A Movement Rises

How did inequality within indigenous communities — the most serious, current consequence being the thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women — creep from out of mind to front of news coverage? It involved much determination, passion, and love.  Journalist Angela Sterritt brings to life six stories from a movement finally resonating in Canada. 

By: /
November 20, 2015
Lorelei Williams, founder of Butterflies in Spirit dance group. Illustration by Angela Sterritt.

This piece was a finalist for the Canadian Association of Journalists' annual awards, in the text feature category. 

This story, much like Indigenous history, does not begin in a vacuum. Relatives of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people* have been on the front lines searching for their loved ones and for answers in every city, community and institution in Canada for decades. At the same time, and with the same commitment, journalists, advocates and educators have also been ringing the alarm bells for change.

The federal election on Oct. 19 saw a tremendous spike in Indigenous voter turnout, by some accounts as high as 270 percent. By and large, the hundreds of Indigenous people I spoke with who took to the polls wanted to see changes to government policies and ideology. The infamous quote from former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, repeated over and over in the media, that “missing and murdered Indigenous women are not on our radar to be frank,” did not land well with many Indigenous people.  

The fact that MMIW is now a platform issue is astounding, exciting and very new to many who have fought on the front lines for years. We see former cabinet minister Rona Ambrose — who once whittled the Sisters in Spirit database down to nothing through budget cuts — now championing the cause of missing and murdered Indigenous women as the interim leader of the fallen Conservative party.

There is not one moment that persuaded the heart of this nation to care about the incredulous issue of violence against Indigenous women and girls.

There is not one moment that persuaded the heart of this nation to care about the incredulous issue of violence against Indigenous women and girls, but a series of events building up over many years. The common thread of these events is the family members — the mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, aunties, uncles, grandparents and siblings — of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people.

Understanding the complex, underlying discrimination around this issue in Canada is an important part of the solution — and the recommendations from the recent Truth and Reconciliation report are part of that — but shining a spotlight on the family members and activists who have been at the crux of this story is paramount.

Their powerful actions help bring the light back to a dark tale, for at the heart of their stories, and at the heart of this larger national story, is love, and a willingness to fight for change and equality within Canada. 

Two-spirit people refers to those who are Indigenous/First Nations/Metis/Inuit/Native American, and who identify as having distinctive sexualities and/or gender identities. It is used by many contemporary gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Indigenous people as a more culturally appropriate term to describe themselves. The term encompasses spiritual as well as physical, emotional, and cultural aspects. There are many different two-spirit traditions and identities found among various First Nations.

Part 1: The Voice of the Highway of Tears

Gitxsan is the name of my people. Translated to English it means ‘people of the river mist.’  It’s clear why when you drive along the dewy highways and roads to get to Gitanmaax, my community nestled within the village of Hazelton. It’s bound to several other First Nations by a similar Northwest Coast culture, language group and landscape of snow capped mountains and rushing rivers. These nations are also branched together by a 700-kilometre section of Highway 16 between Prince George and Prince Rupert. It’s coined the Highway of Tears for the murders of young women and girls that have vanished along its route since at least 1969.

I’ve driven the highway many times. It’s beautiful. The salt licked air that comes from the Pacific gets cooler the closer you get to Prince Rupert. Handsome cedar trees line the pavement and mountain valleys and peaks gaze from the horizon.  When you climb the crags in Rupert, tiny archipelagos sprawl the ocean. Fishermen pull black cod, red snapper, crab and salmon out of their nets. Plants and seaweeds edge the waters, providing medicines and nourishment for the Indigenous people there for thousands of years.

But when Gitxsan and Wet’sewet’an activist Gladys Radek stands on the misty shores in Rupert, she’s not thinking about the beauty and richness of the land and the ocean. Instead, she thinks of her niece Tamara Chipman, who disappeared into a different kind of fog, one carrying tormenting questions.

Chipman, at 22, was last seen hitchhiking by the turnoff to the Race Track gas station, just outside of Prince Rupert on Sept. 21, 2005. Her son was two years old then. Now he is 14. 

