Families of missing women take to the streets, joined by #OccupyVancouver

Published in Vancouver Observer newssite | October 17, 2011 | Circulation: 77,000 unique monthly readers

Indigenous women lay down blankets in memory of the nearly 600 women missing or murdered in Canada. Photo by David P. Ball

As a troubled government inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women entered its second week, family members of the disappeared took over the normally busy Georgia and Granville Street intersection with a drum group and a circle of nearly 100 supporters.

The families were joined by several dozen people associated with the #OccupyVancouver encampment a block away, now in its fourth day. Smudging the circle of supporters with burning sage — a ceremony of spiritual cleansing — an elder then invited police Sergeant Jack Sarna into the circle and washed the coiling sage smoke over him with eagle feathers; he closed his eyes and opened his hands.

Several floors above, a meeting room played host to week two of a B.C. public inquiry into police mishandling of the investigation into serial killer Robert Pickton and their failure to protect women in the Downtown Eastside. The scene: nearly 20 lawyers representing various levels of government and police faced families of the missing women, with only three lawyers to represent them and the wider community’s interests.

The inquiry, which was sought by advocacy groups for several decades, has been marred by controversy since its creation. Last week, after a number of Downtown Eastside Vancouver groups declared a boycott of the proceedings, three of its largest participant organizations — Amnesty International, the BC Civil Liberties Association  (BCCLA) and the Assembly of First Nations — announced they, too, were pulling out of the inquiry.

“The families in the inquiry upstairs need to know what happened,” said Lisa Yellow-Quill, with the Aboriginal women’s program at Battered Women’s Support Services.“Why did it take police so long to arrest somebody?”

“But the perpetrators are really our society, because we allowed it to happen. Violence against Aboriginal women is at the heart of this country.”

Yellow-Quill called Canada’s treatment of Indigenous peoples an “apartheid system,” and thanked members of the #OccupyVancouver movement who joined the circle downtown.

Amnesty International Canada’s executive director Alex Neve told the Vancouver Observer in an interview that the world’s largest human rights organization withdrew from the inquiry because it felt critical voices were being deliberately excluded, and access to justice undermined. This, he said, was evidenced when the B.C. government denied inquiry commissioner Wally Oppal’s request for community groups to receive legal funding to participate and raise systemic issues.

“The government is sending a very clear sign that [Indigenous women’s] voices don’t matter and simply aren’t wanted,” Neve said. “It’s cruelly ironic that an inquiry supposed to grapple with access to justice for Aboriginal women does so in a way that undermines that completely.”

Neve said Amnesty came to its decision independently of other community groups, after consultation with the BCCLA, arguing community organizations need to have a stake in addressing the wider issues underlying the women’s disappearances and the failure of police to investigate.

The B.C. government’s refusal to fund community groups at the request of Commissioner Wally Oppal is unprecedented in a Canadian public inquiry, Neve said, in which commissioner requests are usually granted.

Premier Christy Clark explained that the request for increased funding — $1.5 million — was declined because of budgetary constraints, saying the government would “rather spend resources on the front line helping women who are still there, instead of more lawyers.”

But Amnesty disputed the lack of available funds. “The public purse has no problem absorbing the massive cost of a battalion of police and lawyers,” Neve said. “When the government has been responsible for the very injustice we’re talking about, it needs to put the money into addressing it.”

Asked what its motivations might be, Neve speculated that the government may not want larger systemic problems — such as institutional racism, poverty and sexism — addressed, hoping to keep the focus on the investigation into serial killer Robert Pickton. The refusal to examine wider issues around discrimination against Indigenous people, he suggested, may in fact amount to a breach of Canada’s human rights obligations under the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which Canada ratified last year.

“None of our organizations are turning our back on the issues that need to be addressed,” Neve added. “Above all, it’s because of the struggle of the women’s families that we’ve made it this far. Sadly, an opportunity to make progress has been wasted.”

Sgt. Sarna acknowledged that he was surprised to be invited into the families’ ceremony, particularly considering the protest was directed towards the police, accusing them of failing to protect Indigenous women.

“I was honoured to be included in this ceremony,” he told the Vancouver Observer. “As a representative of the Vancouver Police Department, it was a very important gesture for people to include me.”

“I hope we can have a better understanding of Aboriginal culture and join forces to protect all people.”

Yellow-Quill told the gathering of supporters that traditional ceremony was a place for healing and honouring the memories of missing women.

“In these ceremonies we don’t shame blame or criticize,” she said. “We’re doing this in a spirit of love.”

But the inclusion of police in the smudging ceremony did not prevent harsher words from being expressed by a number of Indigenous women and allies.

“Upstairs there’s a room full of people who are there because these women have fought for an inquiry for 20 years,” said Harsha Walia, with the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre, one of the first groups to boycott the inquiry proceedings. “There is no greater crisis across Canada now as missing and murdered Indigenous women.”

“The police are responsible. The Vancouver Police Department blames the RCMP; the RCMP blames the Vancouver Police Department. As far as I’m concerned, it’s all their fault.”

The Indigenous woman who conducted the smudging ceremony, Elder Annie, also addressed the gathering.

“I knew so many of these women,” she told the crowd. “They brought joy to my life. There’s too many to name — all we know is they’re gone and there’s no reason for them to have died.”

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