Métis filmmaker Christine Welsh can be proud of her showing at the Amnesty International Film Festival.
The Salt Spring Island–based artist won the gold audience award on November 5 for her emotive National Film Board documentary Finding Dawn. (For a full list of AIFF audience-award winners, see Movie Notes on page 71.) The story is a 70-minute wrenching ride through Canada’s heart of darkness, documenting the human face of missing Native women in the Downtown Eastside, B.C.’s “Highway of Tears”—a lonely stretch of northern highway where nine unsolved cases of missing or murdered aboriginal women cloud the area—and Welsh’s home province of Saskatchewan.
The film is named after Dawn Crey, a woman from the Sto:lo Nation who went missing in November 2000 and whose DNA was found at the infamous Pickton farm in 2004. Welsh’s harrowing historical collage was so well received that a second screening had to be arranged after the November 2 showing.
“That’s wonderful news,” Welsh told the Georgia Straight by phone after learning of her award. “This issue has received a certain kind of attention, mostly around the [Robert William] Pickton trial, but what I have tried to do is put a human face to it. We had a separate screening at the Carnegie Centre on the Saturday [November 4], and that really blew me away. People seemed to be saying they were really ready to push this issue, basically saying, ”˜Let’s go.’”
Don Wright is Amnesty International Canada’s development coordinator for B.C. and the Yukon and coordinator of the festival. He told the Straight he has been pushing for government action for at least two years but has seen “very little movement”. Federal Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day did not return a call from the Straight.
In 2004, Amnesty International Canada released a report called Stolen Sisters: Discrimination and Violence Against Indigenous Women in Canada. Wright noted that, among other things, Native people feel “overpoliced and underprotected” and that there are “no national [policing] standards” when it comes to their protection.
“One thing our researchers found, and the report notes this, is the police didn’t really record whether the missing person was an aboriginal or not,” Wright said. “More definitely needs to be done.”
Welsh, like Wright, believes there is a timeliness to the Finding Dawn screenings, aside from the fact that Pickton’s trial begins (following next month’s jury selection) in January 2007.
“It relates to the lack of land base, forced dislocation through the residential-school system, and in the case of the Highway of Tears, a lack of transportation,” she said. “In Vancouver, it sort of dovetails with 2010 and the squats.”¦It’s a traumatic time for the neighbourhood and for the people who live and work there.”
Carol Martin, who hails from the Nisga’a First Nation, would concur. Martin is a victim-services worker at the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre and estimates that between 150 and 250 women come into the centre every day. She reckons that two-thirds are Native or of Native descent.
“Aboriginal women are the most underrepresented and overmedicated in our society,” Martin told the Straight.
Vancouver police department Insp. John de Haas is part of a recently formed diversity unit in the force, which he says is trying to “sensitize” local police officers to Native culture and what he calls “true history”. De Haas also admits the VPD has not always had a very good showing in the community.
“We set an advisory committee [18 months ago], which has two deputy chiefs and senior community leaders on it,” he told the Straight. “And one month ago, the Aboriginal Community Policing Centre opened [in East Vancouver]. There is so much to do, but the first step is always becoming aware of the problem. In the VPD, the police chief’s got it, and the senior officers have got it.”