In 1992, on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, a First Nations woman, Cheryl Anne Joe, was horrendously murdered and dismembered, her body found at the corner of Powell and Salsbury. Cheryl Anne was a single mother with two young children, and in pain and outrage that followed, First Nations women initiated the Valentine’s Day Memorial March.
After Cheryl Anne’s death, residents began to piece together a disturbing picture; women were disappearing from the area and not returning. The march became an annual event to protest the high numbers of women missing and murdered in their community.
In its 26th year, the march is led by First Nations women and moves through the DTES, stopping at sites where women died or were last seen to offer prayers, medicines, and roses in remembrance. A healing ritual is performed at each site where a woman’s body has been found.
This year Acwsalcta students and staff took the long trip to Vancouver to participate, and for many of them it was deeply personal.
Vanessa Hans, a cultural teacher at the school, is a survivor in every sense. Her mother, Gloria Moody, disappeared in Williams Lake in 1969, when Vanessa was a baby. She was later found murdered in what is now recognized as the first case in the infamous “Highway of Tears.”
This was her first time participating in the march.
“It was powerful,” she shared. “Every time we stopped it was to acknowledge a place where a woman went missing or was found murdered. And we stopped a lot.”
Beginning with speeches by the families at Carneige Hall, the march took place through the “poorest postal code in Canada” - the notorious Downtown Eastside (DTES). The area is noted for a high incidence of poverty drug use, sex trade, crime, violence, as well as a history of community activism.
10 young female students from Acwsalcta School attended the march, which was coordinated by High School Humanities teacher Laura McLellan. The group also used the time to visit the Museum of Anthropology at UBC and met with up-and coming First Nations physicians.
“I organized this trip because the situation of the missing and murdered indigenous women is the most pressing human rights issue in Canada today and it directly effects my students. I want my students to understand this ongoing problem and the best way to understand things is to experience it,” said McLellan. “It’s also difficult to understand the reality of the down town east side without seeing it with your own eyes. The march was a very powerful experience in the heart of the worst neighbourhood in Canada and I hope this will stay with my students for the rest of their lives.”
While the hurt in the air was a palatable feeling, there was also a sense of urgency, and a sense of hope. Many are optimistic that the federal government, after being pressured for years to hold a national inquiry, will finally deliver on its promise to protect the lives of First Nations women and girls.
But it’s still a cautious optimism for some like Fay Blaney, who is a First Nations woman and an organizer of the march.
“We’re still pressing for women’s groups to be heard within that process,” she said. “Currently they've consulted with families and within that front line service providers have entered that space but there have been tensions with families.”
Jody Wilson-Raybould, a member of the We Wai Kai Nation and the new federal Minister of Justice, has attended the march for a number of years, but this was her first time representing the federal government.
“We’ve committed first and foremost to meet with the families,” she said. “Certainly we’ve committed to working with organizations, aboriginal organizations, women’s organizations, front line workers. We welcome all contributions and perspectives.”
The number of missing or murdered indigenous women in Canada since 1980 may be as high as 4,000 - far more than previous estimates of 1,200, the federal government has said.
The Minister for the Status of Women, Patty Hadju, said there were no accurate figures because of a lack of hard data, but cited research from the Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC) that puts the figure at more than 4,000.
Ms. Hajdu and Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett have been speaking to survivors and relatives across Canada. The inquiry was a key election pledge by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during the campaign last year.
The often cited 1,200 figure came from a 2014 RCMP report on the missing women, related to the period between 1980 and 2012.
“During those discussions, the ministers have heard from participants that they believe the number of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls is higher than 1,200,” Ms Bennett said.
Hans is very hopeful the Trudeau government delivers on its promise for an inquiry, but says even if her mother’s murderer was caught, she doesn’t count on the justice system to deliver the desired results.
“First Nations women are hoping that the inquiry delivers expedient action towards preventing violence against our First Nations women and girls,” she said. “There is a sense that I could be a victim, just because I’m a First Nations woman. I want people to remember my mom’s name, her life, who she was. Why are First Nations women not a priority?”