Posters of smiling aboriginal women were laid out at the base of an imposing statue in Dorchester Square on Saturday night. But the words “missing” and “murdered,” written in bold type, told a different story.
The crowd of about 80 people, many holding candles, gathered at one of approximately 40 simultaneous Sisters in Spirit vigils across the country that commemorated aboriginal women who have gone missing or been murdered in Canada.
According to Theresa Ducharme, the Community Development Coordinator for Sisters in Spirit, more than 500 aboriginal women have gone missing or been murdered in Canada according to records that go back up to 20 years. And this figure increases almost every week.
“In the Downtown Eastside in Vancouver, every two weeks there are more missing girls, and a lot of them, of course, [are] prostitutes and drug addicts,” Ducharme said.
The recent disappearance of Maisy Odjick, 16, and Shannon Alexander, 17, made Saturday’s events especially poignant. The two girls have been missing since September 5, when they were last seen at Alexander’s home, near Maniwaki, Quebec, about 200 kilometres northwest of Montreal.
While the number of missing women has risen, the media has applied a racist double-standard in their coverage, according to Ducharme.
“With these two young girls from Maniwaki that are missing, I don’t hear about it on the news,” Durcharme said. “If it’s a non-native girl, you’re almost guaranteed that they will be on the front page.”
Community members in the crowd included Rossel Berard, assistant coordinator for the Inter-Tribal Youth Centre of Montreal, which is part of the Native Friendship Centre.
“I’m here because it’s an issue that concerns a lot of the youth at our centre,” Berard said. “We always have posters up of disappeared youth.”
“There are a lot of people that are touched by this in the Native Friendship Centre’s community,” Berard said.
An open letter penned by social justice groups, including Amnesty International, decried the high rate of violence against aboriginal women, which Statistics Canada pegged at being between three and seven times higher than the rate for non-aboriginal women, depending on the type of offence.
The letter, addressed to all federal politicians, called for the government to act on a number of issues, including discrimination and poverty among aboriginal communities.
Irkar Beljaars, who organized the Montreal vigil, called on federal politicians to investigate the disappearances.
“I want to hear in the next federal budget that there is going to be money to create a task force to help me find my missing sisters,” Beljaars stated.
He told The Daily that he invited candidates from all major political parties to attend the event. However, the NDP was the only party represented at the vigil, with Montreal-area candidates Anne Lagacé Dowson and Daniel Breton speaking.
Lagacé Dowson said that the lack of affordable housing is partly to blame for the problems faced by aboriginal women.
“We need social housing and we need better measures so that people don’t fall through the cracks,” she said.
In the fourth year of the campaign, the number of Sisters in Spirit vigils across Canada has almost quadrupled, according to organizers. And they hope to increase their numbers next year.
“It’s time we all spoke up,” Beljaars said. “It’s time we tell our government that enough is enough.”
Click on the audio file above to listen to more from the vigil