Whistler's fourth annual Sisters in Spirit Vigil opened with a powerful message from organizer Linda Epp.
"Together, we are uniting for a common cause, and drawing attention to this Canadian human rights emergency," said Epp, standing in front of a crowd of around 200 people gathered in front of the welcome totem pole near Village Square on Thursday, Oct. 4.
Wearing a red leather jacket and a straw hat with a hummingbird design, Epp explained that similar vigils were taking place in communities across the country.
The gatherings, she explained, are aimed at raising "awareness for over one thousand missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirited people." "Today is a day for us to come together and grieve, as well as heal," said Epp, who spent the weeks leading up to the event hanging red dresses around the village in remembrance of the missing.
Epp invited the crowd to share how they have been affected by the crisis.
A Lil'wat elder, Lorna K. Leo, took the stage and explained how her 18-year-old sister went missing back in 1969.
"My dad looked and looked everywhere," said Leo, visibly shaken.
"I have this empty thing in my heart, because I don't know where she is." Following her testimony, Leo broke down at the side of the stage, as two women held and consoled her.
As she wept, another elder explained how she too had lost a sister, hers only eight years old. "The RCMP only looked for her for a week," she said. "But we spent our whole lives looking for her and praying—that she's on the other side with the Creator."
The crowd walked the Village Stroll, singing the Women's Warrior Song to the beat of several drums. When they arrived at the totem pole at the far end of Whistler Olympic Plaza, the group took part in a moment of silence. Epp then invited singers and drummers from the Squamish and Lil'Wat Cultural Centre to perform.
"Together we can forge a new path for positive change, and reach together for a new future where the words missing and murdered are no longer a part of our vocabulary and become a distant memory of the past," she said.
A group of teens danced, and bundles of tobacco, wrapped neatly in red cloth, were distributed to the crowd. The group then walked to the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre
, where family and friends gathered at tables in the Istken Hall, a spectacular round room with wrap-around windows.
At the centre of the room, Leo and others engaged in a smudging ceremony, letting the smoke from the burning of herbs loft around their bodies, purifying their spirit and body.
Reflecting on the experience, Leo said that it felt good to see so many people remembering lost ones. "It gives them an idea of where we're coming from," she said.
All these years later, Leo said that she is still hopeful that she will one day see her sister, noting that police have recently reopened the case into her disappearance.
"When I go places and I'm in a crowd, I still look at faces—to see if I can see her," she said.