“For me it’s always painful because that’s the first spot you see before getting into Prince Rupert and that was the last time anybody saw Tamara,” Radek tells me.

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Highway of Tears. INSTITUTE/Guillaume Herbaut

Chipman is one of at least 18 missing or murdered women and girls from along the Highway of Tears and adjacent routes, Highway 5 and Highway 97, between 1969 and 2006, according to the RCMP. But Radek says that number is actually exponentially higher.

“My guestimate would be about 100 or so. I had counted close to 45 in 2008 through family and media reports, so I assume that number has gone up.”

The numbers hit Radek hard, but the pain has never numbed or stopped her. The statistics spurred her into action. She co-founded Walk4Justice in 2008.

“There was nobody walking at the time for the missing and murdered women and girls. We wanted to raise awareness about the need for a public inquiry,” she says.

To date, Radek and fellow activist Bernie Williams have organized six walks across Canada. The first was a 4,000-kilometre trek from Vancouver to Ottawa. On Aboriginal Day, with a caravan of about 17 volunteers, the group set off walking in 10k relays with a message to Parliament Hill: Fund an inquiry now.

But Radek started marching for justice long before she organized her own walk. In the spring of 2006, Radek joined a walk organized by the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council. Walkers started in Prince Rupert and ended in Prince George where a ‘Highway of Tears’ symposium began.

Five hundred members of the public, family members, service providers, First Nations, government and police representatives attended the event to raise public awareness and create a call for action. Recommendations, 33 in all, came out of the meeting focusing on victim prevention, emergency readiness, victim family support and community development. Highlighted was the need for public transportation along the highway, so people would not be forced to hitchhike on a perilous stretch. To date, no efforts or measures have been taken to provide affordable transit along the highway.

Around that time, Radek and other matriarchs in the community started leading larger marches of thousands at the annual Valentine’s Day Women’s Memorial March in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside — at the time the poorest postal code in the country.

“I was never a leader, but I do know these stories are embedded in my heart. But at that time, those people leading the marches, well they gave me a sense of who I was,” Radek says.

It’s hard to hear about Radek’s past. She tells me she was institutionalized since birth. When she was born she was put in the hospital until she was almost four because she had tuberculosis. Then when she was five, she was put in foster care and abused by her foster parents. When she was an older youth, she was put in a women’s reform school called Wellington School for Girls in Vancouver. 

“I was never a leader, but I do know these stories are embedded in my heart."

For Radek, the women’s memorial marches served as a way to speak out for others who are like her — not victims, she says. Rather they are Indigenous women who also had suffered from a colonial history of racism, trauma and abuse. But she says the women leading the marches pulled her into the front lines and gave her a sense of who her people are. 

Today, it’s not uncommon to see Radek’s face or hear her voice on many of Canada’s flagship news programs, speaking about the need for action — namely an inquiry on missing and murdered Indigenous women, and the implementation of the many recommendations made over the years. 

“We need shelters, housing, rape centres, sexual assault centres, support healing and wellness. There is so much. All the organizations they’ve been cutting the funding from…” Radek says.

At least 17 out of 18 cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls remain unsolved, the RCMP says.  While rumors continue to swirl, Radek says there’s been little communication from the RCMP on her niece Tamara’s case.

“She was somebody’s little girl. We need to talk about these young women and the love that was shared with them when they were little, and how much we miss giving that love to them.” 

For now, her walks — the seventh Walk4Justice in the works — continue to press for an inquiry on missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada and to petition the government to act on recommendations presented about the Highway of Tears.

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Part 2: Those Who Broke the Silence on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside

Veteran journalist Lindsay Kines started covering the phenomenon of women missing from the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver in 1998 when he was a reporter with the Vancouver Sun. He is attributed widely with being the first reporter to break this story, for digging in and repeatedly questioning police officials — prompting them to step up their investigation.

In 1997 he wrote a story about the disappearance of Janet Henry, a Kwakwaka'wakw from Kingcome Inlet in British Columbia. Her sister, Sandra Gagnon, had contacted Kines to do a story.

