Marches, vigils and other events of remembrance across Alberta on Tuesday marked the annual Sisters in Spirit Day.
Each year on Oct. 4, loved ones, communities members and allies honour the lives of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit individuals.
“We celebrate their lives, we remember them, we bring our drums, we bring our song, we bring our spirits to this event, so that we may remember who they were as our loved ones before they were taken,” explained Josie Nepinak, the executive director of Awo Taan Healing Lodge Society.
Sisters in Spirit Day is an initiative driven and led by Indigenous women and the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC), which began in 2005 to conduct research and raise awareness of the alarmingly high violence against Indigenous women and girls in Canada. The project inspired community-led vigils and events across Canada annually on Oct. 4.
On Tuesday, the province announced it was officially designating Oct. 4 as Sisters in Spirit Day in Alberta from this year forward.
“On this day, we honour the lives of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA+ people (MMIWG2S+),” said Rick Wilson, Alberta’s minister of Indigenous Relations, in a statement.
“We also keep their families and loved ones in our hearts and remind ourselves why we must continue to address this ongoing crisis.
“Please try to take part in one of the many events being held today across Alberta,” he added. “Let this day be a reminder that we must all focus on this serious issue every day of the year.”
Nepinak has been organizing Sisters in Spirit events in Calgary for many years. For her, it’s incredibly personal. Her aunt was killed in 1977.
“We have not had any closure to her death,” she said. “I do this for her children and now, for her grandchildren.
“I remember her very, very well and she was taken away from us far too soon by a very violent act,” Nepinak said. “And so, not only for her, but also for the families across the country who are grieving, who continue to ask for justice, who continue to seek answers, and to bring awareness around safety and social justice for victims of violence.”
Nepinak was one of four Indigenous women (and three MLAs) on a provincial working committee that established Alberta’s approach to the national MMIW report. She said, after “a year-and-a-half of blood, sweat and tears,” the committee and Minister Wilson were able to present their recommendations on June 3.
Nepinak and her team have also been working with the Calgary police on developing protocol for how police engage with Indigenous communities when there’s a missing or murdered person or suspicious death. She said the police service has been very engaged in the process.
Activist Michelle Robinson also attended the march in Calgary on Tuesday.
“I’m here today to march for all of our lost Indigenous sisters, all of our women, all of our two-spirit who are marginalized because of their race and their gender. Racism and gendered violence is the foundation of Canada, and that’s why I march today.
“This is a huge issue. And Canadian white women generally ignore us, so that’s why, of course, it perpetuates. They would rather have their own voice over our voice. And, I mean, the foundation of the women’s right to vote was done on the back of Metis woman right here in Calgary,” Robinson said.
Stephanie English said she was feeling a lot of emotions on Tuesday.
“Healing,” she said. “It’s like opening up a sore again. This time, it’s really acknowledging what I didn’t understand before. For myself, being here is home. Being here, I know my daughters are close, my brother, and many others out there who are forgotten.
Stephanie’s daughter Joey English died in 2016.
“I really walk in honour of our people who suffered, to bring out that awareness, to respect each other, to bring each other up instead of pushing each other down.
“We’ve just got to keep speaking up and having that voice instead of sitting in silence.
“I want my children to grow up free and happy… breaking the cycle.”
For Selah Rayne, Oct. 4 is a day for shedding light on MMIW and educating people about the issue.
“Up until fairly recently, nobody has really known about it, nobody has really known the statistics about it. Having today is really important.”
In February 2016, Status of Women Minister Patty Hajdu acknowledged that solid data was lacking to estimate the number of MMIW, but pointed to NWAC data to indicate that the number could be as high as 4,000 MMIW in Canada from 1980 to 2012. An RCMP report estimated the number was 1,200.
“It’s a race thing… I just feel like people in power don’t really care too much about Indigenous people and I feel like that’s why it’s never been brought to light, we’ve always been silenced, until now,” Rayne said.
“It’s really sad, especially knowing there’s so many cases that involve children.”
Acting Sgt. Alan Chamberlain, the Calgary Police Services’ Indigenous Liaison Officer, has been walking for two days to raise awareness for MMIWG2S+.
“My feet are sore, my legs are sore, my hips are sore, but our spirits are amazing. It’s just people coming together. And every year, we meet up with Sisters in Spirit vigil. I’m just so honored to be part of that… We’re just blessed and humbled to have that family and have that connection.”
Chamberlain says the way he approaches removing barriers between police is to: “attend ceremony, listen with your heart, lead with your heart… It’s a human connection… and communities coming together.
“Our hope is that we’re building the road and the journey gets better for the next generation that comes up. We won’t be here forever and we want that decolonization and reconciliation to continue.”
In a message on Twitter, the Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton wrote: “We cannot ignore that sexual violence continues to be used as a tool in the genocide of Indigenous communities and is closely tied to the devastating issue of MMIWG2S+.
“At SACE, we remember those that are missing and have been killed and commit to doing our part to address this devastating issue.”
In addition to the working group, Wilson said the province is already engaged in other projects that will seek the input of Indigenous women to find solutions to the crisis.
“I have heard too many heartbreaking stories and I have seen the pain of too many Indigenous women who have experienced violence,” Wilson said.
“That’s why I am pleased to announce the members of the Premier’s Council on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls soon.
“This council will use the Alberta Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Roadmap to guide concrete actions to help make Alberta a safer place for Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit plus (2S+) people.
“Ending the MMIWG2S+ crisis is a priority for our government, and it is an issue close to my heart. We will continue working to find lasting solutions and provide opportunities for healing for the loved ones and families of MMIWG2S+.”
The Opposition NDP is urging the United Conservative government to step up and take immediate action on this issue.
Richard Feehan, NDP critic for Indigenous Relations, said the Alberta Joint Working Group on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls released its final report and recommendations in June.
“It took the UCP government six months to release 113 Pathways to Justice and three months later there is still no action on these vital recommendations.
“The UCP have failed missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA+ people so many times, including recent funding cuts that resulted in the loss of a program designed to support the families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in the court system,” Feehan said in a statement.
“Alberta families and communities of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls deserve justice, peace, and reconciliation.”