BONNYVILLE - “Indigenous women and girls across Canada face greater risks of violence and homicide compared to other races.”
Janet Gobert, community initiatives coordinator for the Bonnyville Friendship Centre, explained during the Sisters in Spirit Vigil on Oct. 4 in Bonnyville that while statistical evidence can be reviewed on murdered and missing indigenous women across the country, it leaves out an important factor.
“It doesn’t show the impacts and trauma brought onto the communities and families who have lost their mothers, daughters, sisters, grandmothers, aunties, and cousins due to violence,” she said. “As I look amongst you here tonight, I know that some of you could have been a statistic as you have shared your stories with me - stories of violence and rape.”
According to Statistics Canada, indigenous women and girls only made up five per cent of Canada’s female population. In 2018, they accounted for 23 per cent of all women and girls murdered throughout the country between 2014 and 2018.
“There’s a lot of disagreement on the number of missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada,” noted Bonnyville-Cold Lake-St. Paul MLA David Hanson. “The confusion of the numbers has to do with the underreporting of violence against indigenous women and girls, along with the lack of an effective database.”
This is the third time the local centre has hosted a Sisters in Spirit Vigil in town. The event, which is held across the country, honours missing and murdered indigenous women and girls and shows support for their loved ones.
“(This year) marks the 15th anniversary of marking Sisters in Spirit Vigils on Oct. 4,” explained Lori Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Bonnyville Friendship Centre. “We must continue to let families know there’s someone in every corner of Canada who remembers the missing and murdered and who will stand (beside) these families who continue to grieve.”
Shaunna Okemow, critical incident and stress management coordinator, attended the vigil in honour of her sister’s friends who were taken at the hands of "terrible men."
“She’s now left with only memories of who they were and has been stripped away of witnessing who they will become. I’m here for my childhood friends, who I pray for every night that they don’t suffer the same fate that others have. I stand here as a commitment to continue to fight and ensure that our future children know that violence isn’t in our traditional way of life,” she expressed.
Okemow added, “I’m here because I honour the women and men within families that work their hardest to shield our young eyes from the horrors of this world and the horrors that sometimes occur within our homes. I’m here for the people that are working night and day to break the cycles and sometimes can feel powerless. I’m here to tell you that I see and feel your power.”
According to Okemow, indigenous women are "three times as likely to experience violence compared to non-indigenous women."
Those gathered protected their candles from the wind and some wore masks with a red handprint across their mouths. Posters were featured throughout the space beside the friendship centre with information on missing women, while a teepee had red dresses hung to represent the women who are gone, but not forgotten.
The Dene Hand Drum group and Grey Eagle Singers performed songs during the ceremony, along with a jingle dance by a local dancer.
Before the night was through, the teepee was adorned in red ribbons to mark the occasion.
“Tonight, we’re united for a common cause and to draw attention to this human rights crisis,” said Fitzpatrick