This weekly column features community-minded Vancouverites that are making a difference at a grassroots level.
Lorelei Williams is undoubtedly one of Canada’s hardest-working advocates for missing and murdered indigenous women and girls.
As the women’s coordinator for the Vancouver Aboriginal Community Policing Centre, Williams liaises with women in violent situations, families of missing and murdered women, and the police, to try and build positive relationships within the community.
A few times a month, she’s a classroom helper in an aboriginal-focused therapy program on complex trauma at the Justice Institute of B.C. She also helps to facilitate workshops with police cadets in training.
“We talk about residential school, and I talk about what it means to be an intergenerational survivor,” Williams tells the Straight during a break at the institute.
The single mother of two, whose own mother was taken from her family at age six to attend residential school, is also on a B.C.-based coalition for the federal inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women.
As a survivor of physical and sexual abuse, Williams says her goal in life is to work towards a world where violence against women no longer exists.
She says it all started with a question she asked herself more more than five years ago: “How do I get my missing Auntie’s picture out there?”
Just a few years before Williams was born, her aunt, Belinda Williams, went missing without a trace. Her aunt’s name was never recorded on the national list of missing and murdered indigenous women.
“I wanted to get her picture out there, and a picture of my cousin, Tanya Holyk, who was murdered by Robert Pickton. For some reason, I thought of dance,” she says.
In 2012, Williams founded Butterflies in Spirit, a dance troupe and non-profit organization consisting of family members of missing and murdered indigenous women.
With a mission to raise awareness of violence against aboriginal women and girls, Butterflies in Spirit has performed at numerous gatherings and events throughout the province.
On stage, members of the group wear shirts depicting images of some of their relatives, including Williams’s aunt and cousin.
“I was on my way to getting a degree in tourism and business management, but when I started the group, my whole life changed. I knew that I wanted to help people through my work, and I thought it was tourists, but I realized that it’s women and girls,” she says.
Williams says that the community she inadvertently created through Butterflies in Spirit has helped her and others in the group deal with the trauma of losing loved ones to violence.
“All of a sudden, we started to heal together—while we were raising awareness at the same time. It just happened that way, and it was something I didn’t expect,” says Williams.
“That healing piece is so important, because our people have been through so much.”
Butterflies in Spirit has also allowed Williams to connect with nations around the world that are dealing with similar traumas.
The group collaborated with Katara, a Filipino dance troupe, and opened up for a Colombian theatre company’s play about missing and murdered indigenous men in that country.
“I spoke about the issues here in Canada, and the audience was floored. They thought we were perfect, but nobody seems to know that this is part of Canada and our history,” she says.
As a driving force in a coalition working to advise commissioners of the federal inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women, Williams is often a recognizable face in the media, speaking about the trauma of losing family members, and the violent injustices that are committed against indigenous women and girls everyday.
But Williams says these appearances come at a cost.
“It’s so hard anytime I speak at events, or conferences, or with the media, because I get so emotionally drained,” she says. “But I tell myself that it’s worth it, because the feeling that I get is nothing compared to what my aunt, my mom, my cousin, and all missing and murdered indigenous women have gone through.”
As physically and mentally exhausted as Williams may get, her determination drives her. Right now, her focus is on connecting with as many families as she can.
“I can’t stop now. People are telling me to slow down, and I keep saying that I’ll try, but I feel like I can’t. This issue is important, and our women's and girls’ lives depend on this inquiry.”
Between helping women in abusive situations, running Butterflies in Spirit, meeting with commissioners, organizations, and advocates, and being a mom, Williams hopes to find the time this fall to finish her bachelor’s degree, and then work towards a Masters degree.
For now, Williams fully embraces her many roles in the community, and won’t stop at anything.
“I think I’m going to be doing this until I die,” she says.
“This is my job forever. There is so much violence, and I don’t want any more families to go through what my family has gone through.”
Know someone doing important work in your community? Message Amanda Siebert here.