On March 27, Montreal saw a vigil to honour the life of Loretta Saunders, an Indigenous woman who went missing earlier this year and was later found murdered. The vigil, organized by the Missing Justice collective, took place at Place Norman-Bethune, and was part of a nationwide event.
Saunders was a 26-year-old Saint Mary’s University student doing research on violence against Indigenous women when she suddenly disappeared on February 13. Two weeks later, her body was found on the Trans-Canada Highway in New Brunswick. Police have since charged her two roommates for her murder.
The vigil aimed to commemorate Loretta’s life, and to call attention to broader issues concerning violence against Indigenous women. Alisha Mascarenhas, a member of the collective, pronounced on its behalf, “We are here to honour Loretta’s life and ensure that her work was not in vain.”
“We gather today because government statistics assert that Indigenous women [aged 25 to 44] in Canada are five times more likely than any other women to die of violent causes.” Mascarenhas added, “The [Native] Women’s Association of Canada estimates that roughly 600 Indigenous women and girls have disappeared or have been missing since the 1980s.”
Those in attendance also spoke to a lack of awareness regarding the issue. Heather Igloliorte, a professor of Art History at Concordia, told The Daily that, “One of the outgoing legacies of settlers in Canada is the fact that we devalue Indigenous women in our culture. We have this serious instance of [a] very high number of murdered Indigenous women in Canada and yet there is very little awareness about what’s going on.”
As the commemoration went on, a contemporary powwow band, Buffalo Hat Singers, performed in Saunders’ honour. The singing was followed by a moment of silence, and a poem was read by a spoken-word artist.
“I was just reflecting in the moment of silence and I appreciate it that it was a long moment of silence,” the poet said.
“It’s good to feel a little bit of discomfort. Maybe this moment was too long, too silent. In those moments we can recognize our own death, our own being, the fire that we have inside us.”
Saunders was involved in doing research for her undergraduate degree in criminology when she was killed. “She deeply recognized her position as an Indigenous woman in the research that she was doing,” Mascarenhas said.
“My interest is in honouring Loretta and other Indigenous women who had spoken out in the ways in which colonialism continues to eliminate them from society,” Darryl Leroux, Saunders’s former thesis advisor, wrote in an article published in the Halifax Media Co-Op on March 21. “We must not stand idly by as Loretta’s experiences as [an] Indigenous [woman] are trivialized, denied, misrepresented or eliminated.”
Recently, the Nova Scotia Native Women’s Association (NSNWA) has set plans in motion to establish a scholarship fund in Saunders’ name. Leroux, along with NSNWA president Cheryl Maloney, have also spoken about the possibility of establishing a research institution or foundation that would specifically focus on the problem of violence against Indigenous women.
Shehla Arif, a member of the Missing Justice collective, told The Daily that cases such as Saunders’ are a result of the stereotypes that surround Indigenous women.
She pushed back against the idea that women are killed “because they put themselves at risk,” pointing to colonial processes as the root of violence against Indigenous women.
Arif stated that Saunders faced these stereotypes about Indigenous women, and said that she regarded it as everyone’s responsibility to continue Saunders’s work.