Citizens demand justice for indigenous women at annual missing women's memorial march

Pictures courtesy of Alia Dharssi

Bright bunches of red and yellow roses and lovingly hand-made banners decorated the grey, damp streets of the Downtown Eastside for a very different kind of Valentine's Day: people were gathered there for the 22nd Annual Women's Memorial March for Missing and Murdered Women.

Several hundred people gathered outside the Carnegie Centre on Main and Hastings on February 14 – just one day after Human Rights Watch released a report criticizing the failure of the RCMP to protect indigenous women and girls from violence in Northern B.C. 

We are gathering to remember the murdered and missing women of the Downtown Eastside and greater Vancouver areas, as well as the women that are murdered and missing from the Highway of Tears,” said Marlene George, the chair of the committee that organized the Memorial March.

More than 580 cases of missing and murdered indigenous women have been documented by the Native Women’s Association of Canada. Most of them occurred in the last thirty years. The men and women who gathered in the Downtown Eastside were there to send a message to the public that these women were not forgotten.

It means a lot to remember your loved ones [at the March] – not just as a missing or murdered women – but as family, a mother, a sister, an aunt, as relatives, as friends,” said C. Joseph, an indigenous man from Northern B.C. whose sister vanished in the Downtown Eastside in the nineties. He is still trying to figure out what happened to her and where she was last seen.

The Memorial March wove its way through the Downtown Eastside to the drum beat of an aboriginal women’s warrior song, stopping at locations where women had been last seen or found murdered. Roses were used to mark these sites, while aboriginal ceremonies for healing and cleansing were conducted.

As they remembered the lost women, family members and others concerned demanded justice.

We want to be heard! In this place, we are silent no more!” shouted Lisa Yellow Quill, as the crowd cheered and beat their drums in response.

If the size of the crowd was any indication, people are listening. The event, which began in 1991 with a small group of people in Vancouver, took place in 16 cities across Canada this year. Furthermore, Vancouverites have come out in huge numbers to show their support. The 2012 Women’s Memorial March drew almost 5000.

Yellow Quill, who helped organize the Memorial March and knew women that were murdered at Pickton’s farm, said that there hasn’t been enough “meaningful change” on the part of the authorities. Although the police have taken some action to improve the situation for aboriginal women – such as the Vancouver Police’s Sister Watch Initiative – women are still disappearing, both in Vancouver and nation-wide.Cori Kelly, a member of the memorial march organizing committee who works in the Downtown Eastside, said that there is a need for broader recognition of the historical factors that have contributed to the current state of affairs. Though the high-profile Pickton inquiry raised awareness of violence against women, poverty and lack of opportunity in aboriginal communities remains unchanged.

Mona Woodward, another member of the organizing committee, said the Human Rights Watch findings – which documented excessive use of force and cases of sexual assault by RCMP officers – were no surprise to members of aboriginal communities. They already knew about similar atrocities or had personally experienced them, she said.  

This point is illustrated by the experience of C.D., an aboriginal woman who has lived in the Downtown East Side for more than 19 years: she annually participates in the Memorial March, in part, because she knew several of the women who have disappeared from the area. Both Human Rights Watch and organizers of the Memorial March called on the federal government to open a national inquiry into the murders and disappearances of indigenous women.   

But it remains to be seen what the federal government will do and if it will do it effectively.

Kelly said that an effective national inquiry must overcome the problems posed by the the Provincial Missing Women Inquiry, which was heavily criticized by human rights groups for paying little attention to indigenous voices and women’s organizations. 

It marginalized the population that has the real knowledge,” Kelly explained. 

Meanwhile, the situation seems dire: the Human Rights Watch report compared the fear experienced by aboriginal women in Northern B.C. to that of women in post-conflict societies.  

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