Women’s Memorial March Honors Victims, Families
In honor of Women’s History Month and the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day on March 8th, ICTMN debuts Navajo writer Valerie Taliman’s new series on the growing human rights crisis in Canada where more than 600 Native women are missing or have been murdered. More than half of the world’s 370 million indigenous peoples are women, and for most, the world is a difficult place. Indigenous women bear the brunt of violence, war, poverty, homelessness, poor health, disease and a lack of access to education and employment opportunities. In the United States and Canada, statistics indicate one in three Native women will be raped in her lifetime. Aboriginal women in Canada are five times more likely to die from violence than their peers of other races. In her new series, Taliman examines government policies that remove women and children from their homelands, force them into assimilation, and ultimately strip them of their rights to land, culture, and basic human rights. Links to her first series are here:
VANCOUVER – Hundreds of people turned out in heavy rain for the 20th annual Women’s Memorial March to honor the memories of Canada’s murdered and missing women, shutting down traffic and drawing crowds as they wound through the streets and alleys on the Downtown Eastside, stopping to perform smudge ceremonies at dozens of locations.
Led by women elders and little girls singing the Lil’Wat Women Warriors’ song, the march retraced the route where dozens of women have been found murdered or were last seen over the last two decades. Elders carried sage and eagle feathers, while two small girls carefully dropped red and yellow rose petals – red for murdered women, yellow for those still missing. Marchers paused for a press conference at the Vancouver Police Department and continued to the totem pole in Oppenheimer Park, when a candlelight vigil was held and prayers were offered.
Since the 1970s, more than 3,000 women are known to have gone missing or been murdered in Canada, the majority of which are aboriginal women. In the past year, at least 11 more women were found murdered or reported missing, putting the documented number at more than 600 Native women, based on statistics from a recent study by the Native Women’s Association of Canada. Those women left behind 75 children, and extended families that miss and mourn them daily.
“There’s a war on women going on. They’re stalking our women and children,” said Marlene George, one of the co-chairs of the Memorial March committee. “We’re here to honor and remember our women, and because we’re failing to protect women from the degradation of poverty and systemic exploitation, abuse and violence. We’re here in sorrow and in anger because the violence continues each and every day, and the list of missing and murdered women gets longer every year.”
Ten women died in the Downtown Eastside over a span of 11 months, including Ashley Machisknic, a 22-year old Native woman from Saskatchewan who was thrown from a fifth floor window and died in an alley behind the Regent Hotel in September 2010. Carla Marie Smith, was found brutally murdered in Burnaby on February 7, 2011, and only three days before the march, Nikita Jack, 23, of Surrey was reported missing by her family.
Machisknic’s brutal murder last year rallied the community to action. “People think her death was a message to the women from drug dealers, but when it happened the police immediately closed the case and said it was a suicide,” said Bernie Williams, a longtime advocate for DTES women. “We had to push them to get them to reopen the case.”
In Canada, First Nations women are five times more likely than other women to die as a result of violence, prompting the United Nations’ Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women to cite Canada’s failure to adequately respond to the crisis in a 2008 report.
“The memorial march helps keep the focus on the women and their families, and it’s fundamentally important that as leaders we support this effort,” said Grand Chief Ed John of Tl'azt'en Nation, who is serving a three-year term on the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. “The organizers and the families do an excellent job advocating on this issue, and have consistently kept our leaders informed. Through their efforts, we have been able to collectively convince the provincial government to establish a public inquiry on the missing and murdered women.”
The first memorial march was held in 1991 in response to the murder of a Native woman on Powell Street in downtown Vancouver. Her name is not spoken today out of respect for the wishes of her family, but her cousin, Kelly White, points out that it is now the longest running march in recent Canadian history.
“When I stood alone on the corner of Main and Hastings with my drum 1989, I never imagined there were so many missing and murdered women within our communities,” said White. “It was just a handful of us in the early years, and people actually threw things at us from passing cars. But we kept going.”
In 1990, a half-dozen women marched down to the police station with hand drums and sang the Lil’Wat Salish Women’s Warrior song for four hours. “Some of our group went to speak with the police to tell them about the rampant violence and murders, but they didn’t want to meet with us,” White said. “We asked why the hotel and bar owners were not charged when these are the same doorways and back alleys where our women have been dying for decades. We got no answers. We’ve been battling this ethnic cleansing for over 30 years in Vancouver.”
Out of this sense of hopelessness and anger came an annual gathering to express compassion for the families who collectively mourn and honor their relatives every Valentine’s Day. They gather somberly at the Carnegie Center before the march, bonding over the loss of their daughters, mothers, sisters and aunties, and speaking of their memories while holding photos of loved ones. Many relatives travel long distances from other provinces to share this day of ceremony, prayers and traditional songs for healing. For some, it has been years of waiting for answers and justice, while others are reeling from the anguish of recent deaths.
The recent revival of the Robert Pickton case was particularly painful for those who lost their daughters to the serial killer who claimed responsibility for murdering 49 women. A national inquiry is underway to examine police misconduct and mishandling of the Pickton murder investigations following the release of an official report that faulted police for releasing Pickton from custody. He then went on to murder another 13 women before he was apprehended again.
Angela Marie MacDougall, director of Battered Women’s Support Services, criticized the limited scope of the Missing Women Inquiry that will examine the conduct of police investigations in the DTES from Jan 23, 1997 to Feb. 5, 2002.
“We’re likely to have the shortest inquiry in history. It captures a point in time when we had a prolific serial killer. However, it does not capture the realities of many women we know went missing or were murdered going back to 1986 and before. Nor does it include all the women missing along the Highway of Tears between Prince George and Prince Rupert.”
In the face of unending violence, the Memorial March Committee is seeking standing at the provincial government’s controversial Missing Women Commission of Inquiry, scheduled to begin later this year. The recent appointment of Wally Oppal to head the inquiry commission has a drawn sharp criticism from family members and advocates given Oppal’s decision while he was Attorney General to not proceed with additional murder charges.
“While the government has finally established an inquiry which we have demanded for years, we have not been consulted or involved in any meaningful way about the purpose or scope or terms of reference. We are seriously questioning the integrity of this inquiry as well as Commissioner Wally Oppal,” said Carol Martin, a victim services worker with the DTES Women’s Center.
In its 20th year, organizers hosted a series of events for two weeks leading up to the memorial march including film screenings, educational events, art installations, DTES women’s poetry, and a music night of all-stars who donated their performances to honor the women’s leadership in the Downtown Eastside. This year, marches were also held on February 14 in at least ten other cities including Victoria, Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Calgary, and London.
“After 20 years of raising awareness, we’re finally working as a coalition with the Vancouver Police Department to stop the violence and get these predators off the streets,” said George, noting that change comes slowly.
“The women we remember may not be with us today, but we cannot let their struggles be forgotten. Every life is precious and we continue to work for justice by sending a strong message that sexual violence will not be tolerated.”