First Nations and women’s groups may have been shut out of the Missing Women’s inquiry, but their voices were heard loud and strong on Valentine’s Day in Vancouver.
As many as 5,000 people—the largest number to date—participated in the 21st annual Women’s Memorial March on the lower mainland’s Downtown Eastside. The march is a tribute to missing and murdered women and the loved ones they left behind.
“Women continue to go missing across Canada, women are still being thrown out of hotel room windows to their deaths down here,” said Marlene George, a march organizer, to the Vancouver Province. “We are here to honor and remember the women, and because the violence continues every day.”
George was referring to the fall of 2011, when a woman fell to her death from the Regent Hotel on the Downtown Eastside. The incident followed the 2010 death of Ashley Machiskinic, who also fatally fell. Women’s groups are still lobbying city officials for a bylaw requiring bars to be installed on the windows of single-room occupancy hotels in the area.
The march started at the intersection of Main and Hastings streets and proceeded through the Downtown Eastside, stopping at sites where women vanished or were found murdered. Aboriginal grandmothers lit sage and tobacco and said prayers at each site. The two-hour event concluded at the city’s police building on Main Street.
The marchers were joined by Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo, B.C. AFN Regional Chief Jody Wilson-Raybould and Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs Grand Chief Stewart Phillip.
The march took on another theme as participants raised concerns about alleged abuse against female police officers. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) force has been charged with dozens of counts of sexual harassment, and nearly 100 female officers are on the verge of filing a class-action suit, according to The Globe and Mail.
“How can an institution that has racism, sexism, misogyny within that institution protect an aboriginal woman if it’s happening within their own institution,” said Aboriginal Front Door Society spokesperson Mona Woodward to 24 Hours news. “And then we’re supposed to trust them to be able to partake in the inquiry?”
Anger was particularly directed at the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry, which lead Commissioner Wally Oppal suspended for the day out of respect for the march. The commission is charged with determining why it took years to apprehend serial killer Robert Pickton in the face of what some deem overwhelming evidence that he was responsible for a number of murders. He was eventually convicted of six, though he confessed to an undercover officer to many more.
Women’s groups and community agencies call the inquiry a sham because the provincial government won’t pay for lawyers for them while simultaneously paying the tab for police to lawyer up.
“We need to be sure that we’re able to have our questions answered, and we’re on the outside of that inquiry,” George told the Georgia Straight.
Meanwhile, missing women marches were also held in 12 Canadian cities, including Calgary, Winnipeg, Manitoba and Calgary. View QMI news agency’s photo gallery of the Vancouver march here.
According to the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC), Alberta has the second-highest number of missing or murdered native women in Canada, after B.C. More than 90 cases have been identified in the province as of 2010, according to data gathered by the NWAC, and more than 80 percent of them are believed to have been murdered.
“The rate of violence perpetrated against aboriginal women is unacceptable,” said Calgary march organizer Suzanne Dzus to the Calgary Herald. “All I want is for my family to be safe. I want my daughter to be as safe as my son is. These women deserve that at least.”