There is no greater power than the power of love. Love soothes our grief and emotional pain that comes with learning a loved one has been murdered. Though love cannot bring them back to life, it can motivate and inspire a collective demand for action and change.
Under the banner “Their Spirits Live Within Us,” thousands gathered at Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside on Valentine’s Day as part of a nationwide effort to raise awareness and honour the lives of Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit people who’ve gone missing or have been murdered.
Elders walked a route strewn with flower petals dropped onto the street by three young women leading the procession. They stopped at locations where women and girls were either murdered or last seen alive and held a commemorative ceremony.
One such stop along Vancouver’s Blood Alley was the spot where Rosie Merasty was murdered in 1991. Her sister, Sophie Merasty, expressed gratefulness to the elders. “Thank you from the bottom of my heart, because it meant so much to me that she be acknowledged all these years later,” said Merasty.
Nicole Brown’s mother, Frances, went missing in October 2017 while picking mushroom with a friend north of Smithers. Brown accompanied elders along the march’s route while carrying a framed photo of her mom and a basket of red flowers.
The names of area girls and women who’ve gone missing, been murdered, or died by violence in Downtown Eastside are updated and then published for every annual event. This year’s booklet lists 75 names, and many of the marchers were either a friend or family member of a murdered or missing woman or girl. “This is a day of grieving, a day of mourning,” said Myrna Cranmer, the event organizer responsible for ensuring names are added to the list. “Our women are being hunted.”
Organizers of the 28th Women’s Memorial March say each person has a role to play in ending violence against Indigenous women. Organizer Carol Martin suggests the national attitude toward First Nations must change. “The Canadian system has spent many years smearing our image,” Martin told First Nations Drum in a post-event telephone interview. “The Canadian psyche has been ingrained with how they should treat us. Racism is very much alive, and it’s killing us.”
Martin said every person has a responsibility to look past negative stereotypes, labels, and images to see First Nations people as the human beings we are. “The history is one of not seeing us as human beings,” Martin. “We were to be used by any means and then disposed of when we had no more usefulness. This was justified in the Canadian system, and if you look at the court system, jails, and hospitals, they’re filled with our people. The Canadian system does not work for us still today.”
Organizer Evelyn Youngchief would like to see a harsher sentence levied against any person convicted of murdering an indigenous woman. “They get a slap on the wrist. It’s a joke,” Youngchief told First Nations Drum. “First Nation women are targeted, and this needs to stop.”
Some of the women doing frontline work in the Downtown Eastside and involved with the annual march have been critical of the slow pace of change. Event organizers want people to keep in mind that women and girls continue to go missing and are being murdered in alarming numbers across the country despite the national inquiry’s work.
In 2018, Juanita Desjarlais appeared before national inquiry hearings in Vancouver to share her story of survival. “We need changes today,” said Desjarlais, an event organizer, Sixties Scoop survivor, and intergenerational survivor of the residential school system.
In Montreal, the lives of missing and murdered Indigenous women were recognized by event participants taking their message before public transit riders. Called, “Love in Action,” activists using silent protest methods boarded busy Montreal subway routes during a Thursday rush hour. They wore red and carried posters to raise awareness of the indigenous women missing or murdered in Quebec.
“The Metro ride is like a silent protest,” said Dayna Danger, a program and campaign coordinator at Gender Advocacy. “It’s to bring awareness to an issue that continues to go on. We’re always thinking of strategies to get non-indigenous public to recognize their complicity on this land and what that means for indigenous people.”
With the national inquiry’s final report expected to be released in April, Danger remained pessimistic that positive change is near. She is dissatisfied that nothing substantial is happening to address systemic causes to violence against indigenous women. “There is this level of education that still needs to be done. This is something hopefully that they [Metro Riders] take the time to notice,” Danger said. “We very much want to know about this issue, to care, and that this is something that needs to be changed.”