Across Canada today, thousands are gathering to honor the legions of indigenous women whose murders or disappearances have gone unsolved.
It’s the annual Sisters in Spirit day of remembrance, and more than 200 vigils, ranging from moments of silence to daylong ceremonies and community-building sessions, are being held across the land and beyond. They are taking place all over the world, as far away as Australia, Malaysia and Peru, and as close as Akwesasne, the Seneca Nation of Indians and in Seattle, according to the Native Women’s Association of Canada, which created the Sisters in Spirit project. For those who cannot attend in person, there is a Virtual Candlelight Vigil online, where particpants can light a candle and leave a note.
There will be a call, once again, for a national inquiry into the 600 unsolved cases of missing or murdered indigenous women that have been logged throughout the past several years.
In tandem with the day's events, the Walking With Our Sisters exhibit, which opened on October 2 in Edmonton, Alberta, is addressing the issue through art.
Sisters in Spirit was the first wholehearted attempt to document the numbers of missing and murdered aboriginal women throughout Canada. Between 2005 and 2010, when the Canadian government cut off its funding, the project documented at least 600 women who had disappeared or been killed since the 1960s, their cases unresolved, and in some cases barely investigated. However, other estimates range much higher.
What sets the cases apart, as The Globe and Mail noted, is that indigenous women comprise just three percent of the female population in Canada but account for 10 percent of female homicides. At the same time, the newspaper said, “the rate of resolved cases for the murders of aboriginal women lags well below the average for the rest of the population.”
Such statistics are becoming more and more known, and less and less acceptable, throughout Canada. The provinces’ premiers called for a national commission of inquiry at their annual Council of the Federation meeting in July 2013. Parliament voted unanimously in February to create a committee to address the issue.
The United Nations, too, has requested that Canada conduct an inquiry to maintain its human rights record. To date, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has not done so, and Canada’s representative at the U.N. rejected the request outright.
It is one issue that James Anaya, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, is doubtless going to be briefed on during his October 7–15 tour of Canada.
“It’s a Canadian issue now,” Jennifer Lord, the strategic policy liaison with the Native Women’s Association of Canada, told The Globe and Mail. “For years we have been saying this is not a women’s issue, this is not a native problem. This is a Canadian human-rights issue that impacts all of us and we are seeing that support now.”
Indigenous leaders are calling for national attention to be paid to the issue, especially when it comes to ongoing violence against aboriginal women.
“October 4 is a day for the entire country to honor the memory of the far too many indigenous women and girls that have lost their lives or remain missing, knowing that for many families they live with the memories of their loved ones every day of the year,” said Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo, who is attending the Sisters in Spirit main vigil in Ottawa. “We must honor their memory and their families by joining the call for action aimed at achieving justice, improving community safety and preventing violence. We continue our call for a National Public Commission of Inquiry on Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women as well as urgent and concrete action to end violence against Indigenous women and girls.”
Atleo noted both Anaya’s visit and the upcoming 250th anniversary of the Royal Proclamation on October 7 and added, “it is incumbent on Canada to agree to do better as a government and as a society. Now more than ever, words must be supported by actions. We must do everything we can to ensure the safety and security of every woman and girl in this country. It is up to all of us to ensure concrete steps are taken to achieve real results.”
“The federal government continues to downplay a situation that is a national disgrace,” said AFN Acting Regional Chief Patrick Madahbee, also Grand Council Chief of the Anishinabek Nation in a separate statement. “We will continue to work with all parties to push for answers and for justice for all those that have been murdered and that are missing.”