Red and yellow roses marked the sites where aboriginal women were remembered today (February 14), as well over 1,000 people joined the women’s memorial march through Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
The 22nd annual event aimed at honouring missing and murdered women began at noon as dozens of drummers formed a circle in the intersection of Main and Hastings. The two-hour march then wound through Gastown and along East Hastings Street as elders conducted traditional ceremonies at sites where women have died or were last seen.
Organizers of the march say there are now over a dozen similar events held across the country to remember the missing and raise awareness of violence against women—a sign they indicate gives them hope that people are listening.
“I’m so excited to know that there’s 16 more across Canada, which means the word is spreading, and awareness is being raised,” said Mona Woodward, a member of the February 14th Women’s Memorial March Committee.
For Michele Pineault, whose daughter Stephanie Lane’s DNA was found on Robert Pickton’s farm, the faces and names of missing and murdered women inscribed on quilts and placards are the faces of “educators”.
“I look at these women as educators now,” she told reporters. “They are teaching about the problem that’s going on, and it’s got to stop. It’s still happening and as a mother, it’s not a life that you want to live.”
This year’s march came two months after Wally Oppal released over 60 recommendations stemming from the B.C. missing women inquiry.
Pineault said she’s particularly hopeful to see the results of Oppal’s call for a compensation fund for the children of missing and murdered women. She has been raising her 16-year-old grandson since Lane went missing when the child was eight months old.
“You know I just want to see him have a future—I want to see him be able to go to college,” she told the Straight. “One of the things I feel saddened about is he didn’t just lose a mother, he had to watch me grieve, and grieve horribly for years, because we didn’t know where she was for six years.”
“There were 75 children who were left behind without mothers because of Pickton,” she added. “I’m hopeful that that [fund] will come through so that he can go to school.”
Steven Point, who was appointed to oversee the implementation of Oppal’s recommendations, was among the participants in the march today.
The former B.C. lieutenant-governor, who appeared emotional when he emerged from the Carnegie Centre following a memorial service for the women, said he hopes to include community groups in his work.
“I want them on my committee—I’m asking them to take part in that,” he said in an interview. “I’m meeting with them and trying to find out how we can work together to make these recommendations come to life.”
Marlene George, an organizer with the February 14th Women’s Memorial March Committee, noted that Point will also need to have “the political backing” to bring about change through the recommendations.
“We as community members are going to be watching out for that whole process, so somebody if they’re saying that they’re going to put the money forward, they’re going to do things differently, well we’re all watching,” she told the Straight.
Beverley Jacobs, the former president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, said she’s “always hopeful” that positive changes will be made.
“This year my thoughts are, we have all the reports, we have all the recommendations…so I think it’s time to act on them,” she said in an interview as she participated in the march. “We’ve got to stop making recommendations and start putting the proper resources into what’s needed.”
Demonstrators also gathered earlier in the day as part of the One Billion Rising movement against gender-based violence.
Around 50 people formed a circle in Thornton Park near Main and Terminal Streets, holding up letters to spell the word “respect”.
Former Vancouver city councillor Ellen Woodsworth said she’s hoping to see political leaders address the issue of violence against women during the upcoming provincial election.
“A lot of the issues that are being raised, whether it’s lack of affordable housing, lack of transportation, low income rates, minimal funding for women in the sex trade industry, all of these are provincial matters that need to be addressed by either of the two political parties, and as yet I haven’t heard any concrete recommendations that are coming forward,” she told the Straight.
“We actually need concrete provincial programs and city programs that can help women get out of dangerous situations, get off the streets, get into affordable housing, find training and support and services that can help them do that.”
Speakers at both events said they were not surprised by a scathing report issued Wednesday by Human Rights Watch, which describes alleged abuse against aboriginal women by RCMP officers in northern B.C.
Angela Marie MacDougall, the executive director of Battered Women’s Support Services, called the report “a reminder how systemic this issue is around the world”.
She noted that she has observed “more women than ever” coming forward and disclosing their experiences of abuse in their relationships.
“At no time have we seen such a critical mass around this issue,” she told the crowd gathered at Thornton Park. “This unprecedented time is essential as we examine the systemic issues that are embedded in the issue of violence against girls and women.”
Meanwhile, George believes the Human Rights Watch report could help lead to a national inquiry into missing and murdered women—a process that aboriginal groups have been repeatedly calling for.
“I think it will make a difference, because it’s going to be highlighting all of those areas of concern for indigenous people and women and girls in this country,” she said.
“These women no longer have a voice. We are the voice of these women and other women in their circumstances.”