The sixth annual Sisters in Spirit Vigil took place across the country on the annual event date of October 4th. The Native Women’s Resource Centre of Toronto held the event, as in past years, at Allan Gardens, which is located across from the centre. About 60 vigils took place across Canada this year to honour the lives of murdered and missing Aboriginal women and their families.
Sisters in Spirit (SIS) is a Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) initiative that identifies root causes of violence against Aboriginal women. Guided by cultural values and story-telling, NWAC used a database to release a report in 2010 entitled What Their Stories Tells Us. It provided evidence that 582 Aboriginal women and girls had gone missing or have been murdered in Canada at the time of the report.
On October 4 after 7pm, around the Fields of Gold area of Allan Gardens, which was incensed with the surrounding purple daffodils, people gathered to watch the Jingle Dress dance, some with lanterns in hand. Being a sacred ceremony, no photographs were to be taken. During the first two songs, the women in jingle dresses stood around the sitting group of men, who sang with drums. Eventually sounds from the rows of metal cones on the women’s dresses marked the beginning of the dance around the circle of men, a couple of women raising a feather fan in a graceful pose. There were about three or four rounds of this healing dance.
Back at the stage, a Joint Statement was read out, as at all other SIS vigils this year. Emphasizing that violence against Aboriginal women is higher than against any other groups of women in Canada, the statement called to all levels of government and representative organizations to establish a national plan to stop this national issue.
The Cree word Kanawayhitowin (taking care of each others’ spirits) came up, which was compared to the English word “love.” There was a general vibe of spiritual healing and gathering, with a moment of silence and a prayer holding tobacco ties, which were burned as a way to send the prayer to the sky (the spirit world). People were also encouraged to do a smudging ceremony at the welcoming table, a way to wash one’s spirit. There was a cloth banner that many signed in solidarity of the cause.
The most provoking speech was by a speaker from Toronto Rape Crisis Centre/ Multicultural Women Against Rape, who told of migrating from Jamaica, as a 9-year-old, without knowing that the “promised land” was actually stolen land. She has refused to apply for citizenship even after forty years of being in Canada. Her explanation was that papers may make it easier to travel, but they do not make life easier in terms of keeping people from violence and rape. It was also said that occupying women’s bodies is a form of colonialism, and that victimizing Aboriginal women is the continuance of the genocide of Aboriginal people.
Wayne AllcornBannatyne told the story of his mother’s murder, while he was in residential school. He was not informed about it for about six months, and provided no counseling. For about 35 years, he has been involved in the investigation to find the murderer. Covering his head with the hood of his jacket, he shared that it has been a cold journey going through cycles of homelessness and penitentiary, similar to other members of his family. Recently, the detective working on the case found an 82-year-old whom AllcornBannatyne implied was the murderer. There was a great round of applause after his brave journey and courageous story-telling.
Morning Butterfly Drum singers “pierced the sky,” as the emcee said, with their handmade drums and chorus singing. Faith Nolan sang her song “Highway of Tears,” which is a name given to British Columbia Highway 16, because of an estimated 43 Aboriginal women murdered or having gone missing since 1969 along the highway. Her guitar, harmonica and tambourine added jazzy blues to the night.
In a breaking voice overpowered with emotion, another speaker told of the October 11th Missing Women Commission of Inquiry as a “sham inquiry.” Previously participating groups are pulling out of the inquiry and will hold a rally instead, because the province has refused to pay for counsel that the groups cannot afford, only providing support to the families of Robert Pickton’s victims. The speaker also referred to Don’t Need Saving: Aboriginal Women & Access to Justice, a short film related to Aboriginal autonomy. She informed the crowd of another rally and march to Allan Gardens, on October 27th, to support a class action lawsuit against the 60’s scoop, which involved the adoption of First Nation/Metis children in Canada mainly in the 1960s, often without the consent of parents and bands. She sang with the emcee and the other drum singers as well. The emcee sang the “Travelling Song” along with Faith Nolan and others.
According to the Highway of Tears website, by 2007, an RCMP investigation determined that 18 of the missing women’s cases in northern BC were linked. The Aboriginal community also pressured RCMP to investigate the cases of nine young women murdered or missing since 1974, most of whom were hitchhiking along the highway. In 2009, an investigation took place on a property in rural Prince George, but no further actions were taken.
Finding Dawn is a documentary by Métis filmmaker Christine Welsh, about 16-year-old Ramona Wilson, who left home to meet a friend and whose body was found alongside the highway.
To prevent further tragedies along British Columbia Highway 16, non-profit organizations have highlighted the need for a shuttle bus system, emergency telephone booths on parts of the road without cellular service, and programs to educate parents to be more attentive to their children’s travel plans. So far, progress has been made on about half of the recommendations for community safety, funded partly by a $52,000 government contribution.
Sisters in Spirit vigils continue, in spite of the Conservative government’s opposing the use of the name Sisters in Spirit and the database on murdered and missing Aboriginal women cases for funding on the issue last year (APTN National News). The government promised $10 million, mostly for the creation of a national police support centre, out of which $4 million were earmarked for murdered and missing Aboriginal women’s cases, without a separate section for Aboriginal women. SIS was in the process of analyzing 20 new cases. Some Conservative MPs have lately supported the idea of funding for the database.
Many organizations, including Amnesty International, are endorsing the Sisters in Spirit Joint Statement. The Joint Statement asks for unbiased police investigation of all the missing and murdered Aboriginal women’s cases, as well as: investigation of police misconduct; awareness through national statistics on rates of violent crimes against Aboriginal women; stable and adequate funding for culturally appropriate organizations supporting Aboriginal women and communities; proper addressing of the root causes of violence against Aboriginal women, including the economic gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people; and equality in the services available to Aboriginal children, in particular, through the child welfare system.
Amna Siddiqui was Assistant Publication’s Director at WCSA, University of Toronto from 2006-2007. Having evolved as an eco-feminist, she has been involved with Ernestine’s Women’s Shelter, ACSA’s Forced Marriage Project, Toronto Environmental Alliance and Green Toronto Community Stewardship Program.