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Honouring the Dead, Standing with the Survivors

October 5, 2012

Honouring the Dead, Standing with the Survivors

Seventh annual Sisters in Spirit vigil still seeking answers, action for missing and murdered women

by Tim McSorley

A hug at Oct. 4's Sisters in Spirit Vigil and March. The vigil, in its seventh year, is a commemoration of the up to 3,000 Native women who have gone missing or been murdered in the past three decades. Photo: Jadis

MONTREAL—Close to 200 people joined Montreal's seventh annual Sisters in Spirit vigil and march last night. It was one of more than 160 vigils across North America on October 4 in commemoration of the thousands of Native women who have been murdered or gone missing over the past three decades.

Since it was founded in 2005 by Bridget Tolley, an Algonquin woman whose mother was killed when Surete du Quebec officers hit her with their car, organizers of the Sisters in Spirit vigil have argued that government and police need to take the situation of missing and murdered Indigenous women more seriously. Estimates range from 600 (according to police) to more than 3000 (according to researchers and human rights activists) Native women who have faced disappearance or a violent death since the 1980s.

While violence against Indigenous women may have appeared more often in the headlines due to high profile cases like the William Pickton trial in BC, vigil organizer Bianca Mugyenyi said people need to realize that this is a national crisis, where women from across the country find themselves threatened and in danger on a daily basis.

“Our goal is to raise awareness of high rates of violence that Native women face in this country,” said Mugyenyi, who is with Missing Justice, a Native women solidarity group that has helped organize the Montreal vigil since 2009.

Sisters in Spirit, a campaign created by the Native Women's Association of Canada, received federal funding from 2005 to 2011 to research and prevent violence against Native women. The funding was cut in 2010, and NWAC told to no longer use the name.
Nearly 200 people came out to show support for justice towards missing and murdered Native women. Photo: Jadis.
The Buffalo Hat Singers, a Mohawk drumming circle, performs at the Sisters in Spirit vigil. Photo: Jadis. Photo: Jadis

Nina Segalowitz, an Innu woman and frontline case worker with abused women, echoed Mugyenyi's concerns. “We've lost a lot of women in Montreal to violence, from partners and ex-partners...While we're here for Native women, I like to think that we're here for all women who are abused simply for being women.”

First Nations women are five times more likely than other sectors of the population to face violence, she said.

Speakers at the vigil pointed to two significant places where action is needed: government action to ensure the safety of Native women, but also transformation and education in society to decrease violence against women in general, and against Native women in particular.

Mugyenyi had particularly harsh criticism for recent actions of the federal government. Budget cuts have led to the significant reduction and elimination of resources meant to combat violence against Native women. One aspect has been the federally funded Sisters in Spirit program, organized by the Native Women's Association of Canada. The federal government provided funding to the program from 2005 until 2011, in order to build a database of information on unsolved cases of missing and murdered Native women. In 2010, the Conservative government announced it would not continue funding the program, and that the group would need to cease operating. The decision came as a blow, since the program had already built profiles of more than 500 cases and was seen as doing effective work.

Instead, the government announced $10 million in funding, mostly for police operations.

Mugyenyi said that this decision, as well as the Conservative government's “tough on crime” stance, will do little to improve the situation of Native women.

“In the case of missing and murdered women, the police are part of the problem,” she said. “They make assumptions, perpetuate stereotypes. Bridget Tolley's mother was killed by the Surete du Quebec. She's been calling for an independent inquiry, outside of the police, which the government has continued to turn down.” In 2001, Tolley's mother was hit by an SQ police car and died. The investigation into her death, which cleared all involved of wrongdoing, was led by the brother of the officer at the wheel of the car.

Sisters in Spirit has been instrumental in researching and recording cases of native women who have been killed or gone missing.

Instead of more police operations, said Mugyenyi, better education around violence towards women and more social services to help women who are in precarious social situations are needed. She also said the government should heed the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women in their support of a national inquiry into violence against native women. That call was put out in December 2011, but the federal government has yet to take action.

While government and police actions play an important role, another significant issue that speakers pointed to is the need for more action against sexism and racism in all communities.

Segalowitz added that she was at the vigil not just to honour the women who have died, but also to stand beside the women who have been able to survive and carry on, and because of her three children, whom she hopes will not have to deal with the same issues of violence and abuse.

Irkar Beljars, a Mohawk man who has helped organize the vigil over the past several years, called on the men in the crowd to make sure they pass the word on and tell their friends where they were tonight, and why it is important to raise their voices against violence towards women.

After seven years of vigils, Mugyenyi expressed hopefulness that the message is being heard. “Every year there are more people, media coverage goes up,” she said. “It's encouraging to be here to see so many people come out to honour the lives of missing and murdered women.”

Tim McSorley is an editor with the Media Co-op and a contributor with the Co-op media de Montreal.

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