What began 20 years ago as a small memorial following a woman's death in the Downtown Eastside is expected to draw over 3,000 marchers in Vancouver on Monday.
A few weeks after a Coast Salish woman was murdered on Powell Street in 1991, about 30 women decided to organize a march to lay roses at the sites where she and other women in the other Downtown Eastside had died, according to Marlene George.
It grew from there into an annual event, where marchers stopped at sites around the neighbourhood where women were killed or were last seen. Last year, the march drew an estimated 4,000 people.
On Monday, the 20th annual Feb. 14th Women’s Memorial march will wind its way through the streets of the Downtown Eastside, stopping at about 20 memorial sites.
The main goal of the march, said George, who chairs the event’s organizing committee, is the same as it was when the first memorial was held – to honour the women who have died as a result of violence, or whose disappearances remain unsolved.
“As a community, we come together to grieve for our loved ones, and it’s really the only opportunity for people to come together to be able to grieve, and support one another as a community,” she said.
“For the missing women, there’s no answers for those families,” she added. “There’s no place to go and leave a rose or anything so they come to participate and in many cases to be together to remember their daughters.”
Members of the organizing committee for the march say it’s also intended to raise awareness of violence against women in the Downtown Eastside, as well as other challenges facing women in the community, such as access to housing and health care.
According to George, many of the women living in the poverty-stricken neighbourhood don’t reach the age of 65, but die much younger, in their 30s or 40s.
Organizers say the issue is now more on the public’s radar than when the small group of women first gathered in 1991. But they argue there are still discrepancies in the amount of public attention paid to the death of women from the Downtown Eastside.
“I think that we always have to make the public aware, to put it at the front of their conscious thinking, if only temporarily,” said George. “Because women in this community are so easily forgotten, and we’ve witnessed that through the Pickton episode, that women from the community were missing in increasingly greater numbers, and very little attention was paid to that until 2002.”
As a provincial commission of inquiry is set to examine the missing women investigations that took place between 1997 and 2002, allegations of violence, sexual assaults and deaths continue to surface in the community.
“Just because they arrested Robert Pickton, it hasn’t solved the problem, it’s solved that particular situation, but in fact women are still going missing and are being murdered,” said Dalannah Gail-Bowen, another member of the memorial march committee.
The Vancouver Police Department now meets with women from the community on a regular basis as part of the Sister Watch program.
According to a statement made by Inspector Mike Porteous today (February 11), 11 people have been charged with 47 offences ranging from drug trafficking to extortion and sexual assault.
Names released by the VPD include Martin Tremblay, a convicted sexual offender who is in custody on five drug charges, and Fabian Brown, who police say has allegedly been using violence and intimidation in the Downtown Eastside for over ten years.
Police are encouraging anyone with information about the men to contact the department.
As the march takes place on Monday, Gail-Bowen said participants won’t just be thinking about victims from the Downtown Eastside, but women across the country.
Groups such as the Walk4Justice organizers, the Native Women’s Association of Canada and Amnesty International have pointed to a country-wide trend that they say has seen more than 3,000 women go missing or been murdered, including nearly 600 aboriginal women.
“This is an international epidemic,” said Gail-Bowen.
The march in Vancouver will coincide with similar events across the country, in cities including Victoria, Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Toronto and Ottawa.
Since that first march began in 1992 and spread to events across the country, Gail-Bowen believes public empathy has grown for the many women that lost their lives.
“I think a lot of people”¦have more empathy for the situation now because these are mothers, these are sisters - these are grandmothers for that matter,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what their background is or why or how they ended up on the street, the fact is nobody deserves to be murdered or be a victim of violence.”
The Vancouver march will begin on Monday, February 14 at 1 p.m. at Main and Hastings, and will continue past the police station and end at Oppenheimer Park.