VANCOUVER—For 20 years now on Valentine’s Day, the families of murdered and missing Native women have marched to police headquarters through the streets of the Downtown Eastside (DTES) seeking justice for their daughters.
The Feb. 14 Memorial March for Murdered and Missing Women started with a handful of family and friends, and last year grew to more than 5,000 people who shut down Main Street as they gathered in front of the Vancouver Police Department for speeches, prayers and a unified call to end the carnage.
“The march gives families, friends, and community members an opportunity to come together to grieve and remember these beloved sisters, and to remind the powers that be that we have not forgotten those who are still missing,” said Marlene George, one of the organizers.
Although there have been a few advances, advocates are not satisfied given that many of the crimes remain unsolved.
“We’ll do whatever it takes,” said Angela Marie MacDougall, director of Battered Women’s Support Services in Vancouver. “After 20 years, we have finally made some progress, but it’s not enough. But we’re in this for the long haul because that’s what it takes to change institutionalized racism and injustice. We do this for our women and girls who are gone, but never forgotten.”
This year’s February 14 march begins at the Carnegie Community Centre Theatre, 401 Main St., where family members will share their personal stories. At 1 p.m. the march will begin making stops throughout the DTES at points where women were last seen or found, and holding cedar ceremonies at those sites. Community activists will speak in front of the Vancouver Police Station, followed by a healing circle and candlelight vigil at Oppenheimer Park. The day will end with a community feast at the Japanese Language Hall.
The march, and dozens of events leading up to it, is organized annually by women working to change the attitudes and actions of perpetrators who view the rough DTES as a place where they can drug, beat, rape, mutilate and murder women with impunity.
As of March 2010, more than 582 aboriginal women are now on the official list of missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada, according to a 2010 report issued by the Native Women’s Association of Canada.
Of the 582 cases, 115 involve missing women and girls, 393 involve women or girls who died as the result of homicide or negligence, and 21 cases were categorized as suspicious deaths.
Sadly, more names are being added weekly, including 18-year-old Tyeshia Jones of Duncan, B.C. who disappeared Jan. 29 and was found dead a few days later. As with many cases involving Native women, no suspects have been arrested.
This year’s march is especially painful for those who lost their daughters, sisters, and mothers to serial killer Robert Pickton, who later confessed to the horrific murders and dismemberment of 49 women on his pig farm in Port Coquitlam, B.C. Though Pickton was tried and eventually convicted on six counts of second-degree murder, he was never prosecuted for 33 other cases for which there was evidence against him.
In July 2010, the Vancouver Police Department released an internal investigation into the Pickton case that confirmed what women’s groups had been saying all along: The investigation was marred by countless mistakes that led to the deaths of additional women after police took Pickton into custody, then released him.
“We’re sorry from the bottom of our hearts that we did not catch him sooner and protect more women from being harmed,” said Deputy Chief Doug LePard of the Vancouver Police Department at an unprecedented news conference.
“I wish from the bottom of my heart that we would have caught him sooner. I wish that we could have done better in so many ways. I wish that all the mistakes that were made, we could undo. And I wish that more lives would have been saved. So on my behalf and behalf of the Vancouver Police Department and all the men and women that worked on this investigation, I would say to the families how sorry we all are for your losses and because we did not catch this monster sooner.”
MacDougall was outraged by the admission, chiding police for ignoring efforts of Native families over two decades to bring attention to the disappearances and deaths.
“Sorry isn’t good enough. We know that 14 more women died because the police did not take these crimes against women seriously. They arrested him years ago after a half-naked woman covered in blood escaped from his farm and told her story. But they doubted her and let him go—now they have the blood of those women on their hands.”
MacDougall and others insist the police did not take reports or investigate the disappearances of hundreds of Native women who were reported missing. Police routinely dismissed pleas from families and told them that the missing women probably ran away, or were partying, or purposely avoided being found. The attitude is eerily and sadly similar to the attitudes of Mexican authorities responding (or not) to the disappearances and murders of hundreds of young mestizo women in Ciudad Juarez, just across the U.S. border from El Paso, Texas, that started in the 1990s and continue to this day.
