By: Rachel Aiello
Sitting in a circle as the spring sun shines through a skylight, women at the Mamidosewin center carefully string beads through a needle and thread onto a pair of moccasin tops. One loose thread in their design and the whole beautiful pattern can come undone and go scattering onto the floor.
The women are creating only some of the 600 pairs of moccasin tops being installed in a travelling exhibit entitled Walking with our Sisters, to commemorate the aboriginal women who have been lost.
A social fabric has become unwoven and over 600 women, like the uniquely crafted beads these craft-makers are working with, have fallen into unknown spots never to be seen again. But it is people like the women at the center, who are working to weave their cultural patterns back together amid a society that has little value for the lost pieces. Until lately, finding these precious pearls of people hasn’t been a priority.
This is the story of missing and murdered aboriginal women.
Stolen sisters, the statistics:
Over the last several decades, a disproportionally high number of aboriginal women have gone missing, or have been murdered. Those who are aware of the issue regard it as a quiet tragedy unfolding in Canada’s own backyard.
Aboriginal females account for 10 per cent of all female homicides in Canada, but only make up three per cent of the female population. When the victim is an aboriginal woman or girl, the homicide clearance rate of 85 percent drops down to 50.
To put this into perspective, if the scenario was the same for non-native Canadian women, the victim count would exceed 20,000.
“It’s a national crisis and no one’s paying that much attention to. Not even so much the details, but the fact that it’s a person that’s gone missing or been murdered,” said Cassondra Barnaby, student leader and aboriginal studies student at Algonquin.
“It’s very disturbing.”
News Worthy Victims?
Community members have been working determinedly for years to try to raise awareness about this issue. Activists and families personally affected have held symposiums, public inquires, demonstrations, cross-Canada walks, among other awareness-raising actions, yet those invested in the issue feel it has been cast to the back-pages of mainstream media, and has been disvalued by the justice system,
“The kind of coverage speaks to systemic reasons casting back centuries and the institutional barriers that still impact indigenous women,” said Kristin Gilchrist, a Families of Sisters in Spirit representative.
The missing and murdered women are a symptom of a much greater problem.
“It boggles my mind but it’s continually happening so that must say something to the system or the attention that we pay,” said Elena Abel, events coordinator at the Mamidosewin center.
“It’s not just an isolated incident and sometimes people will say if that girl was non-aboriginal, would things be different?” said Abel. “Would investigations happen quicker, would people take it more seriously? You got to kind of question that, are we not validating the lives of these women?”
Voices of Sisters in Sprit
The issue became so alarming, yet not acted upon, that in 2005 Sisters in Spirit—
an aboriginal women-led initiative— began work with Native Women’s Association of Canada to investigate the cases and created a set of recommendations on how to combat the violence.
“The very fact that the families, like Sisters in Spirit had to create a toolkit to give to families if someone was missing, because the families are the ones that end up having to coordinate the search efforts… how crazy is that? said Abel.
Since then, a grassroots initiative—Families of Sisters in Spirit— is acting as the current voice working to validate the lives of these women following SIS’ funding being reallocated to the RCMP.
FSIS has been working to “try to bring a voice to the families who are screaming for justice, for closure, for equality and accountability,” said Gladys Radek, an active FSIS member, at their annual Feb. 14 Day of Action and Remembrance, where the message was: violence no more.
On Valentines Day this year, a crowd of about 100 people gathered at the Langevin Block and walked onto the steps of Parliament, where the families of victims shared their stories, raising political attention, as Carolyn Bennett of the Liberal party, Elizabeth May of the Green party and NDP Olivia Chow all participated.
Aboriginal Affairs Critic Carolyn Bennett said that after being at that rally and seeing the sky blue frames around the pictures of the daughters and sisters and grandmothers, it tugged at her heart and knew she was in a position to try to do something.
That day, she submitted a motioned to enact a special parliamentary committee to conduct hearings into missing and murdered aboriginal women and on Feb. 27, it was unanimously supported.
The committee plans on looking into the root causes to deal with the past and prevent the perpetuation of violence. They recognize it is only possible with the help of the work that’s already been done, and it must be creatively approached as to not re-victimize or raise expectations, to achieve something given the current political environment.
“This will not ever replace a national public inquiry, we still need to keep pressing for that,” said Bennett.
“When you hear from the families, they will never heal, this is a great gaping hole in their life forever but at least we can wrap supports and services around them so that they can be the best they can be with what happened.”
But some members of the community are skeptical of the committee’s impact.
“We’ve had enough investigating this, you’ve had your recommendations and there needs to be some accountability and some action taken and I don’t know that we’re going to see that from this government it seems like issues are so unconsidered,” said Abel.
“A national inquiry is important for sure but we can’t just keep talking about it and going in circles… All these families have talked about it, there’s been lots of research done but I think the climate right now is that people want to see action.”
Walking for Justice
At the moment, the action remains in the hands of an invigorated community that is coming off of Idle No More with momentum.
Walking With Our Sisters, is only one of the many outlets in which the community is attempting to heal from what has been regarded as a human rights tragedy. It allows a helpless group to have a powerfully personal hands-on opportunity to honour and strengthen the sense of community through these moccasin tops, and according to the women working on them at the Mamidosewin center, they are like a piece of an unfinished project and they represent an unfinished life.
“In doing this work and keeping the thought of walking with our sisters, that can be a really healing part as well that we’re putting our energies and out thoughts into the work that we do to try and help,” said Jackie Tenute, aboriginal councellor on campus.
“The more that we talk about this, the more it gets out into the media, the more people know that native women, and women in general are not object to be hurt, I think it’s a really valuable thing to do,” said Tenute.
As the women’s beading becomes more intricate, Tenute continues on, describing what a spirit bead is, and how it poignantly highlights the symbolism of missing and murdered women.
“When you’re beading, there’s always one little bead that might not be sitting correctly and you have to kind of ask what is that bead teaching me. Part of it might be humility, part of it might be that you might never be perfect and that it’s important to allow that little spirit bead to be there, our imperfections make us who we are and that’s beautiful and we need to honor that spirit.”