Advocates call for action ahead of annual vigil for missing and murdered Indigenous women

·3 min read
At last year's edition of the vigil, people were able to gather together to mourn their loved ones. This year, the event has to be held online due to the pandemic.
At last year's edition of the vigil, people were able to gather together to mourn their loved ones. This year, the event has to be held online due to the pandemic.

(Isaac Olson/CBC - image credit)

On Sunday, Feb. 14, an online gathering will be held to commemorate the lives of Indigenous women, girls, trans and two-spirit people who have been killed or are missing.

The 11th edition of the annual vigil is being held online due to pandemic restrictions.

During a news conference Saturday, a group of Indigenous activists came together to call for concrete action from the government to protect these vulnerable people.

After the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and the Viens Commission in Quebec, they say it's time for a significant response.

Hundreds of recommendations have emerged from both the inquiry and the commission. But Jessica Quijano, co-ordinator for the Iskweu Project at the Native Women's Shelter of Montreal, said that they have not been put in place.

"I'm very, very angry, actually, because it's the same thing I was saying last year," she said. "This isn't about not having solutions, this is about a lack of political will. I think people are behind us. What is it going to take to change? That's what I'm asking."

Isaac Olson/CBC
Isaac Olson/CBC

Quijano and others say that the pandemic has only heightened the risk for Indigenous women, especially those experiencing homelessness.

Amy Edward, a restorative justice co-ordinator at the First Peoples Justice Centre of Montreal, said that many Indigenous people are afraid of medical services, especially in the wake of incidents which show Indigenous patients being mistreated.

"Going into communities as well, people saying, 'Oh, I know my health isn't good, but I'm too afraid to go to a clinic or to a hospital,' is ridiculous," she said. "We need spaces that are specific for Indigenous healing, that are not only informed by Indigenous ways when it comes to healthcare but that are also safe and inviting spaces."

Tragic reminders

This was echoed by Ghislain Picard, chief of the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador, who described the recent case of Joyce Echaquan as a "very tragic reminder" of the treatment of Indigenous people in the province's institutions.

The Atikamekw mother of seven died last September shortly after filming staff at Joliette hospital hurling insults at her.

According to the Facebook event for the online vigil, the "purpose in this gathering is to hold a space for those directly impacted to celebrate loved ones, commemorate them and to grieve, and gather together."

"This will be a place for survivors and loved ones to be heard and witnessed. Loved ones are welcome to bring memorials, photos, and personal stories that celebrate the vibrant lives of those in our communities whose memories live alongside us."

This live streamed event will be opened by Kanien'kehá:ka Elder Sedalia Fazio, and Inuit Elder Annie Pisukti will speak also.

A 'national tragedy'

In response to the calls from advocates who say the government needs to do more, a spokesperson for the Quebec Ministry of Indigenous Affairs told CBC in a statement that concrete action remains a "top priority."

"We have a lot of documentation. It's time to act," reads the statement. "We cannot act alone. There is still lots of work to be done, but we are in the right direction. All of those actions have to be developed with our Indigenous partners, in collaboration with First Nations and Inuit."

In a separate statement, a spokesperson for Indigenous Services Canada wrote that "violence against and the disappearance and murder of Indigenous women, girls, Two Spirit and LGBTQQIA+ people in Canada is an ongoing national tragedy."

The statement said that work is underway to co-develop the national action plan with family members and survivors, Indigenous governments, organizations, federal, provincial and territorial governments, academics, and experts.

"The Government of Canada has accelerated our work to address missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and Two Spirit and LGBTQQIA+ people. This work will continue to evolve over time remaining evergreen and accountable for results."