“At that time, I had no idea she was one of a larger number of disappearances. I did a follow-up piece in 1998, this time, interviewing Janet Henry’s daughter about her quest for answers in her mother’s disappearance,” he remembers.

“I was motivated by the families and friends of the women who stayed in touch with me and wanted answers."

A few weeks later, Wayne Leng, who was searching for his friend Sarah De Vries, contacted Kines. De Vries also went missing from the Downtown Eastside. During his search, Leng discovered that other women were also missing. At the time Vancouver police got in contact with Leng because of a toll free phone line he set up to take tips about missing women. Kines soon got in touch with police sources he knew working the neighbourhood. Police confirmed a spike in disappearances, prompting another story by Kines.

The pattern was one Kines had heard before. 

Years earlier, Kines had been tipped off about women and girls missing and murdered along the Highway of Tears. In December 1995, he flew up to Prince George and travelled along Highway 16, interviewing families and police investigators for a 1,400-word piece about three murders and two disappearances of young women there.

He says racial identity in the Highway 16 story was obvious because all of the missing or murdered women and girls were Indigenous. But the Downtown Eastside stories years later were different, he says. “I knew that some of the missing women, including Janet Henry, were Indigenous, but not all. The early stories tended to highlight that fact that the missing women were all involved in drugs or the sex trade, and less on their heritage.”

While respect for Kines’s work among journalists is unequivocal, when I spoke with him recently, he was humble and talked of the time period matter-of-factly. He recalled stories on MMIW not getting prominent play in the beginning and most of his early stories running in the B section or further back in the newspaper.

“I was motivated by the families and friends of the women who stayed in touch with me and wanted answers. I think it was their telephone calls that prodded me to keep digging and searching for answers. They were the source of many tips and leads that allowed me to keep writing stories. “ 

In early 1999, the Vancouver Sun devoted a two-page spread to the issue including all the pictures of the missing women, and a full-page profile Kines wrote on De Vries.

The Sun also permitted journalists Kim Bolan, Lori Culbert and Kines to spend about three months digging into the entire case in 2001. The trio published two series of stories in late 2001 revealing the number of missing women was much higher than police had stated and exposed that the original Vancouver police investigation was deeply flawed.

By then, Terri Brown, now a Tahltan Chief, had also been digging for answers for several years, leading to suspicions around now-convicted serial killer Robert Pickton. “The police and the RCMP were not listening to the families of the missing and murdered women. Family members had told us horror stories and concerns about Robert Pickton’s pig farm and so we decided to have a ceremony there.”

A pipe ceremony was held on the farm with Elders and family members in early 2002, not long after the Sun series ran. On February 22, Pickton was arrested.

Kines recalls it was then that the media frenzy really picked up. “Everybody was writing about the case at that point. We had already written extensively about the women, so we shifted our focus to Pickton and why he had not been arrested sooner, given that he had surfaced as a suspect early on in the investigation.”

Eventually, Pickton was charged with 27 counts of first-degree murder. The trial began in January 2007 and by December, a jury found him guilty of six counts of second degree murder.

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Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada MP Justin Trudeau talks to media in the downtown eastside neighbourhood in Vancouver, British Columbia December 18, 2013. REUTERS/Ben Nelms

A 2011 Vancouver Police report on missing and murdered Aboriginal women, entitled We Can Do Better, said police could have better protected the vulnerable women in the DTES.  “Pickton should have been apprehended sooner and the police investigations were initially inadequate,” the report stated. It also revealed that the murder risk for sex trade workers is approximately 60 to 120 times that of the general female population.

In a 115-page statement given to the RCMP, former spokesperson for the Missing Women’s Task Force, Cpl. Catherine Galliford, explained that top brass Mounties had "enough evidence for a search warrant" of Robert Pickton's farm in 1999. Between that time, and his arrest in 2002, 14 women were brutally murdered.

