The sixth annual Montreal Sisters in Spirit Memorial March and Vigil went ahead Tuesday, almost a year after the federal government pulled the funding meant to support the nationwide event.
Bridget Tolley, whose mother was struck and killed by a Sûreté du Québec police car in 2001, has helped organize the annual marches since 2005.
“We need to support the families, and we want to do whatever is possible to help the families. So tonight is for them, and we’re going to continue and remember our missing and murdered aboriginal women,” said Tolley to the crowd of almost 300 people.
Sisters in Spirit, a group within the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC), helped organize the marches every year until their funding was cut. The group also compiled data and research on missing and murdered native women in Canada. Until 1980, no such records existed in any form.
Today there are nearly 600 confirmed cases of missing and murdered aboriginal women.
Maya Rolbin-Ghanie, a member of Missing Justice – the aboriginal rights advocacy group that organized Tuesday’s march – said in an interview with The Daily that the government’s justification for pulling the funding was that “no more research was needed.”
The government has since folded the Sisters in Spirit database into a national database called Evidence in Action under the RCMP. Rolbin-Ghanie said the new database was “not in any way specific to native women.”
“And this is after the largest year of Sisters in Spirit vigils ever. Last year there were 86 – and even one down in Nicaragua – and the name Sisters in Spirit was really becoming well known. And this is when the government decides to yank all the funding,” said Rolbin-Ghanie.
One of the government’s stipulations in removing the funding was that NWAC could no longer use the name Sisters in Spirit. In response, members of Sisters in Spirit formed the group Families of Sisters in Spirit, who continue to help organize events to promote awareness around missing and murdered aboriginal women. This year, 51 vigils have taken place.
Ellen Gabriel, former president of the Quebec Native Women’s Association, said the government’s decision to move the funding from NWAC to the RCMP was especially problematic.
“[The RCMP are] the ones, the culprits, who have, through their apathy, done nothing to improve this situation,” said Gabriel.
Harvey Michele, an indigenous rights activist from the Ojibway Nation north of Thunder Bay, Ontario, said that six years of marches and vigils had not had much of a concrete effect on the rate of missing and murdered native women in Canada.
“More financial and human resources need to… look at the policy development, policy review, and empower the aboriginal women’s groups to examine their issues,” he said.
Rolbin-Ghanie noted that media and other institutions are starting to note the systemic nature of the problem, not “just isolated incidents of violence.”
“The pillars of Canadian society, what we consider to be integral, like the court system, the media, the government, and the police forces are definitely still profound contributors to the problem in a number of ways. So there’s still a lot of work to be done,” she added.