By Kelsey Wrightson
The Women’s Memorial March Committee (WMMC) is a grassroots organization working in Coast Salish Territory (Vancouver, BC). Each year on Valentine’s Day, family members and their allies memorialize over 3000 missing and murdered women across Canada. February 14th, 2013 marks the 21st year of the annual demonstration that honours victims, directs national and international attention to this tragedy, and builds alliances with other groups calling for justice and substantive social change. These marches join a long history of public protest. During the height of the suffrage movement, women-centred demonstrations highlighted electoral and other forms of inequality. As 1000s walk Canadian streets on Valentine’s Day in the 21st century, they likewise demand justice, this time for Canada’s missing and murdered women.
The number of victims and the diversity of their backgrounds have resulted in many organizational alliances. This cooperation between Indigenous and Non-Indigenous activists has been developing since at least the 1980s. The campaign of the WMMC has been strengthened by the support of groups such as Feminist Alliance for International Action (FAFIA) and the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC).
Such alliances are critical because violence against women scars the whole world, and gender is rarely the only cause. While Canada’s missing and murdered women come from many different backgrounds, Indigenous women are disproportionately targets. They are 3.5 times more likely than non-Indigenous women to suffer violence during their lifetime and five more times more likely to die violently. This tragedy is especially evident in British Columbia, home to both Canada’s poorest postal code, that of the Downtown Eastside (DTES), and to Highway 16, dubbed the “Highway of Tears” because of the girls and women who have gone missing while traveling along it.
The challenge of WMMC activists, allies and supporters has not gone unnoticed as rallies across Canada attest. The protest against gender- and race-inspired violence has also gained international attention. The 2004 Stolen Sisters Report from Amnesty International documented systemic abuse and concluded that the Canadian state had failed in its duties to protect women and girls. In 2008 the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (UNCEDW) reprimanded Canada. Following appeals from many organizations, notably the FAFIA, the UN Committee announced its own investigation in late 2011. In February 2013, Human Rights Watch documented and condemned abusive and neglectful policing in Northern British Columbia.
Provincial and federal governments have also begun to respond. In 2005 Ottawa announced $10 million for a national database on missing and murdered women. $5 million was allocated to NWAC for the creation of the “Sisters in Spirit” group to compile data on missing and murdered indigenous women. However, after the Conservatives’ 2006 election victory, this funding was cut and reallocated
In 2010, the British Columbia government created the “Missing Women Commission of Inquiry”. Its mandate asked whether the police had properly investigated the cases of Vancouver’s missing and murdered women and whether the 1998 attempted murder charges against convicted serial killer Robert Pickton should have been stayed. The inquiry was also to recommend revisions to investigatory procedures. Despite initial welcome as a step towards reform, the Commission’s obvious shortcomings soon seized the spotlight. The lack of representation from victim advocacy groups and DTES community organizations was especially noted. On his own initiative, Commissioner Wally Oppal, BC’s former Attorney General, granted official standing to several groups, including the NWAC. However, unlike the precedent of other commissions of inquiry, the BC government refused to fund the participation of community groups. Once again the voices of victims receded from view. Despite its good intentions, procedural and funding problems undermined the credibility of the Commission. Its final report, appropriately titled Forsaken: the Report of the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry (Nov. 2012), highlighted serious flaws at multiple levels of the judicial system.
In face of persisting violence against women and systemic official failure, the need for alliances and for marching remains. The 2013 Valentine’s Day March organized by the WMMC reminds all Canadians that the nation is not yet safe for women and for Aboriginal women in particular. In face of that reality, democracy remains at best an uncertain project.
Amnesty International, Stolen Sisters: A human rights response to discrimination and violence against Indigenous women in Canada, October 4 2004
B.C. Government, Researched to Death: B.C. Aboriginal Women and Violence. B.C. Women’s Hospital and Health Centre, 2005
Feminist Alliance for International Action, ‘Disappearances and Murders of Aboriginal Women and Girls in Canada’ : FAFIA Submission to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, January 2012
Human Rights Watch, Those Who Take Us Away: Abusive Policing and Failures in Protection of Indigenous Women and Girls in Northern British Columbia, Canada, February 2013
Missing Women’s Inquiry of Action, Forsaken: the Report of the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry, November 2012