Blowing the Pickton case open was an important turning point for awareness of the violence perpetuated against Indigenous women in Canada and the disturbing history of ignoring the issue. But the Downtown Eastside cases weren’t largely labeled racial, and the focus on Pickton’s brutality deterred a wider discussion around the unequal access to justice that many had hoped for.

It was an unrelated case that added Terri Brown’s voice to the matter. Her sister, Ada Elaine Brown, was killed in her home in Prince George, B.C., in 2001 — the same year Terri was elected President of the Native Women’s Association of Canada.

Terri began to speak out about the wider issue — the alarming number of at least 500 Indigenous women missing and murdered throughout the country. She also underscored limited investigations and impunity levels.

Under Terri’s leadership, in 2004, NWAC launched the monumental Sisters in Spirit (SIS) campaign that called for solutions to address violence against Aboriginal women in Canada. The group asked the federal government for $10 million in funding for the project that would include a database of Indigenous women missing and murdered. The government agreed to give half in 2005, but, five years later, Rona Ambrose, then the Federal Minister for Status of Women, announced that funding for the SIS database would be redirected, with the bulk of it going to a national police support centre for missing persons.

In 2015, more than 25 years since the Downtown Eastside cases began to emerge, police and RCMP responses to missing Indigenous women in Canada continues to cause concern. But there is no doubt the level of awareness has increased drastically in that time.

I asked Kines how he feels being credited with the beginnings of what is now an internationally recognized hashtag, #MMIW.

His answer was humbling.

“I’d prefer to give the credit to the families and friends of the missing women for pushing the story forward. They kept insisting that something bad had happened to their loves ones, and their prodding kept me digging. Sadly, they were right all along.”

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Part 3: Searching Winnipeg’s Red River

It’s a warm day but unmistakably, winter is weaving its way through the wind. The sun reflects in tiny little sparkles off Winnipeg’s muddy Red River. To the left is the Louise Bridge and snaking downstream to the right is the Provoncher Bridge. Directly in front of me, red cloth drapes around a concave square section of chain link fence along the river’s edge.

There are chairs with pillows, and cement blocks that work as shelves for a stuffed yellow minion, a Barbie doll and rocks painted and etched with the words family, joy, play, home and live. The one that says ‘live’ seems to sink in my stomach as I realize this is a memorial. A memorial for Tina Fontaine, the 15-year-old Indigenous girl who was stuffed in a bag and thrown in the river that flows in front of the commemoration for her today. She was tiny, at just over five feet and around 100 pounds — a girl barely beginning her youth.

Her death in 2014 was unlike the ones before her; it did not plunge a nation into silence. Instead, it pushed a community into action to help stem the tide of missing and murdered Indigenous girls. Their alarm bells still ring.

I see Kyle Kematch walking in the distance. His teal sweater stands out among the taupe sand and dirt and grey stones that hug the river. He and his sister are poking at an object with a stick they find — an action seemingly commonplace and natural, as though this process of searching for answers is now part of their cellular body memory.

“Sometimes we search the south side of the Bishop Grandin Bridge for Christopher Guimond — the family also got tips from [people at] St. Johns Park,” he says in reference to a missing Winnipeg man, as a flock of gulls hover over our heads.

They don’t often get requests or tips from family, but Kematch says his group doesn’t shy away from them.

He tells me they are not looking specifically for any one demographic. He says Drag the Red, as his search team is called, looks for everybody. But they started this mission when Tina Fontaine’s body was found.

“She was very young and there are a lot of vulnerable people out there, the fact is this is an easy route to get rid of somebody,” Kematch says.

Like the patterns of violence in B.C., echoes of murders past are heard here, too.

Three months after 16-year-old Felicia Solomon disappeared in 2003, police found some of her body parts in the Red River. Family members and advocates say the similarities of her fate and Tina Fontaine’s are chilling.

“After Tina Fontaine’s body was found we were trying to pressure the police into searching more in the river, and dragging it,” says Bernadette Smith. “We knew it had been dredged in the 80s but that was for flooding — it was never searched.” 

