldiers were killed in Afghanistan, there would be an uproar.  Five hundred Aboriginal women have disappeared or have been murdered in Canada and no one cares.”

The panel took place at the De Seve Theatre where about 150 people attended many of which attended the March and vigil two days later

The March

People began to gather at Cabot Square around 5:30pm, the Native Friendship Centre drum group Tiohtià:ke began drumming at 6pm.  Quebec Native Women President opened the event with a prayer, followed by speeches from Missing Justice, the NDP and Amnesty International.

As the march began, the police did their best to stay out of the way while doing their jobs as the hundreds of marchers went down St Catherine Street in the heart of downtown Montreal.  As we passed the bars and strip clubs, the chants got louder demanding justice from a government who has been inept up to this point.

The march

The longer we marched, the bigger we got and when we arrived at Philips Square after dusk, we lit up the small square with hundreds of candles.  Each one was a reminder of a fallen sister, daughter, mother, grandmother, niece and aunt.

The first of the speakers was Anne St Marie from Amnesty International who asked “what are we waiting for?”  She spoke of the last 5 years, the Stolen Sisters Report and the amount of progress that had been made but also of how much more is needed to be done with this issue.  She echoed the previous speakers, asking how a government could just ignore the issue for so long.

Crissy Swain from Grassy Narrows in Manitoba, who had just finished a walk from Kenora Ontario to Ottawa where she held a ceremony on Parliament Hill, told the crowd: “I’ve been thinking about what I wanted to say here tonight and the only thing I can think of is that back in 2001, I gave birth to my first baby girl and at that time there was a woman from my community who had been murdered.  I felt sorry for my daughter because of all the things she has to go through as an Anishinabeqwe, everything she would have to face when she became a woman.” Swain then began to drum and sing a song that she would for the missing and for the earth because she is also a woman Swain said.

The next speaker was QNW President Ellen Gabriel who spoke about how happy she was to see such a mixed crowd of people and how the number had grown substantially from the 25-30 people just two years ago.

Her message spoke of equality and understanding when dealing with police and the justice system, that violence against women needed to end and that the men in the audience needed to tell their brothers to stop the violence

“It’s not okay to beat your wives, your girlfriends and your daughters,” she said “you have to have a good relationship with your daughters, fathers, so that when they grow up they know that they are valued that they are worth something”.

The vigil

She spoke of what colonization had taken away from indigenous people, one thing being the ability of aboriginal men to take care of the women.  “Colonization, the Indian act and residential schools took that away and now we live in poverty,” she said, “today when we talk about injustice for indigenous women, I call upon you, indigenous men, pull your socks and work with the women!”

She talked about the government neglect, the money spent on war when none was spent on peace, the billion dollar bailouts for the auto companies when aboriginal communities were falling apart.  She urged that we work with police and community leaders to ensure that native women are protected.  She spoke of Harper’s comments that Canada has no history of colonialism.

The final speaker of the night was Cheryl Diabo who arrived with her two children.  She spoke about how important it was to have events like the Sisters in Spirit and the importance of the land and of community.  After her closing song there was a moment of silence afterwards.  Tiohtià:ke closed out the evening with one more song.

This was the 4th annual Sisters in Spirit vigil in Canada and next year the 5 year initiative will end.  What happens then?  That will depend on how many people were touched by the issue, but I can say for certain after seeing the turnout that night there will be vigils in Montreal for years to come.

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