They walked – some silently, some in tears, some with laughter and hugs – all to remember and honour their mothers, sisters, aunts, cousins and friends who have gone missing or had their lives cut short by violence.
The 12th annual Sisters in Spirit walk, one of close to 200 Sisters in Spirit events held across the country Oct. 4, brought close to 100 people to the streets of downtown Yellowknife to honour the lives of Indigenous women and girls who have gone missing or met a violent death.
Events were held in every province and territory. The communities of Fort Smith, Hay River and Inuvik also commemorated the day.
Diane Brule walked with her granddaughter Kathryn. Her sister Leona Brule of Fort Providence went missing at age 18, this is the first walk she has done.
“It’s emotional, because I haven’t talked about it for a long time,” she said. “I worry for my granddaughters and my daughter all the time.”
The walk was difficult and emotional said Brule, who added she rarely speaks about her sister. Yet she wanted people to know the importance of each and every woman who is missing or died violently.
“Women matter and we’re not disposable and we matter to family,” she said.
Dene National Chief Bill Erasmus, who attended the walk Wednesday, said he was there to bring attention to the issue of safety in Dene communities and to help prepare for the national inquiry visit in November.
Erasmus said the only way to bring change to a colonial system that includes police and child welfare services was by raising the issue again and again.
“The whole system was designed in the early years to get rid of our people, it’s basically designed as a racist system and that’s been proved in the human rights tribunal decision dealing with children, with Cindy Blackstock,” he said.
“That’s a given, we understand that. It’s built into the system, with policies and dollars and the way they do things. So it’s up to us to talk about it and make that kind of change.”
Rachel Tambour-Zoe, who helped organize the walk, said she has seen some positive change since the inquiry got underway.
Tambour-Zoe said many Indigenous people still feel they are last in the priorities of police, but because of the coming together and organization of First Nations people she is seeing some positive change.
“The RCMP are, I find that they’re a lot more active in helping find our murdered and missing Aboriginal women. So we do have hope that, not all of them will be found, if we could find some of them and put some closure to the families,” she said.
Insp. Matt Peggs, detachment commander at Yellowknife G Division, attended the walk together with colleagues Chief Superintendent Jamie Zettler, Cpl. April Bell, Cpl. Sally McKinnon and Const. Adolphus Norris.
“In the Yellowknife detachment, missing persons investigations, domestic assault investigations, we take those very seriously and we add some additional oversight and ensure that they are done very well,” said Peggs, when asked how he is working to counter historical problems with how Indigenous missing persons files were handled by the RCMP.
“Other than that, we’ve been big supporters of a different way to deal with some of the most vulnerable people in the community, including women, and including indigenous women. With using sheltering services and victim services, we’ve supported the street outreach program by the donation of the van as well. I think it’s important that we put the right people to help the vulnerable people, we use the right agencies to help the vulnerable people.”
Gail Cyr spoke at the end of the walk, reminding people gathered how common violence against Indigenous women still is today.
“There are very very few Indigenous women who have not suffered racial or sexual attacks on their person, and this is not a right of passage that anybody wants to see for their daughters,” she said.
Cyr said she hopes the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls can overcome the issues it has faced. She called for greater collaboration between agencies.
“We have 250 police agencies in Canada and one of the things they need to do is talk to each other,” she said. “And an approach that does not involve stereotypes to Indigenous women as they come to seek help. Because right now, a lot of times, (women who experience) sexual or racial violence will not go to the police because they feel they may not have the help.”
— with files from John McFadden