Our Sisters in Spirit

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Every October 4th there is a vigil for the thousands of indigenous women and girls who have been murdered or are missing in Canada. Indigenous women and girls in Canada, who due to generations of systemic racism, discrimination, and sexualization, have become vulnerable and are having their lives taken away. In Canada, indigenous women are four times as likely to go missing or be murdered in comparison to non-indigenous women. These women are also twice as likely to be murdered by strangers compared to non-indigenous women and abused by close family. The indigenous people of Canada and their allies do not feel that these murders are being taken seriously by police or the government and we need to ask why are there so many cases and why are they going unsolved? Does no one care about these women; are they the children of a lesser God? This is a harsh reality within a country that likes to give an air of acceptance and a welcoming nature but can’t seem to love their own indigenous people.

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This past Sunday was the first vigil I attended with the Centre for Women and Trans People, a Ryerson equity service centre, and while the travesties faced by Canada’s indigenous population are not new to me, this was the first time I really felt them. It is one thing to acknowledge a problem and read about it in a book, it is an entirely different thing to listen to stories and see the heartbreak in someone’s eyes as they relive the pain of losing a part of their family to a violent death. For the first time I cried for these women and girls who every year disappear from Turtle Island and for the first time I smiled with the knowledge that these deaths are not going unnoticed. Indigenous women are loved and while the majority of these deaths and disappearances are unsolved they are not forgotten or accepted.

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Sunday’s vigil, organized by Sisters in Spirit, was held at Allen Gardens, which is home to many Indigenous people in Toronto. Handmade lanterns inscribed with colourful love symbols lit a path up to the doors of the conservatory where a circle of candles brought the diverse crowd of indigenous men and women and allies together. These lanterns are the guiding lights that will lead these missing girls home. Sounds of drums and jingling bells surrounded us as men and women danced and sang for health and safety. The setting of the sun was met with a moment of silence, prayer, and the burning of cleansing sage. As we washed ourselves in smoke and the pungent smell of sage filled our lungs the vigil began.

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Carolyn Bennett, the liberal MP for the St. Paul’s riding here in Toronto, came to the centre of the circle and spoke of the Walking With Our Sisters art exhibition. This is an ongoing exhibition of moccasin vamps (the top portion of the shoe) individually designed and sewn by artists and women. These vamps are intentionally not sewn into moccasins, instead they are left unfinished just like the lives of murdered indigenous women. One vamp (pictured below) in the exhibition that pulled at Bennett’s heart strings was designed by Theresa Burrows, it represents how the perpetrators of murder are often remembered and their victims forgotten. Part of the reason for this exhibition is to restore the individuality of these murdered women. The exhibition is currently in Ottawa and will tour Toronto next November. Bennett ended with a very grim conclusion of how this is not a women’s issue or an indigenous issue but a Canadian tragedy.

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Isadore Day, the Ontario Regional Chief, spoke of the Who Is She campaign which is focused on spreading awareness and finding answers to why Canada is only safe for some people. Who Is She is a First Nations driven campaign to end violence within their communities and bring safety to people. The main goal of the Who Is She campaign is to find where the violence against indigenous women is rooted, what can be done about it, and what they think will end it. Ultimately, Who Is She wants to find a solution that will result in safety, understanding, and respect for indigenous women. Additionally, Who Is She feels that there is a link between the residual effects of the residential school system on indigenous people and this crisis.

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Until November 15 the Mackenzie House in Toronto is displaying the Walking Together 2015 Art Exhibition. This exhibition displays the reactions indigenous high school students had when touring a residential school with survivors of the system. Each student created a mixed-media art piece to illustrate how they felt after walking through the Mohawk Institute, a former residential school in Ontario, and after viewing them you can feel the cold and pain that would have infested those schools. I had a chance to see these art pieces at the Mackenzie House and they are hard to look at – they force you to remember and to acknowledge the hurt that Canadians have caused. Reading through the stories behind each work of art is even harder to do- the abuse, neglect, and hate that inhabited these schools and broke these children breaks your heart. The psychological, physical, and emotional damage caused by the residential school system may have very easily propelled the issue of discrimination against indigenous people into the horrifying crisis Canada is faced with now. The Mackenzie House is open Tuesday to Friday, is located at Bond and Dundas streets, and is free to Ryerson students with a valid OneCard.

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Even closer to home, Ryerson now offers a certificate in Aboriginal Knowledges and Experiences. This certificate is an exploration, analysis, and reflection into the experiences of indigenous people in Canada and their relationships with the government and non-indigenous people. The certificate is open to anyone and would be specifically useful for students who wish to work in occupations that address indigenous concerns. Ryerson also offers support for indigenous students by way of the Ryerson Aboriginal Student Services (RASS) department, located in Kerr Hall West 389. They offer financial planning assistance, peer support, orientation, tutor assistance, admission advocacy, as well as bursary and scholarship options.

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As the vigil came to a close there was one final rendition of a traveling song, which prays for safe travel and return. This reminded me of a woman who spoke at the beginning of the vigil, Denise Aquash, who told the story of her missing niece. As Denise spoke, a small girl ran through the crowd and into the centre of our circle. This child was distracted by the flickering candles and had no idea what was going on in the discussion above her ears. I couldn’t help but wonder if this little girl reminded Denise of her own niece. As she lost her breath and the cold air blew across our faces I could feel Denise’s story; no longer just words but an ache that resonated through my sore body and back down to the frigid earth. The innocence of this little girl running through what in her mind might be a big party was a reminder of the stolen innocence of our indigenous women and girls. Her laughter echoed generations of girls who were silenced by murder and abuse; calling the lost girls as the candles light their dim path home. We need to speak for these women who have lost their voice, they deserve to be remembered, they deserve to be loved, they deserve to live a safe life, and they deserve life.

Here are some links to learn more about this crisis:

Native Women’s Association of Canada

Who Is She

Mackenzie House

Ryerson Aboriginal Certificate

Walking with Our Sisters

Ryerson Centre for Women and Trans People