Smith’s sister, Claudette Priscilla June Osborne-Tyo, was a 21-year-old mother of four when she vanished from Winnipeg in 2008.   Project Devote, established by the RCMP and the Winnipeg Police Service, continues to investigate the case and although Smith speaks to officers once a month, the family has learned no new information since 2010, when the Winnipeg Police Service was handling the case.    

Last year, the bodies of seven Indigenous women were fished out of the Red River by police. So far this year, at least five bodies have been discovered in its depths. Since Fontaine’s death, four out of the 23 homicides in Winnipeg have been Indigenous women.

When Fontaine’s body was found, Smith decided to post on her Facebook that the Red needed to be dragged.

“It was really to guilt the police into action, but they never did anything, they said they needed evidence to search and wouldn’t do anything until we had evidence,” she says.

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Vigil for Tina Fontaine and Faron Hall, Winnipeg, Manitoba. August 19, 2014. Flickr User: SLM / https://www.flickr.com/photos/slm/14793182629/in/album-72157646249488808/

Smith and I shuffle through brown and yellow leaves in St. John’s Park and arrive at a sheltered bank of picnic tables to sit. Smith tells me how she grew up here, in the North End of Winnipeg, and explains how they used to take a piece of cardboard and use it to swim across the river. Like many other families, they also used to fish for catfish, walleye and northern pike.

People still fish there, but now things are different. Car parts are found here, and cellphones, diapers, hair, and body parts of human beings. She looks to the east where a fence now circumscribes the Red, a look of determination on her face.

“Police nor RCMP responded to my call to drag the Red, but Kyle Kematch came forward and said ‘let’s do it ourselves.’ After that, a team came together.”

She says another man, Percy Ningwance, came forward with experience dragging lakes in his community. Then another said he could help by providing a boat. Smith says community members had a couple of meetings, strategized who could do what, and a week later they were mapping out the river, gathering equipment and volunteers.

But it was not as easy as it sounds. Smith’s husband is a welder and helped to build the bars and the quads — four hooks welded together to drag —  but without formal training, they were experimenting with weight and length and lost equipment, hooks, and money.

“We were really learning in our first year and this year which is our second year has been a little different.”

Smith says a group of forensic and physical anthropologists — all women from the Universities of Winnipeg, Manitoba and Brandon — came forward to help. They began training Drag the Red volunteers on how to identify remains and how to conduct a ground search effectively.

The University of Brandon’s Dr. Emily Holland has been an integral part of Drag the Red since. Anytime volunteers find any kind of remains, they take a picture and send it to her and within half an hour or less she responds and lets them know if the remains are human, non-human or unidentifiable. If they are not positively identified she asks the volunteers to collect the remains and come back.

“It’s been really a community effort, we rely heavily on our volunteers. We have two crews — the ground search and Kyle heads up the water crew. This year we started to fundraise and we have been able to buy a boat.”

But the dragging is hard on boats. The constant pulling, changing gears and staying in neutral puts strain on the mechanics of the boat, like the gearbox. Since they’ve bought the new boat, there have been a number of repairs done on it.

And it’s been hard to fulfill their original intention— to get police eyes on missing and unsolved cases.

“We’ve certainly seen that [police searching and investigating] for non-Indigenous people. This summer a non-Indigenous woman went missing and police set up a command post, they dove in retention ponds. We don’t see that type of attention on our cases. We hear from loved ones saying ‘why don’t we get that type of response’?”

Smith stresses that Drag the Red is not just looking for Indigenous people but all people. But many Indigenous families missing loved ones in Manitoba are confused and frustrated at what seems like an unequal system. Smith says her group is not just doing the physical work, but also trying to change policies that seem riddled with racism.

“It’s very disheartening to know that there is a two-tiered system. We are all human beings, we all matter, we all have people that love us and we all want to be treated the same.”

In Felicia Solomon’s case, her mother Matilda Solomon-Osborne says it took more than a week for police to interview her. Family members began searching Winnipeg streets on their own and putting up homemade missing posters. Two weeks passed before police publicly declared Felicia "missing." Her case remains unsolved.

