This is a repost of Cindy Filipenko’s column from the Question this week.
Imagine if over the past few decades more than 1,100 lawyers across the country just disappeared.
They were on the way to work but never made it. Or perhaps they never came back from court. Now imagine that those cases received only the most cursory of police investigations. Or worse yet, imagine that certain aspects of the lawyers’ lives made the police dismiss their disappearances as being lifestyle related.
Unthinkable? Absolutely. And yet this is exactly what’s been happening to aboriginal women since the 1940s, when the disappearances of First Nations, Inuit and Métis women in this country first began to be tracked.
To recognize and raise awareness of this national tragedy, Linda Epp has organized Whistler’s second Sisters in Spirit Vigil. The Oct. 4 event, which begins at 11 a.m. with a march from the Welcome Pole in Village Commons (cater-corner to Bar Oso) to the totem in Whistler Olympic Plaza. The event is part of a Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) initiative that sees Sisters in Spirit Vigils held across the country.
Epp, who lives in Whistler, was part of the “Sixties Scoop,” which saw First Nations children taken off reserve and sent to live white families. She was adopted by a German-Canadian Mennonite family and raised in a white world. Discovering her aboriginal heritage as a young adult (Epp is a member of the shíshalh Nation [Sechelt]), she embraced her culture and became an advocate for First Nations.
Much of her advocacy work has had an emphasis on women and violence — evidence of which can be found throughout Whistler. In addition to the Sisters in Spirit Vigil, Epp also helms the Red Dress Project, which sees numerous red dresses installed around Whistler to bring attention to missing and murdered women.
I cannot imagine women disappearing from the small, Fraser Valley town I grew up in without extensive police investigations into their whereabouts. I cannot imagine living without answers. Yet this is the experience of thousands and thousands of First Nations folks — including our Lílwat Nation and Squamish Nation friends, neighbours and colleagues who have lost mothers, sisters, wives, aunts, daughters and nieces — have endured. Others live with the painful knowledge of what did happen. And all live with the pain of knowing that the justice system has failed them and their lost family members.
For the past 11 years, NWAC has been calling for an inquiry into this national embarrassment. Earlier this summer, on Aug. 23, the Trudeau government launched the National Inquiry Into Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women. This is a part of the Liberals fulfilling their promise to “start a new relationship with First Nations.”
It’s an important step towards the reconciliation piece of Truth and Reconciliation. It’s about respect and equality. It is about recognizing that aboriginal women’s lives are valuable. It’s about recognizing that no matter what a woman’s circumstances she is not responsible for the violence perpetrated against her.
White middle-class folks, as the overwhelming majority of us who live in the Whistler/Pemberton area are, need to get on board with actively supporting our First Nations sisters. We must put aside our fears of “saying the wrong thing” and start talking. And as non-First Nations people it’s even more important that we listen to First Nations’ women to more fully understand their experiences. Inevitably, we will find our similarities greatly outweigh our differences and in that we will find a basis of unity. And as the old lefty chant goes: “People! United! Will never be defeated.”
Marching with our First Nations sisters who have been affected by systemic violence and institutionalized racism is a way to start healing from those wounds. Last year dozens of women and men joined the vigil — let’s make it hundreds this year.
Join me Oct. 4 at the Sisters In Spirit Vigil and send a loud and clear message that First Nations women’s lives matter.