As I stood in a circle of approximately 150 people, with red dresses swinging from trees, the sound of drumming songs from Curve Lake First Nation and Alderville First Nation men, jingle dress-dancers, and the warmth of the autumn sun, I couldn’t help but feel an immense sadness for every lost Indigenous woman, her family and her community. I also felt a thankfulness for the many people that had turned out to honor their memories. These were the bittersweet hours of “Brothers of Sisters in Spirit” at Confederation Square on October 4th, in remembrance of missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW) in Canada and throughout the world.
The remembrance ceremony starts with a smudge and a prayer. Liz Stone, executive director of Niijkiwendidaa, the regional counselling and healing center for aboriginal women and their families, explains it is “to clear our minds, bodies, hearts, words, and all things that keep our thoughts from being present right here, right now.” We acknowledge the land we are standing on and give thanks for all that we have. We are welcomed to smudge or say no thank you; all Liz asks is that “everyone here picks up what they need to pick up, and leave what they don’t need to pick up.”
The first guest speaker is Caleb Musgrave from Hiawatha First Nation, who tells us his own experiences: “My relationship with MMIW (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women) goes back to when I was in high school. I didn’t grow up here, I grew up in Saugeen First Nation, and while there a young girl from the community disappeared. Just before I graduated she took off. We didn’t know where she was. We heard that she was living in Quebec. After that, she’s fallen off the face of the earth. We don’t know exactly where she is.”
Cases like this are not new. Yet the importance and enormity of this social pandemic is still unknown to many. Indigenous women have been going missing since 1492. 16 per cent of all women murdered in Canada between 1980 and 2012 were Indigenous. In 2010, the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) report identified 582 missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP)’s 2014 ‘Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women: An Operational Overview’ identified a shocking 1,200 women and girls. The actual number is unknown and could to be significantly higher, creating an ongoing problem and leaving unhealed wounds for so many people.
Musgrave brings our attention to his own sadness, which derives from fear that people are forgetting: “For me, the biggest heartache is that I can’t even remember her name. That terrifies me. It scares me that it could happen to my nieces, one of my sisters, my aunties or my mother. It feels like we’re failing.”
There is an urgency to remember these women, to honor them, not merely a statistic, but as human beings. It is easy to forget, when talking of MMIW, that these women are individuals with families, friends, parents, cousins, brothers, sisters, children and communities who love them, that they, as individuals, are now absent from the world. This is not a problem in the past, but a continuous one.
Unlike previous “Sisters in Spirit” October 4th vigils for MMIW, this occasion has a focus on the men of the community. Liz Stone explains the need to acknowledge the help and support of men, to encourage them to step up and teach other men non-violence and kindness, and to give thanks for the important work being done. The event is therefore titled “Brothers of Sisters in Spirits.” A community supporter tells us, “for so many years it’s been Indigenous women, our sisters and the allied women that are standing up and saying, ‘look what’s happening to us.’ For so many years it’s been treated as an Indigenous women’s issue. We need our men and allies stand up and say this is happening to our people.”
The talk constantly turns back to the question of how Indigenous and allied men are contributing to the efforts of MMIW, thanking and encouraging those who participate in the Moose Hide Pin campaign on the West Coast, the Men Choose Respect campaign in Nanaimo, the Awakening the Warrior Within campaign in Victoria or the Men in Change campaign in Vancouver; campaigns which encourage safe spaces to allow people to say, “don’t do that to my fellow human”.
Musgrave tells the circle, “in our teachings, we don’t walk with our arm over a woman, or push her in front of us or behind us, we walk beside her. In our language, we don’t really have a word for “wife” other than the Western concept. It translates to “the woman I walk beside”. There have been comments over the years that the men aren’t doing enough, and it’s true, we haven’t been. We need to gentle, we need to be kind, and we need to be there to support in any way we can. We have to be there, and we will be there.”
The second guest speaker is Beedhabin Peltier, who came to Peterborough about 12 years ago to attend Trent. He reinforces the need for men to do more, explaining, “there is an attempt to oppress and dampen the spirits of Indigenous women. Men should be there. Ready with a kind, gentle heart, a hello and a hug every now and then. I’ve been gifted family members who have taught me and opened my heart to the issues and threats Indigenous women are facing on a daily basis. This is something that’s real. We need to ask what we can do. We need to spread words to other men to help, to teach each other and to begin to work together.”
Vern Douglas, the final guest speaker, a trainer and Elder for the “I am the Kind Man” program for men at Ontario Federation of Friendship Centers, concludes by asking, “where does this violence against women come from? Does it come from the media? Does it come from colonization? Does it come from socialization? There’s probably no answer to that question. But there are things that we can do.”
After each poignant speaker, a jingle-dress dance takes place. Liz’s sister is invited to introduce the dancers, explaining the Anishinabek dance is for “our sisters,” for “all being of self,” “for healing,” and “for prayer.”
The metal cones, attached to the dresses of four women and two girls, make a sound which resembles rain pattering on a metal roof: “The jingle-dress is less than a century old.
The original dancer was a girl called Meggy White from Whitefish Bay who was chronically ill as a child. Her grandfather turned to prayer and fasting.
Through his dreams he received sound visions; a reoccurring, healing sound. He thought long and hard, realizing he could recreate the sound with metal cones.
He made a dress for Meggy in a hope to bring her energy and healing. Originally three other dancers held Meggy up, because the first time she went around the circle to the drums, she could barely walk. They say that by the time the song was over, she was able to dance her way out. From being unable to walk, she progressed to dancing on her own. When we do this dance, it is
When Liz Stone breaks down into tears, asking for help and thanking those who already are by reclaiming the voices of Indigenous women, she receives a hug from supporters who proceed to hug not only her, but every person in the circle. Touched and moved, these kind actions remind us about the people who stand up and stand with women. They remind us that there is support for MMIW, but there is still a need to make change, to raise awareness and acknowledge that MMIW is not an Indigenous women’s issue, but an issue for everyone.
The ceremony closes with a song from Suzanne Smoke from Alderville First Nation and her daughter, Cedar Smoke, from Georgina Island First Nation, who sing for Suzanne’s cousin Patricia Carpenter who was murdered in 1992 in Toronto: “We are magnificent, we come from the water and the land, and we are obstacles to that; that’s why we are disappearing.”
The circle of people breaks up after the drummer’s travelling song. We leave with heavy hearts, thinking of women from coast to coast to coast and reminded that missing and murdered Indigenous women should be honoured every single day, not just on October 4th.