Sisters in Spirit vigil honours missing and murdered Indigenous persons

In a moving moment of silence, participants in the Sisters in Spirit vigil reflect and lament during a red shawl performance in Kingston’s City Park. Photo by Michelle Dorey Forestell/Kingstonist.

If you noticed red dresses hanging in the breeze yesterday, October 4, it was because Sisters in Spirit were reminding you to remember Canada’s 5,000 (known) missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, two-spirit, transgender, and gender-diverse+ people.

October 4 is recognized each year as Sisters in Spirit National Day of Action for Missing And Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, Two-Spirit, Transgender, And Gender-Diverse+ (MMIWG2STGD+) People. The day is established by the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) and observed through vigils, walks, or marches that honour the memory of those lost to violence. Sisters in Spirit’s website states, “United, we will demand action on an issue that impacts us all while honouring the lives of our loved ones.”

Kingston Interval House hosted a special vigil of remembrance in Kingston’s City Park. Lorie Young, Kingston Interval House’s Indigenous and Rural Outreach Counsellor, pointed out that Sisters in Spirit Day is important because there are so many “Indigenous women, and also families, that are still grieving the loss of their loved one.”

NWAC uses the Grandmother Moon for its Sisters in Spirit Logo, according to Young, because “our Grandmother Moon is the one that we pray to, that we give thanks to… She’s a part of creation. She is the keeper of time. She’s the midwife: she controls the ebb and flow of the waters, and we always ask that… she keep our sisters safe.”

“October 4 is a movement for social change,” Young continued. “The violence experienced by us Indigenous women and girls in Canada is a national tragedy — and those missing through human trafficking, as well. We [also] must take the time to give thanks to the families who are our reason for demanding continued action.”

Grandmother Kathy Brant (right) looks on as Lorie Young (centre holding feathers) describes Sisters in Spirit. Photo by Michelle Dorey Forestell/Kingstonist.

The vigil held Wednesday is one of the ways of doing that, she said: “A vigil can take many forms. We are taking a moment of silence this afternoon, with the red shawl performance, and we have a sacred fire so people can offer their tobacco.” 

Absent from the group those gathered was 82-year-old Kingston resident Eleanor Hands, whose daughter, Nicolle Hands, was murdered in Winnipeg on October 5, 2003. Eleanor Hands has attended the Sisters in Spirit vigil ever since, reading her story to build awareness and hopefully help find the person who killed her daughter. This year, she said, she was unable to attend, but she shared her story in a letter to Kingstonist, explaining how she has been haunted by the loss of her daughter for 20 years. Today, October 5, 2023, marks 20 years since Nicolle’s murder.

Red dresses hanging in the trees around the gathering site at City Park were adorned with the faces of women who have been either murdered or gone missing, along with their names and stories.

Grandmother Kathy Brant from Tyendinaga shared Ohenten Kariwatekwen, which means “the words that are spoken before all others.” In this traditional greeting, all elements of creation are acknowledged and participants say thank you to them. She then poignantly acknowledge the land

“In the spirit of this gathering, I want to acknowledge the original caretakers of this land from time immemorial, the Algonquin-Anishinaabe and Allied Nations, the Haudenosaunee Six Nations Confederacy, which includes the nearby Mohawks, and many other First Nations People who crossed these lands for sustenance, trade, and survival…. [We] recognize its long history, predating the establishment of European colonies. It is also to acknowledge this territory’s significance for the Indigenous peoples who lived and continue to live upon it… whose practices and spiritualities were tied to the land and continue to develop in relationship to the territory and its other inhabitants today,” Grandmother Kathy shared.

“The Kingston Indigenous communities continue to reflect the area’s Algonquin-Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee roots, with also a significant Métis and Innu and Inuit community, and other First Peoples from other Nations across Turtle Island who are present here today. It is with deep humility that we acknowledge and offer our gratitude for their contributions to this community, having respect for all as we share this space now and walk side by side into the future.”

