Last Thursday evening, approximately 300 people participated in Montreal’s 7th Annual Sisters in Spirit March and Vigil for Missing and Murdered Native Women. This year’s Spirit March, held the same night as over 100 similar marches, focused on the theme of government accountability.
The Spirit March has been held annually since 2005, and is spearheaded by Bridget Tolley, an Algonquin woman who has worked with the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC). Tolley started the movement to help seek justice for her mother Gladys, who was killed by in 2001 when she was struck by a police cruiser on her reserve in Quebec.
According to statistics gathered by Amnesty International Canada, Indigenous women are five times more likely to die because of violence than any other group of women in Canada. Furthermore, according to Sisters in Spirit—NWAC’s research initiative—at least 600 Indigenous women have been murdered or have gone missing since 1980.
Bianca Mugyenyi, Campaigns and Programming coordinator at Concordia’s 2110 Centre for Gender Advocacy and member of Missing Justice—one of the 2110 Centre’s campaigns—helped plan this year’s march, which Missing Justice has organized since 2009.
The march began at Place Émilie-Gamelin, where people gathered to listen to speakers and musical performances. The crowd then marched to Phillips Square for a candlelight vigil, and more speakers and performances.
While Mugyenyi believes that progress has been made in terms of international and media recognition of violence against Indigenous women, she said she does not think that enough has been done on the part of the Canadian government.
According to Mugyenyi, the federal government has failed to respond to requests for a public inquiry, submitted by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women.
“There has also been a regression because Sisters in Spirit had their funding taken away [by the federal government],” Mugyenyi said.
Ellen Gabriel—a human rights advocate who has been active at the international level, participating most recently at the UN Expert Forum on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and former president of the Quebec Native Women’s Association—participated and spoke at the march. On her blog, sovereignvoices1.wordpress.com, Gabriel refers to herself as Onkwehón:we. She has attended this march every year since it began seven years ago.
“When [this march] first started, it wasn’t very big, but now with all the vigils happening across Canada—this being one of them—to see the numbers is very inspiring,” Gabriel said. “It’s nice to see the young people interested, and taking part in this kind of movement … I think it means a lot to families who have been affected.”
However, Gabriel mentioned she would also like to see the federal government take more direct action.
“I think the NWAC earlier this year stated that [relations with the government] haven’t improved,” Gabriel said. “It’s gotten worse … and it’s really a lack of political will. All that research the NWAC did, and there hasn’t been any policy made or implemented.”
Even though police escorted the marchers through the streets, the evening remained peaceful. According to Mugyenyi, police were not informed of the route of the march beforehand despite Law 12, which requires that all protest routes be made known to the Montreal Police.
“The city has definitely calmed down since the demonstrations last year, so it’s a different world,” Eli Freedman, U3 arts, said. “Last year, there were so many police officers. It was very intimidating … [But now] I’m not worried about pepper spray or tear gas.”
Mugyenyi, like Gabriel, was pleased with the turnout and diversity of people present at the Spirit March.
“There [are] Indigenous and non-Indigenous marchers alike, which is very encouraging, particularly given the history around the silence,” Mugyenyi said.
Mugyenyi also noted that 150 similar marches were more prevalent in Canada and around the globe this year than ever before.
“Most of them are in Canada, but [now] there [are] even some marches in South America and in the U.S,” Mugyenyi said. “A movement is definitely building to make our society safer for Indigenous women.”