by Kelly Campagnola, Women’s Representative, TYRMC, and Tera Beaulieu, President, TYRMC
From left to right: Infinite Reach Facilitator Jesse Donovan, Metis youth Jessica Beaulieu, TYRMC President Tera Beaulieu, and TYRMC Youth Rep Christine Skura
MNO Toronto and York Region Métis Council participate in Toronto Strawberry Ceremony for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women
On February 14, 2015, the Toronto and York Region Métis Council joined 500 other demonstrators, including the MNO Infinite Reach: Métis Student Solidarity Network of University of Toronto, in seeking justice for Canada’s missing and murdered Indigenous women. The Toronto Strawberry Ceremony was organized by No More Silence, The Native Youth Sexual Health Network, and the sex workers rights organization Maggie’s Toronto, and was endorsed by close to 100 other organizations in the City of Toronto. The Strawberry Ceremony has been held for the past 10 years on February 14th to raise awareness and honour Indigenous women who have been murdered or who have gone missing. The Toronto gathering is held in solidarity with a vigil that was originally organized by a group of women approximately 25 years ago in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side. Similar gatherings are now held across Canada on February 14th bringing together thousands of Indigenous peoples and Canadians.
There is a growing awareness that Indigenous women disproportionately continue to go missing or are murdered with minimal to no action being taken by the Canadian government. Events like the Strawberry Ceremony bring awareness to the systemic nature of gendered violence, poverty, racism and colonialism in Canada. The gathering held in Toronto occurred outside of Toronto Police Headquarters and was followed by a march of gathered protesters who made their way to a local community organization for a feast organized by the Native Men’s Residence of Toronto. The Strawberry Ceremony was led by Elder Wanda Whitebird and included prayers for the women and their families, drumming, jingle dress dancing, and the sharing of strawberries, water and tobacco for all those in attendance. One of the primary purposes for the gathering is to provide community support and healing for the families in attendance whose loved ones are missing or have been murdered. Gathered individuals heard family members speak about the devastating loss of their beloved mothers, sisters, cousins, aunties, and daughters and listened to their calls for action to bring an end to this dark period and time in our history. While the organizers recognized that February is out of season for a ceremony involving strawberries, they shared that the violence that Indigenous women are experiencing is “also a disruption in our traditional ways of life.”
According to Statistics Canada, First Nations women are three and half times more likely to be victims of violence than non-Aboriginal women and are seven times more likely to be murdered. While the authors are not aware of similar statistics that document the rates of violence and death of Métis women specifically, the personal stories that have been shared by Métis women at various gatherings and events indicate that all Aboriginal women remain at increased risk of violence and potential death. In a report issued last May, the RCMP stated that while Aboriginal women make up 4.3% of the population, they account for 16% of female homicides and 11.3% of missing women. This year alone, three young Aboriginal women in Toronto lost their lives.
Organizers of the event said that they will continue to push for a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women. Many at the rally also demanded that Stephen Harper order a national inquiry into murdered and missing Aboriginal women, a move that the Assembly of First Nations, Ontario Premiere Kathleen Wynne and federal opposition leaders Justin Trudeau and Thomas Mulcair have voiced support for.
Stephen Harper’s response to the demand for a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women is that the issue “should not be viewed as a sociological phenomenon”, but rather as crime and dealt with as such. However, crime is, in fact, an inherently sociological phenomenon shaped by historical and social processes. The Harper government has also cut funding for the Sisters in Spirit initiative of the Native Women’s Association of Canada in 2010, the landmark research project which brought the crisis of missing and murdered Aboriginal women to the public’s awareness.
The Toronto and York Region Métis Council proudly endorsed and attended the Strawberry Ceremony along with other Aboriginal agencies, groups, and peoples in the City. The Council took time to gather in preparation to make various signs that were held at the Strawberry Ceremony to raise awareness and honour the women who are no longer with us and remain missing. The dire numbers released by the RCMP report demonstrate that there are powerful historical and systemic forces at play, which cannot be ignored. The TYRMC is committed to drawing attention to Aboriginal women’s issues and we will proudly, and solemnly, lend our voice to speaking out against the ongoing tragedies, and join in the emerging healing efforts, dedicated to missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada.