Indigenous women paid tribute to missing and murdered sisters, daughters, cousins and other loved ones in an emotional vigil Sunday, saying the need to address systemic racism is more urgent than ever. The vigil was moved online because of the pandemic.
“We cannot cancel the vigil even for one year, because the grief of the families has not been put on hold by the virus. And sadly, neither has the violence which is claiming so many of our mothers, daughters, sisters, aunties and grandmothers,” Lorraine Whitman, president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC), said during the event.
The Sisters in Spirit vigil came less than a week after Joyce Echaquan, a 37-year-old woman from Atikamekw Nation, died at a hospital in Joliette, Que., after going live on Facebook and filming the verbal abuse and racial taunts she heard from hospital staff as she lay dying. On Saturday, the Quebec coroner’s office said it will launch a public inquest into her treatment and death.
“Justice certainly needs to be served," said Ms. Whitman, who lauded Ms. Echaquan’s strength in her final moments. “We know systemic discrimination and racism exist and it has to stop. We can’t move forward until we acknowledge [that].”
The vigils have been held annually on Oct. 4 since 2006, Ms. Whitman said, expanding to more than 100 communities across Canada in recent years. The ceremony to support grieving families and honour missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and gender diverse people was held on Facebook this year.
Martha Martin, the mother of Chantel Moore, who was fatally shot by police in Edmundston, N.B., in June, cried as she shared her daughter’s story. Twenty-six-year-old Ms. Moore, who belonged to the Tla-oqui-aht First Nation in British Columbia, had recently moved to New Brunswick and was “getting back on her feet,” her mother said, noting her plans to become an engineer and move to New York.
Now, 17 weeks after her death, Ms. Martin said Ms. Moore’s six-year-old daughter cries often and “says she wants to have wings so she can be with her mom.”
Relatives of Sonya Cywink, who was found dead in 1994 though her killer has not been caught, and of Lynn Gauthier, who was killed by her common-law partner in 2000, also spoke, describing their loved ones’ personalities, passions and plans for their lives.
“Indigenous women of Canada are resilient, but we have been asked to endure far more hardship than our non-Indigenous sisters,” Ms. Whitman said, noting that many First Nations, Métis and Inuit women have had to cope with the murder or disappearance of a loved one.
The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) delivered a 1,200-page report in June, 2019. It concluded that violence against Indigenous women, girls, LGBTQ and two-spirit people amounted to a race-based genocide and issued 231 calls for justice. Ottawa said it would develop a national plan of action within a year, but has since said that has been delayed by the pandemic.
In the Speech from the Throne last month, the government said it would accelerate work on the national action plan. Emily Williams, a spokeswoman for Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett, would not provide an updated timeline for the plan but said on Sunday that Ottawa is working with numerous Indigenous governments, organizations and women’s groups (including the NWAC), as well as territorial and provincial governments, to co-develop a national action plan.
“The national action plan will be a durable and accountable document that can be measured against and adjusted, ensuring we make progress on ending violence against Indigenous women, girls, Two Spirit and LGBTQ people,” Ms. Williams said in an e-mail.
Ms. Whitman said she was hurt and disappointed when the government failed to produce the plan on time, but that she has turned her focus to looking forward at what can be done. The NWAC has provided a shortlist of suggestions that includes the creation of a new investigative unit to re-examine cold cases and the creation of a database to keep track of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
“We sense there is now an eagerness on the part of the government to get the plan drafted. The tabling of the first version of the national action plan will not stop the violence overnight, but I am confident that it will start us down the road to creating a country that is a safer place for Indigenous women,” Ms. Whitman said.
Several recent court rulings or hearings have highlighted issues raised in the MMIWG report.
Last month, the Federal Court of Canada held a four-day hearing in Regina over whether a proposed $600-million class-action case against the federal government and RCMP can proceed. The federal government opposes certification of the case, which alleges the RCMP was negligent in its approach to investigating missing and murdered Indigenous women.
Also in September, a judge of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice sentenced a London police officer to jail time for failing to provide medical help to an Indigenous woman who died while in custody. This marked a first for Canada and the judge in the case pointed to the need to recognize the context of police treatment of Black, Indigenous and other racialized people.
And the Quebec Court of Appeal last week threw out a lighter sentence and ordered 44 months in a federal penitentiary in a case of violent spousal sexual assault in a northern Inuit community on Hudson Bay.
The ruling cited changes to federal sentencing law that took effect last year and made deterrence the primary consideration in cases involving vulnerable Indigenous women and girls as victims, sentencing changes that came in part in response to the MMIWG inquiry.
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