Hundreds of marchers waving flags and placards blocked a causeway connecting Cape Breton Island to mainland Nova Scotia Wednesday, part of an effort to raise awareness about the unsolved death of a local Indigenous woman.
Cassidy Bernard, a 22-year-old mother of infant twins, was found dead at her home on the We’koqma’q First Nation last month.
Police are calling the woman’s death “suspicious,” and say her two babies – in the home at the time of the incident – were not harmed.
Chief Rod Googoo said the march across the blustery Canso Causeway was aimed at shining a spotlight on the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous woman across Canada and will hopefully shed light on what happened to Bernard.
“She was a sweet innocent child herself,” he said in an interview. “She was only 22 years old, she had just had twins that were six months old.”
The Mi’kmaq woman’s death has left the community in a state of shock and grief, he said.
Her cousin, Annie Bernard-Daisley, said hundreds of people from across the province joined the peaceful protest.
“It sends a strong message that we aren’t going to be taking lightly our women being targeted and missing or murdered,” said Bernard-Daisley, a local band councillor.
“We’re going to speak up for our women.”
Organizers on Facebook called the event the Red Dress Protest, and many of the marchers wore red or held red dresses that fluttered in the wind.
Others posted photos of red dresses hanging in windows or from trees on social media in solidarity with the protesters, along with the #JusticeForCassidy hashtag.
The demonstration began with an opening prayer, followed by a smudging and a march across the causeway to the steady rhythm of a women’s drumming group.
The We’koqma’q band council is offering a $100,000 reward for information that leads to an arrest and conviction.
“Cassidy’s murderer must be brought to justice,” the chief and council said in a statement.
“Her murder has devastated her children, family, our community and impacted the entire Mi’kmaw Nation.”
RCMP Cpl. Jennifer Clarke said police were on site Wednesday, ensuring the safety of the group and allowing them to “peacefully express their views.”
The Mounties have not yet confirmed the name of the victim.
The woman’s death was reported to police just before 11 a.m. on Oct. 24.
Police said in a news release she was found non-responsive in a home on Highway 105 in Waycobah, and that they believe it was not a random act.
The two infants are being cared for by family members, police said.
Bernard-Daisley added: “They’re in loving hands.”
The RCMP Northeast Nova Major Crimes Unit is leading the investigation, and Clarke said more information is expected to be released once the province’s medical examiner has completed an examination into the circumstances of the woman’s death.
She said while police appreciate the community’s decision to offer a reward for information, “we are confident that we have the investigation well in hand and will provide an update when more information is available.”
Googoo said the RCMP has run a “thorough investigation,” dedicating significant time and resources to solving the case.
Still, he said the march underscored that more must be done on the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women.
“We have to keep the spotlight bright on this issue,” Googoo said. “We need to keep the pressure on and make people aware that our women and our children are very valuable to us.
“We have the same feelings as any other person in Canada. We do love our women very dearly, we cherish them, we love our children and we hurt, we grieve and we feel pain.”
The 1,385-metre, rock-filled Canso Causeway crosses the Strait of Canso and connects Highway 104 on the mainland to Highway 105 in Cape Breton.