By Morgan O’Neal
First there was the tragic saga of the missing and murdered women from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and the eventual conviction and imprisonment of Robert Pickton for serial murder. Then came reports of disappearances and dead bodies discovered along the so-called Highway of Tears, the stretch of Highway 16 known as Yellowhead highway that runs between Prince George and Prince Rupert, BC. Feelings of fear, grief, anger, and disappointment regarding police investigations in both cases began to mobilize the public around the issue of violence against Aboriginal women. The United Nations took notice and recommended that Canada do the same. Amnesty International weighed in with a report called “Stolen Sisters” that suggested over 500 women Aboriginal women have gone missing or been murdered within the last 30 years.
The effort to raise awareness of this issue has taken many different forms, from individual action to large numbers of people participating in walks, rallies, demonstrations, and mass searches. This problem is not going away. Memories of these women are very much alive in the public mind, and this issue must remain a priority among the police departments of this country and remain on the agenda of the government of Canada.
The courageous action of victims’ families and friends (as well as concerned citizens) has enabled change. All over this country, initiatives are underway, designed to make certain that this issue remains in the public mind and eye. Books are written. Films are made. Rallies are organized. Organizations are founded. For example, Sisters in Spirit (part of the Native Women’s Association of Canada) is dedicated to improving the lives of Aboriginal women and actively organizes awareness events and responds to developments in the ongoing issue of violence against women. They hold an Annual Women’s March and Rally at the Carnegie Center in Vancouver to remember the victims and to remind the police that there are still unsolved crimes connected to the Pickton and Highway of Tears cases. By maintaining awareness, activists honor their loved ones’ memories and have managed to shake the consciousness of people across the country. People in Edmonton, Calgary, Saskatoon, Regina, Winnipeg, and Halifax awake to the fact that violence against women is an issue in their own cities, too.
In many urban centers, special Task Forces are being created and money and departments are joining forces to deal with missing persons issues more efficiently. In Alberta, the Project KARE task force is examining deaths and disappearances of numerous Aboriginal women and investigates potential links between cases. In Saskatchewan, the Provincial Partnership Committee on Missing Persons released a report in 2007 stating that foul play is suspected in 70% of all missing women cases. Also, local grass-roots organizations have helped by creating information websites, reward posters, and PR campaigns. These simple actions can improve morale and ensure that connections are in place should a break occur in the investigation.
Barb Pacholik of the Leader-Post wrote about two women in Regina, Saskatchewan who are making a difference. One of those women, Lori Whiteman, is as close to the issue as one can get. Her mother has been missing for over two decades. Delores “Lolly” Whiteman would be almost 64 now. She was originally from the Standing Buffalo Dakota First Nation near Fort Qu’Appelle, but was last seen near Edmonton in 1987. Her daughter has almost given up on finding her but wants to find a way of keeping her memory alive. Lori decided to work toward building a memorial to all missing persons from Regina, what she calls a “place of reflection” dedicated to the missing but not forgotten women, like her mother. Pacholik recognizes the importance of Lori’s work, saying, “When someone dies, there is often a gravesite, a place to gather and remember; when someone vanishes, there is a void.”
Although she maintains hope, Lori Whiteman realizes that her mother may never be found and there may never be a gravesite for her to visit, and she understands that other families also need a place of healing. She told Pacholik, “The foundation of [the memorial] comes from the idea of missing women, but it is intended for all of those people who are waiting or who require that strength or who have experienced loss and need a place to go to draw that strength and healing.” Lori Whiteman is organizing the construction of a stone grandmother memorial by Cree sculptor Lyndon Tootoosis that they hope to place on RCMP property in Regina. We have no doubt she will succeed with the dedication of those around her.
In Saskatchewan, five of Regina’s missing persons cases in the last three years have recently turned into homicide investigations. Detective Sergeant Brent Shannon is in charge of cold cases for the Regina Police Service. According to him, there are “unique circumstances” in each of eleven outstanding long-term missing persons cases in Regina. The case of Danita Faith Bigeagle (a 22-year-old last seen in February 2007 on the 800 block of Victoria Avenue in Regina) is very different from that of Melanie Geddes, age 24, who never came home after going to a party in August 2005. Melanie’s remains were found four months later in the Qu’Appelle Valley near Southey, and her death is now an unsolved homicide. Despite the growing number of cases, the police are extremely reticent to assume a serial killer is at work. “You can always compare and draw some similarities, but to say there’s a pattern, we don’t feel that at all, not in Regina, not even on a provincial level,” says Shannon. One month after Melanie Geddes vanished, 19-year-old Amber Redman disappeared after leaving a Fort Qu’Appelle bar. Three years passed before she was found.
Brenda Anderson, a Luther College professor, was inspired to take action after seeing Amber on a missing persons poster in 2005. Professor Anderson was alarmed by statistical evidence showing that almost half of the missing persons in Saskatchewan are Aboriginal, yet they represent only 14% of the population as a whole. She told Pacholik, “It is an alarming number of indigenous women that have been missing and those who are missing have been discovered murdered, statistically.”
In an effort to understand the issue and to try to do something about this trend, Professor Anderson has created what may be the first university class of its kind focused on missing indigenous women. “If we draw attention to one thing, does that mean that we’re paying less attention or that [another] group is less valuable? Of course, the answer would be no. But statistically, are the men showing up murdered and raped and brutalized in that fashion?” she asks. She emphasizes that the issue should not be looked at as simply a race issue or a gender issue, but as a combination of both. She says that “violence against women gets played out when people are disempowered, when they’re frustrated, when they want to strike out. They’re going to look for the weakest one. They’re going to look for the one that people won’t notice. They’re going to have bought into those stereotypes that this really isn’t a human being.”
The issue of missing and exploited women affects men, women, and children across the country regardless of race or creed. The truth of it cannot be ignored. By working together within communities and combining efforts of individuals, organizations, police departments, and government, we can increase awareness and hopefully bring closure and justice to those still waiting for someone they love to come home.