Calgarians gathered on Oct. 4, to commemorate, remember, and to pray on Sisters in Spirit Day for the missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit people.
The event was one of over a dozen that took place across the province for the day, but for the first time, was recognized by the Government of Alberta as a permanent day of remembrance.
Alberta’s Minister of Indigenous Relations, Rick Wilson, designated Oct. 4 as Sisters in Spirit Day in recognition of the more than 1,200 missing and murdered women and girls across the nation.
Josie Nepinak, executive director for the Awo Tann Healing Lodge Society, called the province’s declaration a beautiful one.
“I’ve made it my career, and and and I don’t know how many times I have hit a brick wall, I have I have been shut down, I have been invisible to the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women and the importance of understanding that work,” she said.
“This is validation that validates, yes, this is worthwhile, these women’s lives were worth it.”
The Awo Tann Healing Lodge Society, and Nepinak have been organizing Sisters in Spirit Days for 19 years.
Minister Wilson said in a news release on Sisters in Spirit Day, the designation was a reminder of focusing on the issue of MMIWG2S+, not just on a single day, but every day of the year.
“I have heard too many heartbreaking stories and I have seen the pain of too many Indigenous women who have experienced violence,” Wilson said.
Stephanie English, along with members of her family, the Piikani Nation, and the Calgary Police Service, walked from the nation to Calgary in remembrance of her daughters Joey and Alison. It was the fifth annual walk in their memory.
English called the province’s declaration of a permanent day a victory.
“It’s a celebration—we’re being acknowledged,” English said.
She said that while the acknowledgement felt like a change from previous governments, but that she said more could be done. Specifically in the form of an apology to her and to other MMIWG2S+ families.
“An apology from their heart, not their head,” English said .
Sisters in Spirit Day an important one for Calgarians
Nepinak said that the day was a personal one for her, and for many other families with missing and murdered family members.
Josie Nepinak’s family member, Tanya Nepinak, was murdered in 2011. Charges against her suspected killer were stayed, although he was sentenced to 20-years in prison for the killing of two other women in Manitoba.
“The issue is very, very personal, but it also is a systemic issue because we know in Canada that there are thousands of missing and murdered indigenous women,” Nepinak said.
“There is an epidemic of violence and appealing of Indigenous women in this country, and we together not only as Indigenous, but we invite Calgarians to be part of the solution to work with us to be allies, to be ambassadors, to be our friends, and to show kindness every day.”
Mayor Gondek and members of council attended the commemorations at Olympic Plaza after the completion of the morning’s council business.
She called it “absolutely critical” to be at events like Sisters in Spirit Day.
“If you can imagine the heaviness of having to say the words missing and murdered indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit people, try to imagine the pain of the folks that have lost someone. Many of the people here today have no closure,” she said.
“It is our responsibility as a council to amplify those voices. This is a critical day.”
She said that amplifying the voices of the families meant ensuring that their stories and the stories of their missing loved ones were being told.
“We have to talk about how the things that have happened within the community the things that have happened to indigenous people, those things have created intergenerational trauma, the likes of which most of us can’t imagine,” the mayor said.
She thanked the provincial government for making the day a permanent one for Albertans.
“I am so impressed that the province took it upon themselves to formalize this day,” Mayor Gondek said.
“Instead of just relying on volunteers to organize and share their stories and share their pain, quite frankly, we now have a provincial government that acknowledges how important this day is, and that was very good to see.”
Justice for those missing and murdered
English, speaking to the assembled crowd at Olympic Plaza, spoke of how deeply traumatic the loss of her daughters was, and how she felt.
“I hope in my time I’ll know the whole true story of Alison’s story, I’ll know the whole truth of Joey’s story,” English said.
“I’ll know the truth and honesty of it instead of judging it because we’re First Nation—I took the time to put my heart in this walk and it’s not a walk for show, It’s a walk for healing and awareness.”
Her daughter Alison English died in 2015 in what Rocky Mountain RCMP said was a suicide. English disagrees.
Joey English died in 2016 to a drug overdose. Her body was dismembered by drug dealer Joshua Weise before being discarded in garbage bags throughout the city. He received a sentence of just 18-months, and three-years of probation in 2017 for the crime.
Mark Neufeld, Chief Constable for the Calgary Police Service, attended the commemorations. Speaking to LiveWire Calgary, he said that the Calgary Police Service is committed to do whatever they possibly can to bring perpetrators to justice, regardless of who the victims are.
“I think as we see today here with this particular event, the there are a disproportionate amount of women and girls in the Indigenous community—and men for that matter—that are impacted by violence,” Chief Neufeld said.
“Every time that we can solve those cases, and bring an element of closure and support to families you build trust with the community, so I think it’s really, really important.”
CPS members who walked with English and her family, along with uniformed officers from CPS’ Indigenous liaison team and District 1, also attended the Sisters in Spirit Day.
Nepinak called the attendance of the police a significant change from when Sisters in Spirit Day began.
“It means a lot to have the police here today because 19 years ago when we first started there wasn’t a policeman in sight,” she said.
“Over the years we’ve had people like [Acting Sergeant] Alan Chamberlain who’s always made himself available to the community, I mean I’ve often texted him or phoned him on other issues. He sits on our missing and murdered Indigenous women committee, and he’s always made himself available.”
“He’s a family man, but yet he just seems to be there. This is his family. I’m sure we’re his second family, as he has been traditionally adopted by the Piikani family that you’ve seen.”
Warrior blanket bestowed on Sgt. Chamberlain
Sgt. Chamberlain, who works as a Calgary Police Service Indigenous Liaison Officer, was given a traditional warrior blanket by members of the English family on Tuesday.
He began walking with the family on October 2 from the Piikani nation.
“Today our feet are sore, our legs are sore, our hips are sore, our spirits are amazing though, and just to be wrapped in a blanket and honoured in that way with the community, it just shows there’s so much support towards the work that we’re doing,” he said.
“A lot of the work that we do may be uncomfortable—reconciliation isn’t supposed to be comfortable, those truths are uncomfortable—so that just really shows me, and shows the rest of the community that we’re walking this journey together in a good way, and we’ll get there.”
He gave a lot of credit to the service for starting an Indigenous relations unit in 1979, and to a number of officers who served in the role he now fills.
“We’re just continuing on that road for the future generation, so when our kids’ kids come here we’re all coming coming together as one, in a good way.”
Chief Neufeld said that he couldn’t be more proud of Sgt. Chamberlain and the Indigenous relations unit.
“The amount of commitment and dedication to the community, and the good work that gets done by by all the members of the team, Alan included, we just couldn’t be happier and I know that the community couldn’t be happier either as evidenced by the gift,” he said.
“More than ever before I think we recognize from paying attention to what the community tells us on how best to be supportive.”