Attendees were then given the chance to take part in a smudging ceremony. Young also addressed the importance of Sisters in Spirit, explaining that it was funded by Status of Women Canada and began as a research, education, and policy initiative driven and led by Indigenous women. The primary goal was to conduct research and raise awareness of the alarmingly high rates of violence against Indigenous women and girls in Canada. The first phase of the Sisters in Spirit initiative, which began in 2005, conducted ongoing research that gathered statistical information on violence against Indigenous women. The research team developed a sophisticated database that included more than 200 variables. 

Lorie Young (drummer on right) and a guest open the vigil with a song of welcome. Photo by Michelle Dorey Forestell/Kingstonist.

Sisters in Spirit research continued to assist in updating the database, as well as tracking new cases every week. With this information, Sisters in Spirit investigated the root causes of violence against Indigenous women, and the Sisters in Spirit team worked closely with families to ensure that their experiences as well as recommendations were well documented and, above all else, focused on restoring the memory of their loved one, Young explained. 

The scope and breadth of this work were published along with heartfelt life stories of the women in NWAC’s Voices of Our Sisters in Spirit: A Report to Families and Communities, 2nd edition (March 2009). 

“The Native Women’s Association of Canada has worked for more than four decades to document the systemic violence and the impact it has had on Indigenous women and girls and 2STGD+ people and their families and their communities,” Young explained. “In December 2015, the government of Canada launched the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, and NWAC releases yearly report cards evaluating the government’s progress with the inquiry’s recommended activities.”

Those gathered at the October 4 event were also invited to take part in a red shawl performance. Young explained that the women’s fancy shawl dance represents the opening of a cocoon when the butterfly emerges. The shawls are usually the most extravagant pieces worn by dancers, and they are fringed, colourful, and flashy, often featuring embroidery or ribbon work. 

In this case, the red shawls were shared with anyone who wished to dance in remembrance of those murdered or missing. Dancers moved slowly and rhythmically with the music until finally, covering their heads and faces for a period of silent reflection, they slowly bent down or lay down in the grass to recognize the lost.

Faceless dolls representing the over 5,000 missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls — and “those are just the ones that we are aware of,” Grandmother Kathy Brant reminded those gathered. Photo by Michelle Dorey Forestell/Kingstonist.

Facts

In Canada, research shows Indigenous women are 400 per cent more likely than other Canadians to go missing.

The problem is so pervasive that the Canadian government does not know how many Indigenous women are missing or have been murdered, according to “Overpoliced and underprotected,” a University of Toronto Mississauga study discussed in an article from June 2, 2023. That study found that the search for missing Indigenous women was hampered by police apathy.

Indigenous women are seven times more likely to be a victim of murder than non-Indigenous women, and Indigenous women are three times more likely to be violently or sexually assaulted than non-Indigenous women, according to NWAC Action Plan: Our Calls, Our Actions, 2021.

NWAC submitted 61 recommendations to the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, many of which are reflected in the Inquiry’s final report. In Reclaiming Power and Place: The Final Report of the National Inquiry Into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, issued on June 3, 2019, the commissioners found: “This violence amounts to a race based genocide of Indigenous Peoples, including First Nations, Inuit and Métis, which especially targets women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA people. This genocide has been empowered by colonial structures, evidenced notably by the Indian Act, the Sixties Scoop, residential and day schools, and breaches of human and Inuit, Métis and First Nations rights, leading directly to the current increased rates of violence, death, and suicide in Indigenous populations.”

Indigenous women account for approximately five per cent of all women in Canada, but accounted for 21 per cent of all women killed by an intimate partner from 2014-2019, according to a Government of Canada Fact Sheet on Intimate Partner Violence.

It should be noted that, in 2010, the federal government ceased funding for the the Sisters in Spirit research initiative. However, the federal government subsequently reached an agreement with the NWAC in 2011, providing funding for a similar project for three years. The NWAC continues its work in raising awareness and continuing to call for action for the MMIWG2STGD+.

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