When Marge Humchitt takes part in the Walk4Justice to Ottawa this summer, she’ll be thinking of her sister, Cheryl, who was killed 18 years ago in the Downtown Eastside.
“Definitely I’ll be having thoughts of my sister, and my other sisters on the street,” Humchitt told the Georgia Straight in an interview at the Sacred Circle on West Cordova Street.
A few years ago, Humchitt, who spent 22 years “on the street”, attended Robert Pickton’s trial for months out of support for women who were killed or went missing in the Downtown Eastside. That experience is partly what has led her to participate in this year’s march to raise awareness of what Walk4Justice organizers say are over 4,000 murders and disappearances of women and girls nationally.
The Walk4Justice initiative began after cofounders Gladys Radek and Bernie Williams participated in a walk from Prince Rupert to Prince George for the 2006 Highway of Tears symposium.
Both women have personal experience with the issue. Radek’s niece Tamara Chipman disappeared in 2005 on Highway 16 in northern B.C. Williams’s mother and two sisters were killed in the Downtown Eastside.
After a cross-country trek in 2008, a Highway of Tears march in 2009, and a walk from Kamloops to Winnipeg last year, the Walk4Justice cofounders are now embarking on their fourth journey, to Parliament Hill.
Radek joined walkers in Prince Rupert for the beginning of the trek on June 9, and a group of about 10 will leave Vancouver on Tuesday (June 21), which is National Aboriginal Day. The walkers will hold a ceremony at the Pickton farm in Port Coquitlam, before heading to Kamloops, where they will join the group from the Highway of Tears.
As they walk to Ottawa, the marchers will be met by families of missing and murdered women from across Canada, including the Yukon, the Northwest Territories, and Nova Scotia. The participation of the families is a crucial part of the march, according to organizers, who base their data on a broad network of people that notify them each time a woman goes missing.
“These were families that never spoke about their loved ones,” Williams said at the Sacred Circle, where the activist and artist was carving a totem pole. “They’ve come out, they’ve given the names.”
While the Walk4Justice organizers have spent years speaking about murdered and missing women, Williams argued public awareness of the issue hasn’t improved.
“This is going back decades and decades and decades,” Williams said. “I’ve been saying this stuff for almost 30 years, and I haven’t seen anything change.”
Laura Holland of the Aboriginal Women’s Action Network said in an interview that Walk4Justice has done “a significant amount” of work raising awareness nationally and internationally. She said some of the barriers include under-reporting of violence against women to police, and the way that missing women are often portrayed.
“The women and the girls that we know who have gone missing are teachers, they’re professional workers, they’re mothers, they’re stay-at-home moms, they’re kids in high school,” said Holland, who wants to see B.C. emulate the approach Manitoba’s missing-women task force has taken.
“Their task force has done a really good job at portraying the women as family members, as students, as mothers, as women who are missed dearly,” she added.
During this year’s march, Walk4Justice will be calling for a national public inquiry on missing and murdered women, and for a national symposium on the issue.
Organizers also want to see aboriginal mothers centres established across the country, and the recommendations from the Highway of Tears symposium implemented. About 600 aboriginal women and girls have gone missing or been murdered nationally, according to the Native Women’s Association of Canada.
Williams expects a crowd of hundreds when they reach the steps of Parliament Hill on September 19. She said that while they plan to make this year’s march their last cross-country trek, that doesn’t mean their advocacy efforts will come to an end.
“We agreed that this is going to be the final walk, but that doesn’t mean that the work is finished,” Williams said.
More information on Walk4Justice can be found on the First Nations in British Columbia website.
You can follow Yolande Cole on Twitter at twitter.com/yolandecole.