VANCOUVER, British Columbia - The significance of the demonstration occurring on St. Valentine's Day wasn't lost on the participants who took to Vancouver's streets. They were there to remember loved ones gone missing or who have been found murdered.
"Many women (today) will be sharing their love and affection because they are important to someone," said Donna Dickson, a member of the Aboriginal Women's Action Network. "But there will be many more women who will never again know the special warmth that comes from knowing you are loved, wanted and respected."
The 13th Annual Women's Memorial March honored those Aboriginal women who have been abducted and killed while working on the streets. What originally was an event specifically for First Nations has branched out during the past few years to invite all women. As a result, the march on Feb. 14 attracted a crowd of about 500 and was the largest turnout for this rally which also served notice, as indicated by the speakers outside a local police station, that justice should not be any different for "the poor, the sex trade worker or the Native."
Proceeding through the heart of the beleaguered downtown eastside, in unison and continuously for two hours, the crowd rhythmically beat out a Coast Salish women's warrior chant that was traditionally used to gather strength. The only time the drumming stopped along the route was at pre-designated sites where the women had been killed. At each of these spots, often outside of rundown hotels, the loud noises were followed by an eerie silence that permitted the chance for a moment of reflection and prayer.
At the march's lead was Pauline Johnson, a spiritual elder, who spread tobacco along the streets as an offering to the Creator. She was also the conductor of the prayer ceremonies outside these residences.
That these stops occurred wasn't an indictment of these low-rent apartments but to at least bring some shame to the residents and management who collectively turned a blind eye to these vicious acts.
"At these spots were where these women have been murdered, they allowed it to happen in their doors and they weren't helping Aboriginal women," Johnson said .
The purity of this march however couldn't escape the grimness of Vancouver's seedier side. On several occasions, the prayer circles were interrupted, unintentionally, by hotel residents and passersby who were clearly under the influence of drugs.
Sixty-five Aboriginal women have been killed or have been undiscovered since their disappearance from the city's streets in recent years. That number climbs, some statistics were cited, to over 500 during the past two decades.
Brenda Wells attended the march holding a photo of her friend Georgina Papin whose remains were found in the now infamous pig farm in the suburb of Port Coquitlam.
"I'm here to honor my friend Georgina and to hopefully get the message out in the community to watch where you tread because there's evil everywhere," Wells said.
Eunice Robertson also participated to pay tribute to her niece Nadine McMillan.
"Remember that the people who are missing are just as important as those women who are here and that our prayers go out with them," Robertson said.
Of the marchers, the vast majority were women. One of the males in the crowd was Randy Tait and he noted that men have a role to play and should be present at an event like this because those women were somebody's daughters and wives.
"They are the givers of life and as warriors we (men) have to protect the women because without them, we'd be extinct," Tait said as he banged his hand drum.
While the sociological and economic factors that drive women to work the streets are known, Johnson said it's easy to become judgmental of sex trade workers. She speaks from first-hand knowledge as she had to raise her grandchildren before her daughter came home after 30 years.
"If you're a family member, keep your hearts open and don't close doors on them if they are leading a hard life," said Johnson about the importance of family and friends.
Before the rally ended at Oppenheimer Park with a candlelight vigil at a Memorial Totem Pole, Dickson had some harsh words when the march stopped at a local police station.
"In Vancouver, Aboriginals are the first to be profiled for harassment and apparently, the last to be profiled for protection."