Smith says there was also disappointment with how her sister’s disappearance was investigated. “My sister has been missing for seven years. We have no answers.”

"We are all human beings, we all matter, we all have people that love us and we all want to be treated the same.”

It was 10 days before police started to investigate her sister’s case. There was even a call made by Osborne saying that she was in danger and wanted to be picked up. Even after that evidence, Smith says they needed to get political and put pressure on police to act.  “My sister had a criminal record, she was on the street, she was Aboriginal and she was a woman. She had all these things against her.”

Squinting his eyes towards the river, Kematch tells me this is where his sister Amber Guiboche might be. She disappeared from Winnipeg on Nov. 10, 2010, five days after she turned 20. Winnipeg Police are still investigating and on Aug. 12, 2014, investigators asked the public for help to identify someone that may know what happened to her.

“She was small like Tina, you know. If she is in there, it’s just like, she can’t get buried, she can’t be pronounced dead or nothing like that. She’s been missing for five years … I don’t hope to find her in there, it’s just got to be done, we need to find my sister.”

Kematch says families appreciate his work because some grieving families can’t search on their own as they are hurting too much.  “But people have had enough. Like my sister, who was just a kid, these women and girls have their whole lives ahead of them. Everybody who has had kids knows what that could be like.”

Despite her frustrations, Smith says things are improving. 

Police now have preventative measures like a strategic unit called Project Return for at-risk youth. She says if a youth goes missing, a report goes out right away, instead of waiting 48 hours, as was the case before. With Smith’s sister’s case the family had to wait two years before they could access phone records; now one can access those records with a warrant immediately. 

She says relationships with police have also changed. “There was not a lot of trust. Police are now more accountable because there are strong voices out there.”

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Part 4: The Healer

Lorelei Williams was often low-key when she attended events for missing and murdered Indigenous women. She’d stand in the back or keep to herself when marching or at vigils. She was in attendance at events remembering her aunty Belinda Williams, who went missing in 1977, and her cousin Tanya Holyk, who went missing in 1996 and whose DNA was found on the Pickton Farm in 2002.

But that backseat role changed when she attended a rally for the families at the Missing Women’s Commission of Inquiry in Vancouver in 2011.

“I went to the rally and was quiet as I normally was, and noticed that all the family members were getting blanketed. I went up to the person giving them out and asked ‘do I need to make a blanket for my missing loved one’?”

Williams says the woman looked up startled and began going through all the blankets frantically. Then she pulled out a blanket that had Williams’s cousin Tanya’s picture, fastened with a safety pin. The families of missing and murdered women and girls then all stood in line and were blanketed, the cloth placed around their shoulders and people began shaking their hands. Williams says it was akin to a funeral.

She started to cry.

“That’s when I became part of the inquiry.”

Williams joined hundreds of other family members at the inquiry into the Pickton Murders, called the Women’s Commission of Inquiry.

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Lorelei Williams / Photo by:Stefan Labbe

At a subsequent rally, where people held posters covered in newspaper clippings and small pictures barely recognizable, she got an idea.

“I was like, these people don’t even know what we are doing. People couldn’t tell what we were doing by the poster. That’s when I decided to start Butterflies in Spirit.”

She started the dance troop with the idea of putting missing loved ones' pictures on T-shirts and drawing attention to them somehow.

“For some reason I thought of dance. And when I started putting it out there what I wanted to do, other families of MMIW wanted to join, so we became a dance troop of families of MMIW to raise awareness of this issue for anyone who wanted to represent their loved ones.”

It was supposed to be a one-time event.  The group practiced and then blocked the busy streets of Georgia and Granville during the Inquiry. The hip-hop dance group performed Beyoncé’s “We Run the World,” Williams says, because she felt the song was empowering.

But that one time dance routine turned into almost 30 performances over the years. The group is a 12-person strong team that has performed across Canada, primarily on the west coast.

The dances incorporate Indigenous cultural symbols, including the medicine wheel. They use hand wraps that they turn into whips to get people’s attention to look at their shirts.

