Alberta's first national conference seeking solutions to the crisis of Canada's missing and murdered indigenous women will happen less than one month before the federal election.
Spirit of Our Sisters was conceptualized by Karen McCarthy, who grew frustrated when calls for help on the issue from Canada's government went unanswered.
She says, however, the timing was merely coincidence – and rather than focusing solely on politics, the conference is expected to bring families, experts in violence prevention and others together in Edmonton on Sept. 28.
Most of the conference was funded by Onion Lake Cree Nation, Alexander First Nation, registration fees and fundraising events, such as a gala dinner.
Spirit of Our Sisters differs from February's national roundtable in Ottawa because this guest list is not "invitation-only."
Ms. McCarthy, whose roots are in Alberta's Saddle Lake Cree Nation, says non-indigenous people are welcome. In fact, she says, those who question the issue's relevance to their own community hold a significant role in finding a solution.
"Until [non-indigenous] society starts to understand why … the majority of our people are the way we are … [and] our history, and have empathy … that's the only way things are going to change," she said.
Chief Craig Makinaw agrees. Then Ermineskin Cree Nation man, who took office as Alberta Regional Chief in July, supported Spirit of Our Sisters long before he was elected.
To understand indigenous history, he says, is to understand a complicated, country-wide crisis: One with multigenerational trauma at its centre and that presents itself as girls and women vanish from Winnipeg's North End, Vancouver's Downtown Eastside and the rest of impoverished Canada.
According to a 2014 RCMP report, 1,017 indigenous women and girls were victims of homicide between 1980 and 2012, and another 164 were missing. A 2015 supplementary report said another 32 aboriginal women had been murdered in jurisdictions policed by the RCMP in 2013 and 2014.
Chief Makinaw discussed the conference and steps to finding a solution with The Globe and Mail.
What was the process of creating Spirit of Our Sisters?
Well, it's been in discussion probably for the last year or so, once all the discussion on the murdered and missing indigenous women issue came up in the last few years. So there've been people here in Alberta that wanted to sit down and have a national conference to bring those issues back up to the table again.
What was your role in making the gathering a reality?
I guess mine would be mainly support because there was already a committee established about a year ago or so, and finally now they got the financial resources to proceed ahead with this national gathering.
Why is it important that Spirit of Our Sisters is taking place in Alberta?
Alberta is having their own meeting to discuss … what steps we'll be doing on the Alberta front. And whatever recommendations come out of this meeting will be brought up … either with the AFN or the national meeting that'll be coming probably in December or early next year.
Ontario First Nations have recently announced their intention of having their own inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. Based on what you're saying, it sounds like some of what's discussed at Spirit of Our Sisters will be used to go forward with a plan of action that's specific to the province.
But, at the same time, to work with the other provinces that are all working on this issue. So we're trying to come up, I guess probably in the end, with a national plan.
Why is it important that Spirit of Our Sisters 2015 is happening less than a month before the federal election?
It's good because there's a lot of presenters and people that are coming into the meeting and bringing their recommendations and observations. So, with the election coming up … hopefully the federal candidates are aware that, I know they're aware that, we're working on this nationally. So I'm hoping that after the election on Oct. 19 that we hear the announcement of a national inquiry.
What link do you see between the indigenous vote and the end of missing and murdered indigenous girls and women in Canada?
With all the work that's been going on, it's one of the steps that needs to be done, to make everybody aware of the issue nationally so that we can move ahead and, I guess, deal with the issue now instead of waiting for an answer from the federal government.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Kristy Hoffman is a freelance writer.