“They literally blamed the victims for their own disappearances,” said MacDougall. “It’s the same pattern of excuses that we’ve seen for 20 years. The reality is that racist and sexist stereotypes deny the dignity and worth of indigenous women, and encourage some men to feel they can get away with acts of hatred against them.”
A public inquiry into the death of Pickton’s first six victims is now underway by the Canadian government, but many are disappointed that it will only focus on a small group.
“Over the years, we witnessed the system’s gross negligence as well as racism and sexism in investigating these disappearances and murders,” said Alice Kendall, coordinator of the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre. “The inaction of the police, the criminal justice branch’s decision not to pursue charges against Pickton in 1998, the Crown’s decision not to pursue the 20 additional murders charges, and the coroner’s office still holding the remains of the women are all horrific examples of lack of accountability. We know that if women in any other neighborhood were going missing at such high rates, there would have been a notable response.”
The Pickton public inquiry and a spate of violent deaths spurred a collective of women’s groups into action to organize two weeks of events leading up to this year’s memorial march.
In September 2010, Ashley Machisknic, a 22 year-old First Nations woman was thrown from a fifth-floor hotel room window into an alley where she was found. She died shortly after Carol Martin, a staff member of the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre, ran to help her. By 6 p.m. that day, police ruled it a suicide and closed the case, sparking an uproar by community leaders who remain convinced that Machisknic did not take her own life.
“She was the latest to be killed or punished by drug dealers who were sending a message to women about what will happen to them if they don’t pay off their drug debts. Women get their heads shaved for a $30 drug debt, they’re killed for $50,” said Martin. “Our women are the mules, they are sex-trade workers, they’re drug-addicted, they’re holding or selling drugs for dealers and they’re paying with their lives, now more than ever.”
There’s been a few women thrown out of windows, women missing fingers, and wearing wigs because their heads have been shaved,” said Radek, organizer of the annual Walk 4 Justice. “Whoever threw Ashley out chose the busiest time when the alley was full of people buying drugs, to make a point — don’t rip us off.”
Machisknic’s alleged murder was preceded by the tragic deaths of two more First Nations teens who were drugged at the home of Martin Tremblay, 45, a convicted sex offender with a history of stalking and exploiting young girls.
In March 2010, Kayla LaLonde, 16, and Martha Hernandez, 17, died hours after they had partied at Tremblay’s home. Autopsies revealed they died as a result of overdosing on a combination of drugs and alcohol. Lalonde was found dead on a Burnaby street after witnesses said she had been dumped from a van. Hernandez died later after being rushed by ambulance from Tremblay’s Richmond home.
When questioned, Tremblay denied any involvement and was not arrested, though he was convicted in 2003 for raping five Native girls between ages 13 and 15, most of them in foster care. Tremblay not only drugged and raped young girls but he also made pornographic videos of them while they were unconscious. Witnesses told police he had given the girls a mixture of morphine, ecstasy, codeine and alcohol. Tremblay pleaded guilty to five counts of sexual assault but was only sentenced to three and a half years in custody and 18 months of probation—and released after serving little more than a year in prison.
Tremblay was recently arrested on drug charges and is in jail after persistent efforts of women’s organizations to demand that he be taken off the streets, where he is widely known to be involved in drug and sex trafficking. “The lack of action by the Crown to prosecute a convicted sex offender who has multiple counts of assaulting Native girls on his record is too much like the Pickton case,” said MacDougall. “Haven’t they learned anything?”
Machisknic’s death was a catalyst for MacDougall and six other women to hand deliver a letter to Vancouver Police Chief Jim Chu demanding a thorough investigation into her death, during a candlelight vigil held to memorialize her. They wanted an explanation for the decision to close her case and rule it a suicide when evidence points to something far more sinister. They were told they had to leave, but insisted on waiting for the chief while hundreds of stood outside the police department. Eventually they were arrested, cuffed, forced to the floor and jailed for six hours until they were suddenly released with no charges pending.