“Then at the end of our dance, we drop down on the ground. Whoever represents a murdered loved one lays down on the ground and is covered in a white sheet; whoever is representing a missing loved one stays sitting up so the audience can see their loved ones’ picture.”

So in the middle of the street passersby would see what looks like a number of dead bodies in the middle of a busy street. The dance then ends by everyone rising and singing the women’s warrior song together.

The project prompted a drastic turn in Williams’ life — for the better. She shifted her life’s course from a career in business and tourism to one of healing and helping women.

After a volunteering stint at Battered Women’s Support Services and embarking on a degree in criminology, she says a number of serendipitous events took place and almost immediately she was working full time in the field. She now runs a number of programs helping women heal, while going to school part-time.

“I was born in 1980 and my aunt was missing in 1978, so I was born into this. This was always in my family, I always knew about it.”

But she says the issue was never far from her heart. She says it’s been a part of her life from day one.

“I was born in 1980 and my aunt was missing in 1978, so I was born into this. This was always in my family, I always knew about it.”

Williams’ mother passed away five days before Butterflies in Spirit’s first performance. She almost cancelled it, but was compelled to go on. That’s when she realized that the group’s purpose went beyond creating awareness about violence against missing and murdered Indigenous women.

“After my mom passed away, the only time my anxiety went away was when we’re performing, that’s when I learned what I doing. We are family members, and we are healing together by raising awareness of these issues. But what I didn’t realize or plan was how healing this would be for us. Culture is healing. Dance is healing. Together we heal.”
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Part 5: A Bridge between Peoples

Beating out Drake at the Polaris Prize in 2014, Tanya Tagaq is a force to reckon with on the music scene, but also in conversation.

Our interview is short, mostly because I am anxious to get her brilliant thoughts down onto paper and posted on Twitter as soon as I can. Her words are unique and precious, which is how she describes the thousands of Indigenous women that could be missing from or murdered in Canada.

 “I thought that during Polaris, that if I could just get people to understand that these are people, it’s our sisters, and it’s our moms and it’s our aunts and it’s us, it’s me, it’s me.”

During her award performance, Tagaq had the names of the 1100 plus missing or murdered Indigenous women scrolling on a screen behind her.

She asks me to imagine walking down a street and someone approaches me and asks what I think of the missing and murdered women issue. Then she tells me to imagine it’s her saying “how would you feel If I died, if I went missing?”

“When you are speaking from a first-person perspective and trying to tap into the numbness of this racial void in Canada, I thought the best thing to do is use names to humanize the women." 

Tagaq sees a disassociation between Canadians and missing and murdered Indigenous women. She says it’s one thing to feel that issues of abject poverty, racism and violence happen in countries that are far away, but it’s disheartening that it’s happening right here, in our own backyard, and people can easily turn a blind eye.

“It’s such an incredibly pressing issue. People have been dehumanizing the Indigenous population for a long time in a postcolonial hangover kind of way.”

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Tanya Tagaq/www.tanyatagaq.com

She relates the issue to kneading bread — and either getting your hands doughy or just putting it all in the bread maker. She uses that metaphor to describe the hands- off approach Canada has taken on the issue.

“I was thinking that was a little psychopathic and a sociological phenomenon that people were dealing with it at such an arms length, and I thought well if you’re dealing with it with psychopaths, you need to really humanize.”

Like the other artists I spoke to, Tanya is a visionary, with strong ideas of how to move forward.

She supports the idea of an inquiry but says it’s just a baby step.

“The inquiry is great, but we really need some damage control with immediate prioritization of funding to health and well being of Indigenous people, and implementing a bit of respect with it comes to judicial systems and a shift in social consciousness in indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.”

Tagaq says Indigenous histories also need to be taught more to understand treaty systems, poverty and past abuses of governments.  She also sees a great need for healing and health systems, and funding and support for Indigenous people.

She also talks about impunity within society and social structures – that people need to know at some point that it’s not okay to commit violence, to abuse children. To know they will get caught, be socially ostracized or punished immediately instead of these abuses happening with indifference. 

