Two events will be upon us shortly. And each one is more than worthy of moments to acknowledge and remember.
But the Oct. 4 date to honour and remember the missing indigenous girls, women and families is relatively new — only a few years within which it has been established to try to gather support and acknowledgment. And in that regard, it is a day for sadness and reflection — similar to Remembrance Day.
While the other day has almost a century of ceremony — Remembrance Day honours and remembers the tens of thousands of soldiers who lost their lives in battle. The Sisters in Spirit Vigil has but a decade behind it.
The number of missing or murdered women pales in comparison to those lost in battle — the RCMP have counted about 1,181 cases of murdered or missing Indigenous women since 1980. In Canada, indigenous women make up only four per cent of the population, and yet they account for 16 per cent of all women murdered within the last 30 years.
Amnesty International, in its 2004 report, Stolen Sisters: A Human Rights Response to Violence and Discrimination against Indigenous Women in Canada, painted the horrific picture:
"Helen Betty Osborne was a 19-year-old Cree student from northern Manitoba who dreamed of becoming a teacher. On Nov. 12, 1971, she was abducted by four white men in the town of The Pas and then sexually assaulted and brutally murdered. A provincial inquiry subsequently concluded that Canadian authorities had failed Helen Betty Osborne. The inquiry criticized the sloppy and racially biased police investigation that took more than 15 years to bring one of the four men to justice. Most disturbingly, the inquiry concluded that police had long been aware of white men sexually preying on Indigenous women and girls in The Pas but "did not feel that the practice necessitated any particular vigilance."
It is what has played out across Canada — and particularly in B.C. — as women vanished, were murdered, and were ignored. Families pleaded with police to investigate, to try, to listen, and to search. Even after the arrest of Robert Pickton, four years after he was identified as a suspect, evidence was quashed, ignored, and rationalized as being of little use to jurors.
It is heartbreaking to think that officers and judicial staff failed so many women so miserably. It is equally heartbreaking to even try to fathom that some officers — and members of the public — would dismiss these women.
Amnesty's report, more than a decade ago, revealed what everyone knew, but took little action on. And that was three years before Pickton faced trial:
"Violence against women, and certainly violence against Indigenous women, is rarely understood as a human rights issue. To the extent that governments, media and the general public do consider concerns about violence against women, it is more frequent for it to be described as a criminal concern or a social issue. It is both of those things of course. But it is also very much a human rights issue. Women have the right to be safe and free from violence. Indigenous women have the right to be safe and free from violence. When a woman is targeted for violence because of her gender or because of her Indigenous identity, her fundamental rights have been abused. And when she is not offered an adequate level of protection by state authorities because or her gender or because of her Indigenous identity, those rights have been violated."
On Dec. 8, 2015, Justin Trudeau's Liberal government announced the launch of an inquiry into the issues of violence against indigenous women, and with a mandate to create an action plan. For the next two years, $40 million has been earmarked toward this National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. It is a small step toward justice after years of stalling by the previous Stephen Harper Conservative government.
To move forward is the only solution. As we walk in Whistler's Sisters in Spirit Oct. 4, we are reminded that we still have a long road ahead.
Perhaps we dare to even dream that decades from now, the ceremony will be purged of fear and undertaken purely for remembrance.