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Turning Anger into Action

Part 3 of 5

VANCOUVER, British Columbia—Through their work at the Aboriginal Women’s Action Network and a local rape crisis center, Cherry Smiley and Laura Holland are on the frontlines of helping girls and women escape the horrors of forced prostitution.

On a daily basis, they witness the despair and destruction of women targeted by pimps and johns who earn profits from their bodies. They see the gaping wounds and scars of women bruised and battered. They hear the stories of those trying to escape, and they help to provide hope and resources that can change a young girl’s life.

“Why is society not horrified by what is happening here? This is not child labor, it’s child rape, yet the authorities have done little to deal with the pimps and perpetrators,” said Smiley, an activist and artist who is part of AWAN’s collective of women volunteers and advocates.

“It’s disheartening to see the conditions in which they must live. We try to provide options for a way out, but it’s challenging. Escaping prostitution can involve getting clean from drugs, getting an education, and a decent place to live. Some of them make it and some don’t.”

Holland, who has worked with battered women for 25 years, provides a historical view that frames the role that churches and the Canadian government play in devaluing Native women.

“We are Canada’s first prostituted women. We know brothels were set up around trading posts and military posts to sexually service fur traders and military men. Then came the churches and residential schools where thousands of children were kidnapped and abused. Now the foster care system takes our children and places them with well-paid strangers. These systemic forces helped to create the devaluation towards First Nations peoples that has continued into today.

“A big part of the reason our people end up on urban streets is that we are denied access to our land and resources. We are land poor because the colonizers have taken our land, our children, and our way of life.”

Overcoming widespread apathy, institutional racism, and a lack of action by law enforcement and provincial officials is a major part of the problem.

“We can’t talk about violence against Native women in Canada without understanding the role, the attitude, the practice of colonization, and the imposition of Eurocentric reason on indigenous peoples,” said Angela Marie MacDougall, executive director of Battered Women’s Support Services in Vancouver.

“At the heart of violence and intimate relationships, and at the heart of colonization, is power and control. We need to talk about redressing the effects of colonization, and the issue of power and control. It’s very challenging to grapple with because those with power and control don’t want to give it up.”

MacDougall’s personal commitment to missing and murdered women began in 1986 when a friend went missing without a trace. Another friend was found murdered in 1994, followed by the murders of two others in 1995. There have been no arrests in their murders, and the numbers continue to grow.

“Their faces and their lives are with me every moment of every day, holding me to account, holding me accountable. This is not a game. Women are dying. Our networks have been fighting to expose the issue and seek justice for all the women who still struggle, all the women who have been murdered, and who have gone missing.”

For more than 25 years, women and their families have been collectively trying to get justice for the horrific crimes committed against their daughters, sisters, mothers and aunties. Volunteer organizations were formed over the years including AWAN, BWSS, Vancouver Rape and Relief Women’s Shelter, March4Justice, and the Native Women’s Association of Canada.

They have organized to raise awareness, to hold law enforcement accountable, and to speak about murders and missing women amidst tremendous social and government apathy, while also doing the frontline work to help those in need of shelter and protection.

“In 1991, Vancouver police found the body parts of an indigenous woman who had been missing,” MacDougall said. “We don’t say her name anymore out of respect for the family. Her family began an honoring and a mourning ceremony to lay medicine and say prayers at the various locations where her body parts were found. There were about 20 family members and five Vancouver policemen who were in attendance then.

“This one woman’s murder became a way for us to mourn and to heal. So we began an event called the February 14th Women’s Memorial March. Family members chose February 14 as a date to show love and to honor. You have to know that there was no police intervention at that time; in fact, the police were not investigating the disappearances at all.”

The Women’s Memorial March—held annually to illustrate “absence, silence, action and voice” in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside—is now in its 20th year under the leadership of a planning committee headed by Marlene George. More than 5,000 people participated in this year’s march during the 2010 Olympics.

Ceremonies happen at each location where a woman has gone missing or was found murdered. The four-hour event stops for a vigil in front of the Vancouver police station at Hastings and Main where family members and activists have repeatedly called for police investigations into the murders and disappearances.

MacDougall said it is no coincidence that it has taken so long for police to get involved given the systemic racism by law enforcement and judges.

“We can connect the dots to the truth that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police was created to move indigenous people off their lands. What we have seen in the last 20 years is ongoing governmental and social apathy regarding the number of women who are living with violence in their homes, and the numbers of women who are dealing with violence in the community. That includes the estimated 2,000 women that are missing in Canada.”

In 2010, approximately one in three women deals with violence in their lives, according to Amnesty International. For indigenous women, the numbers are higher—Native women are five times more likely to die as a result of violence in Canada than women of other races.

In addition to the Women’s Memorial March and March4Justice, memorial marches to bring awareness and demand justice are now held across Canada in Victoria, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Montreal, Toronto, and Thunder Bay.

Part four of this series takes us to the Highway of Tears and reports on the widespread violence that is destroying the social fabric of our communities.

Part 1: Trafficking Our Children

Part 2: Children Dying While Predators Roam Free

Valerie Taliman, Navajo, is president of Three Sisters Media, which offers publishing, social media and public relations services. She is also an award-winning journalist specializing in environmental, social justice and human rights issues. She is based in Albuquerque, N.M. Contact her at