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This article is part one of two on the Walk4Justice.
OTTAWA – It was hard to miss the giant Mohawk and Iroquois flags painting the parliament buildings with their splashes of red, yellow, brown and blue. On September 15, a crowd of about 250 was gathered in Ottawa for the Walk4Justice Rally. Even at ten a.m., there was a strong, shocking feeling of possibility in the air. This feeling would only grow as the five-hour stretch of speeches progressed, making parliament feel much more like a sacred village square.
According to a Canadian government statistic, young Indigenous women are five times more likely than other women of the same age to die as the result of violence. In honour of missing and murdered indigenous women, the Walk4Justice began in Vancouver on June 21, 2008, Aboriginal Day. Many First Nations women, men and children participated from across the country, walking for 87 days, ending in Ottawa on September 15.
The journey began with a vigil at the notorious Pickton farm site, where confessed serial killer Robert Pickton murdered 30 women (many of whom were sex-workers from Vancouver, and a third of whom were Native).
Among the many powerful speakers at the rally in Ottawa was a group of First Nations women who have devoted their lives to unpaid, front-line work with women living in Vancouver’s poverty-stricken Downtown East Side (DTES).
Bernie Williams is a front-line worker, residential school survivor, and Matriarch in the House of the Raven. She spoke of a lack of support for the Walk from Vancouver as well as a less than smooth experience along the way.
"It’s been a long walk and a very emotional one. I would be lying to you if I said that everything was all rosy out there on this journey. It hasn’t been. Since we left BC, we’ve been followed. One of our women has been stalked...We have compiled names all through the nation, all through your territories. We’ve added another three more in the last couple of days."
The Walkers began with a list of 500 — a rough estimate of the number of missing and murdered First Nations women in Canada over the last three decades (76 of whom were from the DTES), and by the time they arrived in Ottawa, they had compiled a list of 3,000 women. Upon their arrival, there were three more women to add to the list, two of whom are teens from nearby Maniwaki recently found to be missing.
The aim of the Walk was to deliver the list of names to the Canadian government and demand public inquiries into the many violent deaths.
Also present at the rally was Aboriginal rights lawyer and president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC), Beverly Jacobs, from the Mohawk Nation Bear Clan in Six Nations Grand River. Jacobs has worked with Amnesty International as a lead researcher and consultant on their report "Stolen Sisters: Discrimination and Violence Against Indigenous Women in Canada." One of the many recommendations included in the report was that Canada should support research into the causes of violence against Indigenous women. There are currently no statistics on the number of missing and murdered Aboriginal women, only estimates. She noted that although Canada is aware that reports have been done, many have been shelved or ignored.
Seventy-four-year-old Mabel Todd, who has seen four of her family members disappear, participated in the entire walk, making it clear that she would not be ignored.
Cecilia, an Elder from Tofino, BC, cried while speaking of her missing granddaughter, Lisa Marie, who disappeared in 2002.
"My daughter and I have a candle vigil every year, the day she went missing. We light candles, give out posters, T-shirts, hoping that somebody will see. Who knows what happened to her."
Richie Dominic walked for his aunt, Ramona Wilson, who went missing in 1994 at the age of 16 on BC’s now infamous Highway 16. After ten months, her remains were found, but no one has been held accountable to this day, and there are countless cases just like hers.
"Justice would mean a final bit of closure," says Dominic. "This is what we need [pointing at the crowd]. We need numbers. We need to show Canada that we do care. That the country does care."
The speakers, who ranged from youth to Elders in their nineties, emphasized the fact that most of the cases they were addressing had not been taken very seriously by police or the media. When the missing or murdered women happen to be sex-workers, they are taken even less seriously and their disappearances or deaths are rarely, if ever, investigated to the point of resolution.
In a radio interview, Jacobs cites the case of Pamela George as an example of prevalent attitudes that act as obstacles to justice.
George was a 28-year-old mother of two who struggled with poverty and occasionally worked the sex-trade in Regina. She was murdered in 1995 by two white, male university students who picked her up, beat her severely and left her by the side of the road.
Testimony at the trial indicated that the two men had attempted to pick up another Indigenous woman before they had encountered George. The woman testified that when she had refused to go with them they had called her "Indian trash" and a "squaw slut."
According to a friend of one of the killers who also testified, one of the young men later bragged about picking up an "Indian hooker," saying "She deserved it. She was an Indian."
The case was tried before a white judge and all-white jury. The men were each sentenced to a short six years in prison. According to Amnesty’s Stolen Sisters Report, little attention was paid to the victim throughout the trial; her sex-work was the main focus. The Crown prosecutor told the jury to consider the fact that she was a prostitute, "far-removed from them," and the judge told them to bear in mind her profession when they considered whether or not she had consented to sexual activity. A Court of Appeal decision briefly considered the prosecutor and judge’s comments and concluded they "were not made for the purpose of conveying a negative view of the victim to the jury."
Amnesty International expressed concern that comments of this type might reflect social attitudes faced by sex-workers in general, and Indigenous sex-workers in particular.
Jacobs cites the case of Helen Betty Osbourne as an example of the attitudes of many police authorities, also standing in the way of justice.
Osborne was a Cree woman, kidnapped and murdered by four white men in 1971. A Manitoba Justice Inquiry later concluded that the Canadian Justice Authorities had failed Osbourne, and criticized a "sloppy, racially biased investigation" that took over 15 years, and brought only one man to justice. The inquiry concluded that police had long been aware of who had been responsible for the murder.
Thirty-three years later, when Osborne’s cousin was murdered, the police reaction was similar. According to the young woman’s family, officers showed up at two a.m., interrogated everyone present, and searched their home. It was only six weeks later, when the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC) held a press conference, that an investigation finally commenced. The former pow-wow dancer’s body was eventually found.
Walker Brenda Wilson explains why many families of victims eventually give up on police and the media:
"There’s a lot of barriers to face in finding your loved one. You have to prove to the authorities that your loved one is missing, that they didn’t just run away. And you also have to prove to them that they’re not all the same case…They each are an individual person, and they each have different cases…They need to be individuals, because when they left this world, they were individuals."
Wilson points out that many missing and murdered First Nations women have been stuck with the same label, which reads: "Highway of Tears," and not given much more thought. More than 30 women have gone missing or been found murdered on BC’s Highway 16 in the past 30 years. The RCMP has confirmed four murders and five disappearances linked to the Highway of Tears, only one of whom was non-Native.
Many families are very angry about how they have been treated by police, and object to having to wait a year or more in some cases for investigations to commence, if they do at all.
Seeing little progress in police investigations, BC private investigator Ray Michalko, a former RCMP officer, started probing into the cases at his own expense in 2006. Michalko has had to contend with numerous warnings from RCMP that he could be charged with obstruction of justice if he does not "tread carefully," almost ending his investigations more than once.
Walker Gladys Radek describes how front-line workers stand in for both police and media on a daily basis. Radek, like Bernie Williams, works front line in the DTES with homeless and poverty-stricken women, many of whom work in the sex-trade for survival.
"Families have approached us before they even go to the police. I remember families walking up to Bernie on the street: Have you seen my daughter, Have you seen my son? This is the kind of work she does and everybody knows it. She doesn’t get paid for what she does. None of us get paid for what we do. We work from our heart.”"
Maya Rolbin-Ghanie grew up in the woods and hopes to make it back there at some point. She currently studies life and works from Montreal.
The original version of this article was published in Oil Sands Truth (Fall 2008 print issue).
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.