Marching for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women

Missing Justice and Centre for Gender Advocacy Hold 8th Annual Vigil

Hundreds gathered on Oct. 4 to honour the memory of missing and murdered indigenous women while calling for more government action. Photo Erin Sparks.
Hundreds gathered on Oct. 4 to honour the memory of missing and murdered indigenous women while calling for more government action. Photo Erin Sparks.

To the sound of drums and chanting, hundreds of people marched on the night of Oct. 4 in remembrance of missing and murdered indigenous women.

The eighth annual Memorial March for Missing and Murdered Native Women met at Cabot Square and moved east along Ste. Catherine St. before reaching Phillips Square, where the crowd held a candlelight vigil and minute of silence.

Organizers say the event was one of more than 200 held across the globe, including the United States, Malaysia and Nicaragua.

The Montreal vigil was held by Missing Justice, a local grassroots campaign to end violence against indigenous women, in collaboration with the Concordia-based Centre for Gender Advocacy.

The Native Women’s Association of Canada says 600 indigenous women have gone missing or have been murdered since 1980.

Mourners—some holding pictures of victims—filled Cabot Square to listen to speeches by Maya Rolbin-Ghanie from the Centre, Aurélie Arnaud of Quebec Native Women, Norman Achneepineskum from the Pays Plat reserve near Thunder Bay, Ont., as well as Melissa Dupuis of Idle No More, among others.

“Not a month goes by at Quebec Native Women that we don’t hear of a native woman that has disappeared or been murdered,” said Arnaud.

“So what must be done before this government acts?” she added to supportive calls of “louder, louder!” from a voice in the audience.

Born to an Ojibway father and Cree mother, Achneepineskum told the crowd about his harrowing experiences growing up on the reserve, helping his mother to take in battered women and children.

“My mom was fearless,” he said. “I had no choice but to run after her because if I didn’t someone else would have to do the job.

“At the time, being 15, 16, 17 years old, I had seen this all my life and figured there’s nothing to live for here,” he continued.

“There’s no hope. So the best thing that could happen is I get killed so that I wouldn’t have to do this anymore.”

Achneepineskum came to Montreal 21 years ago.

“I moved to heal myself from the things I’ve seen back home,” he said.

Sisters in Spirit

Organizers called on the government to restore funding to Sisters in Spirit, a former initiative of the Native Women’s Association of Canada that provided support for Aboriginal women and kept a database of the missing and murdered.

The group was founded by Bridget Tolley in 2005, whose mother, Gladys, was killed by a Sureté du Québec squad car on Highway 105 on the Kitigan Zibi reserve four years earlier. The memorial march and vigil is held every year on the anniversary of her death.

Tolley could not appear at the vigil in Montreal because she was participating in the one in Ottawa.

The founder of the local chapter of Sisters in Spirit, Mohawk journalist and activist Irkar Beljars, was present at the rally.

“[The federal government] has failed on every level when it comes to dealing with First Nations,” he later said in an interview with The Link. He referred to the government’s decision in 2010 to cut funding to the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, which financed First Nations programs that address the abuses caused by the residential school system.

“It’s clear that native women aren’t getting the justice they need,” Beljars added.

Beljars’s mother was sexually assaulted by several men when she was 18.

Hundreds gathered on Oct. 4 to honour the memory of missing and murdered indigenous women while calling for more government action. Photo Erin Sparks

“The police need to start doing their jobs,” he said, adding that sexual crimes against non-indigenous women are investigated more thoroughly than those against natives.

Many in the crowd held up signs criticizing the police.

“What would you do if it were your mother, your sister, your cousin that disappeared, and the police stayed silent?” read one.

In an email to The Link, the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs said, “The government of Canada is deeply concerned about the high number of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls, and we are taking firm action to achieve lasting change.”

The email also said the government is working to improve native women’s access to education to promote self-sufficiency.

As the marchers reached Phillips Square, organizers blared First Nations electronic group A Tribe Called Red from a set of speakers. The mood soon became more somber as the crowd held a moment of silence for the missing and murdered women.

Achneepineskum sat near the foot of the bronze statue of King Edward VII.

“I feel helpless with the situation personally,” he told The Link. “I grew up feeling that we are neglected. I know the government—for the existence of Canada—have always wanted to put the natives away, get rid of the ‘Indian Problem,’” he continued.

“But we’re not a problem, we are people. We are human beings, and we deserve to be treated respectfully.”