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The Spirit Lives On

Women’s Memorial March bolstered by thousands; Sisters in Spirit finds new home

by Erin Seatter

The Spirit Lives On
The Spirit Lives On
The Spirit Lives On
photos by murray bush - flux photo
photos by murray bush - flux photo

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DOWNTOWN EASTSIDE - Kept out of the missing women’s inquiry, women’s and Aboriginal groups took to the streets for the 21st annual Women’s Memorial March in Vancouver on Feb. 14. Thousands joined the march to honour women who have gone missing or been murdered in the Downtown Eastside and across Canada.

Aboriginal women are hit especially hard by violence. Sisters in Spirit, a project of the Native Women’s Association of Canada to compile cases of missing or murdered Aboriginal women, had documented 582 cases before its funding was cut off by the federal Conservative government in 2010.

Led by drumming and singing, the march proceeded solemnly from Main and Hastings streets through the Downtown Eastside, an area where the issue of missing and murdered women has been particularly acute. Some participants held panels with the names of women who have gone missing or been murdered.

Participants fell silent as the procession stopped at different points along the route where women had been killed or last seen. Aboriginal elders burned sage and prayed.

“Sham” Inquiry Slammed

For years, residents and workers in the Downtown Eastside had noted that women were disappearing and had tipped police off to a man in Port Coquitlam, but little was done.

The Missing Women Commission of Inquiry is investigating why police took so many years to put a stop to the serial killer. Uncovering a disturbing pattern of misogyny and racism, the inquiry is shedding some light on how the police have failed Aboriginal women and sex workers.

A number of community organizations representing women in the Downtown Eastside and Aboriginal women have refused to participate in what they call a “sham” inquiry, after the provincial government declared it would provide them no funding for the hiring of lawyers. Human rights and legal experts say that to deny these women legal counsel is essentially “to render them voiceless.”

Sisters in Spirit Rises Again

The defunding of the Sisters in Spirit initiative has been seen by critics as another betrayal of marginalized women. Established by the Native Women’s Association of Canada in 2005, Sisters in Spirit had developed a complex database of information on missing and murdered Aboriginal women, providing invaluable statistics and illuminating a national crisis that has prompted shockingly little response. The project’s supporters have argued that it was defunded because it often focused on the complicity of the justice system, all levels of law enforcement, and news makers in ensuring that cases of violence against Aboriginal women across the country were systematically deprioritized.

Recently, the project has found a new home in the office of Ottawa’s Coalition to End Violence Against Women. Renewed at a grassroots level, Families of Sisters in Spirit picks up where the original project left off. Project volunteers say it fills an information void, as police do not track numbers of missing and murdered Aboriginal women.

“It’s so sad because I post these pictures of missing girls almost every day,” Bridget Tolley of Families of Sisters in Spirit told the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network. “But very rarely I post anything about [cases] being solved.”

It’s no easy task to fight for justice in a society where violence against women, and especially the most marginalized, is allowed to continue, and where resources to bolster this fight are limited. But having no funding, according to Families of Sisters in Spirit’s Kristen Gilchrist, is an advantage. 

“We don’t fear the punitive nature of the government,” she said.

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