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Families of missing women take to the streets, joined by #OccupyVancouver

Indigenous women lay down blankets in memory of the nearly 600 women missing or murdered in Canada. Photo by David P. Ball

As a troubled government inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women entered its second week, family members of the disappeared took over the normally busy Georgia and Granville Street intersection with a drum group and a circle of nearly 100 supporters.

The families were joined by several dozen people associated with the #OccupyVancouver encampment a block away, now in its fourth day. Smudging the circle of supporters with burning sage -- a ceremony of spiritual cleansing -- an elder then invited police Sergeant Jack Sarna into the circle and washed the coiling sage smoke over him with eagle feathers; he closed his eyes and opened his hands.

Several floors above, a meeting room played host to week two of a B.C. public inquiry into police mishandling of the investigation into serial killer Robert Pickton and their failure to protect women in the Downtown Eastside. The scene: nearly 20 lawyers representing various levels of government and police faced families of the missing women, with only three lawyers to represent them and the wider community's interests.

The inquiry, which was sought by advocacy groups for several decades, has been marred by controversy since its creation. Last week, after a number of Downtown Eastside Vancouver groups declared a boycott of the proceedings, three of its largest participant organizations -- Amnesty International, the BC Civil Liberties Association  (BCCLA) and the Assembly of First Nations -- announced they, too, were pulling out of the inquiry.

The families in the inquiry upstairs need to know what happened,” said Lisa Yellow-Quill, with the Aboriginal women's program at Battered Women’s Support Services.“Why did it take police so long to arrest somebody?”

"But the perpetrators are really our society, because we allowed it to happen. Violence against Aboriginal women is at the heart of this country."

Yellow-Quill called Canada's treatment of Indigenous peoples an “apartheid system,” and thanked members of the #OccupyVancouver movement who joined the circle downtown.

Amnesty International Canada's executive director Alex Neve told the Vancouver Observer in an interview that the world's largest human rights organization withdrew from the inquiry because it felt critical voices were being deliberately excluded, and access to justice undermined. This, he said, was evidenced when the B.C. government denied inquiry commissioner Wally Oppal's request for community groups to receive legal funding to participate and raise systemic issues.

"The government is sending a very clear sign that [Indigenous women's] voices don't matter and simply aren't wanted,” Neve said. “It's cruelly ironic that an inquiry supposed to grapple with access to justice for Aboriginal women does so in a way that undermines that completely.”

Neve said Amnesty came to its decision independently of other community groups, after consultation with the BCCLA, arguing community organizations need to have a stake in addressing the wider issues underlying the women's disappearances and the failure of police to investigate.

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