Across Canada, memorials for missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirited individuals marked a two-decades long fight for justice to be delivered and for violence against Indigenous people to end.
More than 250 Calgarians gathered in the downtown core over the lunch hour on Oct. 4, Sisters in Spirit Day, to walk from Stephen Avenue to Olympic Plaza as part of that national movement.
“It’s really important every year to have this event to honour and pay respect to the murdered and missing Indigenous women, girls, two-spirit and men relatives that have gone, and to keep creating that awareness so that we can push forward and make change,” said Autumn Eaglespeaker, emcee for Wednesday’s event.
She said that change has been coming over the past 20 years, but that change has been slow and incremental.
“When it first started, the movement was really small. It would just be mostly First Nations people here and affected family members, and the numbers would be like less than 30,” Eaglespeaker said.
“So, to speak today to see this large group of people coming together to support this issue, and not just First Nations people, but people from all different walks of life – Young, all different races, different cultures, just all coming together to support – it really warms my heart and it shows that there is changes happening.”
New direction for decision makers
Among those tangible changes to policy and direction, said Eaglespeaker, came in the form of new relationships with police.
She pointed at the participation of the Calgary Police Service in memorial walks held by the English family leading up to Sisters in Spirit Day as an example of that change.
“When Stephanie [English] first started walking six years ago, the police were against a lot of the things that she was saying. But through her work and advocacy, there’s now a new relationship with the police force, with the RCMP,” Eaglespeaker said.
“They’ve gotten through the efforts to pray at the different landfill sites here within the city. To get back the strength from losing her loved ones. So, it may not be the societal changes that we need, but they’re small incremental changes that are really important.”
Speakers at Calgary’s Sisters in Spirit Day pointed to the ongoing Government of Manitoba refusal to search a Winnipeg landfill where police in that city believe that bodies of a serial killer were buried.
English, speaking to the crowd at Olympic Plaza, pointed to her own efforts in Calgary to raise awareness of the way that victims of killers in Calgary have been similarly given vile treatment.
“Today, Joey’s limbs still lay in the landfill,” she said.
Joey Tiiah Patricia English, who died of an overdose, was dismembered by Joshua Weise, who dumped her body parts at locations near his home.
Wednesday also marked the last time that English said that she would be walking to Calgary. Instead, for the National Day of MMIWG, she would be walking to Ottawa to continue to raise awareness.
Eaglespeaker also thanked Mayor Jyoti Gondek for attending the vigil, and for choosing to speak to survivors.
“It really means a lot to have the mayor take the time to come here, to be a part of the ceremony, and not just say a sound bite and leave. To be here for the whole time and to get that respect, and to witness and to and to hear what is being said,” she said.
“That’s what more politicians need to do. Come and maybe not speak, but maybe just be there to hear and to support, and then see how those things can actually help to make changes.”
Minister of Arts, Culture, and Status of Women Tanya Fir along with Councillor Dan McLean were among the other politicians present at Olympic Plaza, who remained in attendance throughout the event.
Justice still not felt by survivors
English, despite praising the officers from the Calgary Police Service and RCMP who walked with her, condemned the top political decisions made by law enforcement officials in Alberta.
She spoke about the issues that young Indigenous women continued to face with drugs and sexual abuse.
“Chief, I’m calling you out on this. Our women don’t need to be raped, nor do our men. These stories are still coming back home,” English said.
Nicole Johnston, aunt of Colton Crowshoe who was killed in 2014, called on the federal government to pass stronger laws and to better respect the rights of victims to receive justice.
“We need change in our justice system. The way it is today, it’s not working. It’s not working. Why? Because we’re still having these events,” she said.
“People are still going missing. Indigenous people are still going missing and murdered. How many cases are left unsolved? How many cases of men and women are left out there that are still missing?”
The lack of consequences for offenders, and the lack of perception that they will face justice, said Johnston, continues to be a barrier to ending violence.
Calgary Police Service Acting Chief Chad Tawfik said that while the history of interactions between police and Indigenous peoples has not always been positive, there has been a conscious effort to address concerns in recent years.
“We can’t change the wrongs of the past but we can work hard to make sure we learn from them and create a better future together,” he said.
He said the stories shared by survivors and their families are the stories of justice not being served, and more needing to be done.
“As a police service, we recognize that we have a huge role to play in this needed change. We’re committed to answering the MMIWG calls for justice, and the first step for us is to learn what we can do better and then ensure we make those improvements as your police,” Tawfik said.
“We are committed to this process even when it means asking hard questions within our own organization and about our own organization.”