‘When are we going to be seen as humans?’: Downtown Vancouver packed for annual Women’s Memorial March

Click to play video: 'Women’s Memorial March participant on toppling of Gassy Jack statue'
Women’s Memorial March participant on toppling of Gassy Jack statue
A participant at the annual Feb. 14 Women's Memorial March describes what it means to her to see the controversial Gassy Jack statue off its pedestal. Monday's event is held annually in the Downtown Eastside and family and friends gather to march on behalf of missing and murdered Indigenous women. – Feb 14, 2022

Warning: This story deals with disturbing subject matter that may upset and trigger some readers. Discretion is advised.

About a thousand people packed the streets of downtown Vancouver on Monday to honour missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, trans people and Two-Spirit people.

The annual Women’s Memorial March takes place on Feb. 14, both to remember those lost to the violence of colonization and to urge those in power to take meaningful action to prevent further harm.

“Colonization has permitted the world to take and murder our women, and our men and our people,” said Sheridan Martin of Gitxsan Nation.

“I sing for the grandmothers and grandfathers to stand with us today. There can be no more missing and murdered Indigenous people.”

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Martin’s sister, Cindy, went missing along the British Columbia’s Highway of Tears in 2018. Her death was “ironic,” she said, because her sister used to participate in the annual march.

Martin said she was marching for her sister, with the strength of her mother — a residential school survivor — and the medicine of her people, which keeps her resilient.

“I don’t want to keep marching with my granddaughter, with my daughter, with my sisters,” she said in an interview. “When is it going to stop? When are we going to be seen as humans?”

Click to play video: 'Project tackles violence against racialized women'
Project tackles violence against racialized women

Research by the Native Women’s Association of Canada suggests there could be as many as 4,000 missing or murdered Indigenous women and girls across the country.

According to Statistics Canada, between 2001 and 2015, Indigenous women were killed at a rate nearly six times higher than non-Indigenous women. The rate of violence against Indigenous women, girls, trans people and Two-Spirit people is also staggeringly disproportionate compared to non-Indigenous people.

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In 2019, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls released a 1,200-page report with 231 calls for justice aimed at ending “genocide” and a crisis “centuries in the making.”

In its first federal budget since those findings were released, Ottawa committed $2.2 billion over five years and $160.9 million each year to crack down on the crisis, by addressing systemic racism in the health-care system, for example.

Since then, however, little tangible progress has been noted by advocates, including the women’s association.

Wendy Nahanee, a committee member for the march, said progress in the crisis of violence against Indigenous people is a “slow-moving wheel.”

She and other marchers laid roses for those missing and murdered in the Downtown Eastside, where there is a high concentration of violence and many unsolved cases.

“If thousands of non-Indigenous women went missing, there would be far more media attention, there would be investigations, posts everywhere — people would be arrested within the days. That’s just not happening with our women,” said Nahanee.

“Respect your First Nations. Respect the people that were here holding these lands before you were here, and are still tending these lands.”

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Click to play video: 'Advocates slam Ottawa’s action plan on missing women'
Advocates slam Ottawa’s action plan on missing women

Community leader Carol Martin urged the media to improve their coverage of stories around missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, trans people and Two-Spirit people, and to take responsibility for decades of harm caused by poorly chosen words that dehumanize sacred life.

“When is the war on Indigenous women going to stop? I feel like I’m in a room where there’s just concrete walls and I want to scream and I want to cry, but I can’t anymore,” she said.

“I just pray for you guys. We need the truth out there. We need words, unfiltered. You need to know who we are. We’re humans.”

Marchers toppled the statue of John Deighton, more commonly known as Gassy Jack, in Gastown during the Monday march. Critics have said the effigy is a symbol of oppression against Indigenous people.

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Vancouver police have said they are investigating.

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