Carrying red and yellow roses symbolizing the 600 aboriginal women murdered and missing, respectively, thousands marched in cities across Canada on Valentine’s Day, banging on the door of the Prime Minister's office in Ottawa and bringing outrage to Vancouver's police station steps.
The annual missing women events were emboldened by an explosive Human Rights Watch report alleging gang rape, abuse and widespread misconduct by police released the day before. This year, marches also coincided with One Billion Rising, a global movement that saw rallies to end violence against women held in cities on every continent yesterday. Both initiatives were endorsed by organizers with Idle No More.
Many Native women who say they were abused by the police fear retribution if they report the crimes.
The largest of Canada's events was Vancouver's annual Women's Memorial March, in its 22nd year, which saw the Downtown Eastside streets swell with roughly 2,000 people. Many of them carried long cords of cloth squares embroidered or beaded with the names of the disappeared.
“It's actually healing and empowering with other family members to raise awareness,” Lorelei Williams said in Vancouver. Her cousin Tanya Holyk's DNA was found on convicted serial killer Robert Pickton's farm, but her aunt Belinda Williams remains missing.
The founder and director of the Butterflies in Spirit Project—a dance troupe of missing women's relatives—said she was not at all shocked by the February 13 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report that brought allegations of numerous rapes, beatings and abuse by members of Canada's national police force, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). She had already heard similar allegations, she said, when working with the British Columbia Missing Women Commission of Inquiry, convened to examine the case of one perpetrator, serial killer Robert Pickton.
In Ottawa, several hundred participants marched with the advocacy group Families of Sisters in Spirit, which brought several victims' family members from the Maritimes and North West Territories to Parliament Hill with supporters, where they banged on Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office door. Harper did not answer.
“It was really good to hear the families' voices being heard,” Gladys Radek, co-founder of Walk4Justice, told ICTMN. “They've broken their silence. They want the Prime Minister once and for all to come out and speak to them, look at them, and let them know he cares about their lost loved ones.”
In 2008, Walk4Justice organized a trek across Canada, initiating a call for a national public inquiry into the country's missing and murdered aboriginal women. On February 14 the New Democratic Party, Canada's official opposition, formally declared its support for such a federal commission. The demand has also been taken up by leading human rights and aboriginal organizations.
Radek, Gitxsan and Wet'suwet'en, became involved in the issue after her niece Tamara Chipman disappeared along northern B.C.'s Highway 16 in 2005, known as the “Highway of Tears.” After Ottawa's rally, she raced to another one in Montreal.
One of Canada's leading missing women advocates, Radek expressed anger and disbelief at the RCMP's claims of surprise at the allegations and at their demand that HRW release the complainants' identities. The women had not come forward, HRW said, because they feared retaliation.
RCMP Chief Superintendent Janice Armstrong said the force takes the allegations “very seriously” in a statement.
“The unimaginable loss and pain felt by families and loved ones of missing and murdered persons is also felt across our communities,” Armstrong stated, insisting that victims could safely report incidents to police. “British Columbians know and have seen that police officers are being held accountable for their actions and are being charged and even dismissed for clearly breaching their authorities and our expectations.”
The allegations made headlines around the world, fueling HRW's assertion that the force is a “stain” on Canada's global reputation.
“The net is closing in on the RCMP, other police agencies and the Criminal Justice Branch itself, and this march today is certainly a reflection of that,” Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, President of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, told ICTMN. “We need to keep the pressure up. Social justice groups are coming together in an unprecedented fashion to ensure that these issues remain front and center, and that concrete steps are taken to push back on the very frontier, cavalier attitudes of the criminal justice branch.”
With Human Rights Watch just the latest in a line of investigations including the United Nations and the Organization of American States human rights committee, advocates hope the organization's reputation for thoroughly documented research may have finally captured high-profile attention and shocked the system into action.
“Every day we hear a new story, a new injustice,” Radek said. “Our demands have long been very clear: for justice, closure and equality. We need our truth out there, and we needed it to have a punch—a dose of reality.”