Why the way we remember missing and murdered women of the Downtown Eastside matters

Frontline workers will look back on the lives of mothers, sisters, and aunties at the 27th annual DTES Memorial March

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      For three Downtown Eastside outreach workers, “MMIW” isn’t an acronym in a headline: it’s a daily reality. 

      Carole Martin, Mabel Nipshank, and Myrna Cranmer are longtime members of the DTES Women’s Memorial March committee, and steadfast frontline workers who have seen—and continue to see—how racism, misogyny, and violence are contributing to an ever-growing number of women who have lost their lives while living in Vancouver’s most vulnerable neighbourhood.

      Last week, the Straight sat down with the trio of women at the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre (DEWC) to discuss the origins of the 27th annual event and, more importantly, why in 2017 it’s vital that it continues.  

      The community march began after a young woman was murdered in the DTES in 1992. Her name is no longer spoken out of respect for her family. Over the years, the event has grown significantly and Cranmer guesses that close to 2,000 people attended last year’s march.

      Martin, Nipshank, and Cranmer convey, almost in unison, that the sole reason they’ve continued to work on the frontlines and are committed to organizing the march, is simple: “It’s the women.”

      “It’s women we knew, women we saw everyday,” says Nipshank. “We laughed with them and cried with them, had dinners with them, and snuck them food out of the kitchen—we became their family.”

      Pulling a long, handwritten list out of her backpack, Cranmer says the community lost at least 44 women in 2016. She says the list still isn't complete.

      “At one time, they were dying and going missing—now, they are still going missing, but they’re dying around us,” Cranmer says, referencing first, the women linked to convicted serial killer Robert Pickton, and then those killed by the sweeping overdose epidemic that claimed 914 lives in B.C. last year. She says the past two deaths in particular have hit her quite hard.

      “These women are young, and it’s so important that we keep marching, and remembering their names—it’s important that we know their names—because you know what? A lot of them were just ignored to death.”

      Addressing the lack of adequate housing and safe places of refuge for women in the DTES is one of Cranmer’s greatest concerns.

      “Take a walk through some of these hotels [SROs], and see where we expect our women to live. If you could see where we put these women for safety, it’s absolutely sickening,” she says.

      Nipshank says that while it’s important that the event brings awareness to missing and murdered indigenous women, the way attendees remember them is equally important, and should reflect the significance of the day on which the march is held.

      “We purposely pick Valentine’s Day because it’s a symbol of love. Oftentimes, the women are viewed as prostitutes or addicts, and it takes away from their humanness,” she says.

      “On that day, we remember them for who they were: they were aunties, they were sisters, they were mothers and grandmothers.”

      As a victim’s services worker at the DEWC, Martin works to help women find shelter, and says many are often barred from services and facilities based on misinformed and often racialized stereotypes.

      She says it’s these kinds of mentalities that make the barriers that women living in the DTES face seem impossible to overcome.

      “It [the DEWC] is almost like a big dumping ground, because a lot of women go looking for help out there, and they either fall between the cracks or they don’t fit within a certain mandate,” Martin says.

      “Where else are they going to go if they can’t get into shelters?”

      She stresses that it’s not a matter of who attends the march on Tuesday, but how attendees and the population as a whole choose to see female residents of the DTES.

      “It really comes down to: what lens are people seeing our women through? Who sees us as human beings and not what the system has built us up to be?” she asks.

      “These women are sacred givers of life and they deserve to be honoured, to be respected, to be looked at with different eyes, and given opportunities as they would be given to someone else.”

      The organizers acknowleged the $53 million federal inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women, but wondered why the government has shown little interest in speaking with the organizations that often deal with these women.

      "We could tell them everything they need to know about why women end up here and it wouldn't cost $53 million," Martin says. 

      They've worked in the area long enough to know that federal dollars will do little to solve the issues of violence, racism, and poverty, as they are largely systemic.

      “There’s no way we can change what’s happened and that’s why we keep marching,” says Cranmer.

      “Somebody needs to remember these women for who they were.”

      The 27th annual DTES Women’s Memorial March takes place on Tuesday (February 14), and will begin at Main Street and Hastings Street at 12 p.m.

      Note to attendees regarding protocols:

      • The general public is invited to join at noon at Main and Hastings, following female elders, drummers, and families, after a welcome and prayer circle. 
      • Throughout the march, stops for ceremony will be made at locations where women were last seen. Organizers request that no ceremony be photographed or recorded. 
      • Attendees are encouraged to bring signs honouring women’s lives, but are asked to refrain from bringing organizational banners. 
      • Assigned guardians wearing yellow vests will be on hand to answer questions.