OTTAWA – They gathered by the hundreds on the rain-soaked steps of Parliament Hill, carrying sombre reminders of murdered and missing aboriginal women — and demanding justice from the federal government.
Many brandished photos of lost loved ones as they urged the governing Conservatives to hold a national public inquiry into an alarming number of native women in Canada — nearly 600, by one estimate — they fear have fallen prey to violent crime.
Two large display boards adorned with hundreds of felt figures representing aboriginal women served as a backdrop. A sign next to it read, “These women deserve justice.”
Laurie Odjick, from the Quebec First Nations community of Kitigan Zibi, clutched an image of her daughter Maisy — missing since the fall of 2008 — as she described the importance of her cause.
“I love these gatherings because I get to meet other families who are going through the same things we are,” Odjick said.
“We come here for strength.”
The eighth annual gathering in Ottawa, known as the Sisters in Spirit vigil, was one of 216 held across the country and abroad, with other events taking place as far away as Australia, Malaysia and Peru.
New Democrat Leader Tom Mulcair appeared to have some trouble containing his emotions as he addressed the crowd.
“The number of women in the Ottawa area is the same number of native women in Canada,” he said. “If you heard that 600 women were murdered or missing in Ottawa do you think we’d have to have demonstrations to get an inquiry?”
Mulcair said the rally was about reminding Canadians that missing aboriginal women is an injustice all Canadians need to address.
It is estimated there are close to 600 cases of missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada dating back to the 1960s. But the Native Women’s Association of Canada says many more cases have gone undocumented.
The exact number remains a mystery. The RCMP says it does not collect data on the ethnicity of missing women.
Connie Greyeyes of Fort St. John, B.C., spoke about the countless women in her community that are missing or have been found brutally slain.
“All these women from Fort St. John that are missing and nobody seems to care,” she told the crowd.
“How many marches and vigils and rallies before they go: ‘What’s going on here?’ This is a community of, like, 18 to 20,000 (people) when there’s work in the winter. Why is there so many women missing?'”
The vigil on Parliament Hill came as a top United Nations representative was set to arrive in Canada on an official visit to take stock of indigenous rights.
Starting Monday, James Anaya, the UN special rapporteur on indigenous rights, will travel the country to hear from government officials and representatives of the aboriginal community. He is scheduled to hold a news conference in Ottawa on Oct. 15.
It’s expected Anaya will discuss the number of missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls during his visit.
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo said he hopes Anaya’s visit will show Canadians some of the horrors and hardships endured by Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples.
“What this moment represents, in my view, is a moment to hold a mirror up to the country and reflect back … real challenges. It’s a truth-telling moment, if you will,” Atleo said this week.
“I think he is going to bring an international reflection, really critical right now given the fact we’ve pressed for an agenda with the prime minister, with the country.”
— With files from Steve Rennie