By Krista Hessey
“In 2005, my niece went missing,” said Denise Aquash at the Sisters in Spirit vigil held at Allen Gardens in Toronto last night.
Aquash takes deep breath before continuing.
“She went missing and was found murdered.”
Aquash is from the Walpole Island First Nation in southwestern Ontario. It was the first time she has spoken about the tragedy in public, but her family isn’t the only one that shares this heartbreak.
The annual Sisters in Spirit vigil is a nationwide event held to honour the lives of missing and murdered aboriginal women. Ryerson students came out to to show support for grieving families.
“Although our current government doesn’t seem to care and the police force doesn’t seem to care, the most important thing is that we are here remembering and honouring our sisters,” said Ryerson student Denise Booth, who’s also an indigenous and community engagement co-ordinator at the Toronto Birth Centre, a place for women to give birth under the care of a midwife.
“This vigil is to let them know they are loved, they are missed, and we will never forget them.”
The vigil also serves as a platform for people, both aboriginal and non-aboriginal, to show their solidarity and bring awareness to the Who Is She fundraising campaign launched in September by Chiefs of Ontario, an organization representing 133 First Nations in the province. The fund is raising money for a judicial inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women.
As of March 31, 2010, the Native Women’s Association of Canada has gathered information on 582 cases from across the country.
Last year, the RCMP released a report stating that there were 1,181 cases of missing and murdered aboriginal girls and women between 1980 and 2012. As of April 2015, for all police jurisdictions in Canada, there have been 174 missing aboriginal women’s cases, according to a report released in June. Aboriginal women are overrepresented among Canada’s missing and murdered women, the report states.
Also in attendance were Carolyn Bennett, incumbent candidate for Toronto-St. Paul’s, and Adam Vaughan, incumbent candidate for Spadina-Fort York. Both are MPs for the Liberal party, which is courting the aboriginal vote in the upcoming federal election with a $2.6 billion pledge to support First Nations education.
This issue of missing and murdered aboriginal women has garnered international attention, prompting a United Nations report released in March that advocated for a national inquiry, something that Conservative leader Stephen Harper said wasn’t high on his government’s “radar.”
“We will come together as long as we need to in order to bring light to this tragedy and have all Canadians understand this prime minister is on the wrong side of history,” said Bennett. “We will work together to get to the root causes to get this stopped.”
Janet Rodriguez, vice-president of equity of the Continuing Education Students’ Association of Ryerson said that it was especially important that Ryerson students be aware of this issue, because of the troubled history of the man Ryerson is named after, a man whose ideas helped inspire the residential schools system.
“(Egerton) Ryerson was the person who ordered the residential schools that lead to the cultural genocide of Aboriginal Peoples,” she said.