“Quite often people can’t care about others if they are sick. Then it’s the blind leading the blind. We need a society that begins to say, I care about you.”

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Part 6: An Invitation to be Included

She recently designed Valentino’s 2016 resort collection and is an internationally acclaimed painter. But Michif artist Christi Belcourt is also recognized in the Indigenous community for her passion, stealth perspective and fierce drive for change. Her words, like her incredibly detailed paintings and designs, are carefully crafted with a sharp eye for detail. Her intentions for both come from a place of deep reflection, consultation, care and love.

“We know that there is a great mystery that surrounds us at all times, some things cannot be explained, I truly believe 100 percent that the spirits of those who lived continue on and that they help us and I believe that’s what this project is about.”

Belcourt is telling me about Walking with Our Sisters (WWOS). Her vision to gather hundreds of moccasin “vamps” (the decorated tops of the slippers) to represent the unfinished lives of missing and murdered Indigenous women, children and two-spirit people has unfolded in a North American commemorative art installation. The exhibit though is more than an art show, it is a ceremony built and maintained with great care and by many volunteers – Indigenous and non-Indigenous men, women and two-spirit people.

Over 2,000 beautifully beaded adult and children’s moccasin tops line red cloth in a stunning exhibit and ceremony in cities, villages and communities, mostly in Canada. WWOS has been to 13 locations, and there are still dozens more exhibits that will take place until 2019.

Walking with Our Sisters is guided by traditional wisdom. Belcourt says that means bringing in Elders and traditional people who have the knowledge to respectfully and properly keep and handle the sacred items that are in the bundle, like medicines.

“It’s often the first point of ceremony for many people including our own people. It’s always a welcoming space that accepts. It’s a quiet space that people can come and reflect. It’s a scared space and a place where people cannot gawk or be the viewer, everyone is very much a part of it.”

Tobacco is offered at the beginning of the walk and carried by each participant throughout. Belcourt says when a family comes in with a pair of vamps or an eagle feather to attach to the eagle staffs they are immediately connected with an elder or a keeper who is a traditional person on site.

Belcourt consulted Metis Elder, activist and writer Maria Campbell before starting the project. Campbell told her that maintaining kindness and gentleness must be a cornerstone of it all. That, and making sure everyone feels welcome.

“So far it has helped restore some of my faith in humanity, just seeing all the people that have come with open hearts. We are stronger in understanding that our ceremonies don’t need to be hidden; there is a place for everyone in our ceremonies.” 

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Finally, A Way Forward

Christi Belcourt prophetically told me, “An inquiry will happen, I have no doubt in my mind.”

I interviewed everyone in these stories before the Oct. 19 election, when an inquiry was seen to be off the government’s radar. 

Now, with a new Liberal government leading Canada, the issue is on every party’s radar, including the Conservatives'. 

Just this week in Thunder Bay, Minister of Indigenous Affairs Carolyn Bennett confirmed the Liberal government’s intention to proceed with an inquiry. “The more I listen to families, the more I understand they have many instincts and much knowledge about the way we go forward in order to get this right," Bennett said.

Jody Wilson Raybould of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation, the first Indigenous Justice Minister in Canada, has also publically stated one of her first priorities will be the MMIW inquiry.

As Indigenous women’s groups proceed with cautious optimism with the new government, plans and decisions are now being made as to how that inquiry will look.

The most important take-away for me, as a journalist and an Indigenous woman who has listened to hundreds of stories about missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit people, is that while so many are nothing short of devastating, horrific and completely unacceptable — there is also hope.

There is hope rooted in the courage of those willing to share their stories, in the determination of those willing to take action, and in the creativity of those willing to strategize solutions and find a more acceptable way of being human in this society by protecting and caring for the most vulnerable members.

The light in this story comes from the family members who have never given up their fight to find justice and to honour their missing and murdered loved ones.

Their stories are heroic and should be held up to the highest regard, as without them this story is nothing but darkness. 

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The Politics of Inequality series is a partnership between OpenCanada and the Lind Initiative at the University of British Columbia.

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