This past Sunday on October 4, a walk and vigil was held at Millennium Park for missing and murdered indigenous women. A march from City Hall to the park preceded the vigil, taking over two lanes. The gathering arrived at the park at 1PM to find an anonymous supporter had hung red dresses from the trees, a symbol that has come to act as a haunting reminder of the Indigenous women that have gone missing and have been found murdered.
Event coordinator, Katelyn Brennan, described the event as being “the 8th annual [vigil] honouring missing women in the Mississauga territory. It is a time that we honour those families that have lost these women, and to also give thanks to these families for motivating us to continue that work and to bring awareness, demanding action from the government and to the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women.”
Cory Jacobs, a guest speaker at the event, described that the boiling point for him was “in February 2014, a Labrador Inuit woman was found brutally murdered with a child. She was a young student who studied missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada. […] I cut my long hair, have since become a journalist … It is events like this that will change our future for the better. Growing up. I knew that it was my duty as a man to better the lives for all our aboriginal women.”
The severity of this hidden social pandemic is difficult to grasp for many people. Indigenous women have been going missing since 1492. According to an RCMP publication, Indigenous female homicides from 1991-2012 are counted at 705, with a total of 225 missing women in 2014 alone. However, many believe these numbers to not be representative of the actual number of Indigenous women who are missing or murdered, due to the issue of unreported cases.
Singer-songwriter Aaron Benson spoke about the song he wrote for the event, entitled “My Stolen Sisters”, stating, “This song that I wrote is for the families of those who have gone missing. Young women ask what they can do to protect themselves; I say learn how to use the mic. Violence begets violence. When your lives are at stake, you want to leave behind some evidence of who took you away from us. Mother Earth who you walk upon is the most sacred, and to see what is being done to her today by all these laws out of Parliament, taking away our Mother Earth from our children… the very correlation between the damage being done to Mother Earth as it is to our Indigenous women. Where are our children, our babies, where are they going? They are stealing them from us.”
Special guest Julie Lalonde, sexual violence public educator and activist, spoke to the responsibilities settlers have in acknowledging the privilege that comes with being white. “Three women were murdered in my community because they were failed by the justice system,” Lalonde said. “We know what it is. It’s a legal combination of misogyny and racism. We need to do better. I am a settler in this country and this term makes a lot of white folks uncomfortable. If the term settler makes you uncomfortable, it takes nothing away from you, but it takes away from other people. We have white privilege no matter how poor we are, and we walk with that everyday. We need to recognize the subtle ways in which we are complacent in this behavior. The fact that we have to go to post-secondary education to learn about what we did to this country is shameful.”
Lalonde acknowledged that many people who have descended from white settlers may not know what steps they need to take in order to stop the perpetuation of the devaluation and marginalization of Indigenous peoples and cultures. She draws on a few common examples: “Beyoncé is not your spirit animal. She’s not. If you are not Indigenous, stop talking about celebrities as being your spiritual animal. Head-dresses are beautiful, but they do not belong to you, you are not honoring the culture.”
Lalonde also went on to mention that it is important to contact local political representatives and to press the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women, indigenous education, and rights for Indigenous people. Lastly, she brought to light the issue with white people educating themselves about indigenous issues. Probably the most important take-away point, Lalonde explained, is that “Indigenous people are not our teachers. We need to show up and listen. We cannot show up and take up space that does not belong to us. Listen, educate ourselves, and demand better of the people who represent us in this country.”
Following the speakers was a traditional water ceremony, featuring drums and the healing dance of the jingle dress. In the center of the vigil’s circle, traditional songs were sung and the dancers performed in a circle around them. The audience was given traditional tobacco as an offering to aid in their prayers to those who the vigil was dedicated. At the closing of the ceremony, the water was shared amongst all the supporters.
In many Indigenous communities, water is seen as being a property of women, with fire belonging to men. Supporter Suzanne Smoke of the Alderville Bear Clan explained, “Our women are sacred. We carry water, we pray for water, we carry that new life in that water. Women are the only doorways to bring that spirit to the earth and we are sacred and need to be honored. There is something really wrong with this whole governance system when we have over 4,000 missing and murdered women who belong to this land.
There is a very concerted effort to not protect indigenous women because we are the obstacles to the land and water. We are the land and the water. They went after our children, now they are gong after our women. When our men disappear from our communities, it hurts our communities greatly but when our women disappear, our communities cease to exist. Who’s going to sing and pray for the next seven generations when our indigenous women are all gone?”
Niijkiwendidaa Anishnaabekwewag Services Circle (1097 Water Street) is a non-profit that provides counseling and healing services to indigenous women and their families who have been abused, are at risk of abuse, or are currently being abused.