Approximately 100 people gathered at Cabot Square, and walked east on Ste. Catherine to Phillips Square this past Monday as part of the second annual Memorial March for Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women.
Missing Justice, an activist volunteer collective, organized the march, which took place in solidarity with similar marches across Canada. Monica van Schaik, one of the march’s organizers, explained that activism around this issue is especially important because it can be difficult for Aboriginal communities to mobilize due to the many other issues they face.
The march began with a song from the mixed drum group, Tiohtiake Drum. The group continued to play throughout the march. The drummers and singers were from different First Nations, and requested that the opening song not be recorded or filmed. The collective also invited speakers from various organizations to speak at the march.
Schaik noted that attention surrounding the issue increased after Tiffany Morrison, a 25-year-old woman from the Kahnawake region went missing in 2006, but that discussion surrounding missing and murdered Aboriginal women is still extremely “silenced” within public discourse.
According to Missing Justice, the number of murdered or missing indigenous women in Canada since 2005 is estimated to be between 583 to 3,000. Numbers are inexact due to the lack of serious measures the Canadian government and police services have taken to address this issue.
“Missing Justice, as a collective, saw there wasn’t any activism in Quebec going on around the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women,” said van Schaik.
Missing Justice works closely with Aboriginal communities in Montreal. Last year the collective held ten events to bring attention to this issue.
“It’s a pretty devastating loss for families to go through. We need to support our sisters, our family members, and our community, in helping resolve all these issues and find solutions so that all these issues can be addressed in a timely fashion,” said Jennifer Russell, an administrative assistant at Projets Autochtones du Québec, who sang with Tiohtiake Drum.
“It’s essential that people hear it… It’s part of our responsibility to do that,” said Chad Diabo, one of four drummers and a Mohawk from Kahnawake. “If you look at the emotions of the crowd after we sang – people were crying – this is what it brings out to people. And for us as native people that’s worth more than gold.”
Action in Montreal and Beyond
Cesar Caceres, coordinator of Action Créative – an organization that explores cultural identities through methods of communication and art – carried a large banner throughout the march.
“It is important to be in the streets. It is a problem in Montreal and in Canadian and Quebec society with respect to native women,” he said. “It must be put right on all levels.”
Sisters in Spirit is a nation-wide organization that spearheads mobilization efforts around the large numbers of murdered and missing Aboriginal women.
Nakuset, the executive director of the Montreal Native Women’s Shelter spoke at the march about the Canadian government’s decision last November to reallocate $10 million dollars, originally marked to go to Sisters in Spirit’s projects, to Public Safety Canada. She told the crowd she received a phone call from a Public Safety Canada representative, and was impressed by the way they seemed to be handling the funding.
“It’s a good thing for Montreal… they’re asking Aboriginals what do you want to do with the money, where do you see a safety plan?” Nakuset said. “They are actually coming to us. I don’t know if they are doing that everywhere else.”
Speaking to The Daily, Nakuset said she would to hold a weeklong conference for Aboriginal people on violence. She cited increased awareness, and resources such as anger management classes or traditional ceremonies tailored to provide for situations of domestic violence, as actions she would like to be undertaken.
“We need to step up”
Stone Iwaasa attended the march on behalf of the Mohawk Tribal Council of Kahnawake. He explained the traditionally matrilineal nature of Mohawk society and the Council’s commitment “to put things back in the right order” by bringing justice for murdered and missing women.
“We are here for the women,” Iwaasa said.
“It has to bring up change. To let the government know this is not acceptable. This is not tolerated. They will have to listen to us and they will have to do something,” Diabo said regarding the significance of Monday’s march and the message it aimed to send.
“This is our future. These are our mothers, our lifebearers, so we need to step up and do our part,” he added.
“The strength of this community [is] being able to reach out to all of the races. It’s not just Aboriginals – all peoples to come together for the same purposes of healing people,” Russell said. “The fact that there are all different people here to support is an amazing thing.”
“There’s certain community centres that help keep people together,” Diabo said, referring to the Native Friendship Centre and the Native Women’s Shelter.
He added that organizations like these help to “keep the community strong.”
France Robertson, Coordinator of women’s shelters and the promotion of non-violence for Quebec Native Women Inc. – an organization that offers support to Aboriginal women from abusive backgrounds – explained that, in Quebec, many Aboriginal women come to Montreal to escape the violence they experience in their communities. They are able to find resources and support in shelters run specifically for Aboriginal women.
Robertson grew up in Mashteuiatsh, a northern Quebec First Nations community on Lac Saint-Jean.
“I experienced violence there. In fact, for me, violence there was normal because I lived it,” Robertson said in reference to her upbringing.
“We know what helps our people. To be able to foster a caring and compassionate environment for them to come out of that abuse – it’s a very big cycle. I’m a victim of it and a survivor of it,” explained Russell who comes from an Ojibwe community.
“The only thing that helped me was going back through my community and through my culture,” Russell said.
Robertson added that the process of healing has especially large implications in Aboriginal communities.
“For us, violence is a subject that was not spoken about for a long time in our community. To increase public awareness in communities and to help people in our communities, help families – it’s not just to help women, it is the family as well,” said Robertson.
According to Russell, the high statistics of violence against Aboriginal women are traced to residential school experiences, the effects of which are still resonating within indigenous communities today.
“It’s been ingrained in our children, in the past generation so that it’s something that we’ve been taught. A lot of people have been taught that that’s what normal is,” said Russell.
“This is kind of the society we’ve built I guess. Everybody has a responsibility in it so we all have to change it all together,” Russell said.