As many as 4,000 Indigenous Canadian women are murdered or missing. For Toronto's Aboriginal community, gathering to remember is the first step in healing.
As smoke from burning sweetgrass, cedar, sage, and lavender wafted into the air, the sweet aroma spread around the room and the Eagle Woman Singerz began to drum.
About 70 people gathered in the centre of an unassuming meeting room at Ryerson University last Tuesday evening to honour missing and murdered Indigenous women, men, and children. The gathering followed tradition, according to organizer and Swampy Cree elder Joanne Dallaire: A medicine wheel blanket lay on the carpet underneath an eagle staff with 13 feathers jutting from it, representing the moons of the First Nations calendar. In lieu of a sacred fire, a candle burned. The women in attendance sat in a circle around the medicine wheel, the men in a larger circle around them.
Outside of the circle, more than 500 small felt-cutout dolls wearing colourful dresses adorned with flowers, leaves, ribbons, and feathers watched over the group. They signified the 582 women the Native Women’s Association of Canada accounted for in its own database in 2010, before the RCMP released its estimate of nearly 1,200 Indigenous women missing and murdered nation-wide between 1980 and 2012.
The true numbers, though, are thought to be even higher.
NWAC has suggested as many as 4,000 women have disappeared or been killed, and last week, on the morning of this healing ceremony, Status of Women Minister Patty Hajdu too suggested the RCMP figure was not comprehensive.
Maggie Cywink’s sister is one of the many. Sonya Cywink was 31 years old when she was murdered, her body found in a park in London, Ontario, in 1994. The case remains unsolved.
“Justice doesn’t happen in this world,” Cywink says. A member of the Whitefish River First Nation near Manitoulin Island, she used to live in Toronto. She sits in the circle at the healing ceremony wearing a red beret and beaded earrings that dangle to her shoulders. “It really doesn’t. And I’m at peace with that. That’s part of the healing.”
Calls for an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women were ignored by the Conservative government, but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced in early December the process would begin with consultation with victims’ families.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission also recommended that an inquiry be held. Indigenous women and girls comprise about four per cent of the Canadian population, but from 1980 to 2012, 16 per cent of women killed in this country were Indigenous.
Over the past two months, survivors of violence, as well as families and friends of the missing and murdered, were invited to tell their stories and inform the government on how the inquiry should be structured. Nearly 2,000 people attended 18 meetings in cities across Canada.
Cywink lives in Virginia now, but she flew back to Toronto for the local meeting earlier this month. She spoke to ministers Carolyn Bennett and Jody Wilson-Raybould directly, along with other family members, and says she felt they truly listened.
“It was the beginning of hope, hope beyond hope, that maybe they’re taking us seriously,” Cywink says.
Dallaire, too, is “cautiously hopeful … It’s the most hopeful I’ve been in decades that there is going to be some kind of moving forward in the relationship between the government and Indigenous people,” she says.
She said it’s clear the inquiry is a priority for Trudeau—not buried at the bottom of a laundry list of other initiatives.
The final consultation meeting was held last week in Ottawa, and it’s expected that the government will announce details of the inquiry in the next few months.
In a perfect world, at the end of it all, every missing woman would be found and every murder would be solved, Cywink says. “But that’s not going to happen. This is not about that.”
It’s about justice, but that means different things to different people, she says. For her, the inquiry should strive to help families heal, educate and engage non-Indigenous Canadians, and prevent further violence against women.
At the meeting, Cywink proposed some strategies: legalizing prostitution while opening shelters specifically for sex workers, and establishing an emergency-response team to offer support to Indigenous families when their mother, sister, or daughter is killed.
The inquiry was not discussed at length at Tuesday’s ceremony. The event was not political, though Dallaire acknowledges the issue of violence against Indigenous women has been “pushed under the carpet” for a long time.
The ceremony was inclusive—Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike participated in a smudging, gently waving the smoke from the burning plants over their heads and toward their hearts. It’s important for all nations, men and women, to stand together, otherwise we’re weakened, Dallaire says.
Our shared experiences of emotion, pain, and losing people we love unite us, she adds. “I can’t think of anyone who hasn’t been touched by this issue, some way, somehow.”
As the smoke clears, people file to the back of the room for a potluck feast. It’s time to eat, laugh, and socialize. Outside, a long and arduous healing process awaits—and these ceremonies, while a necessary step, are just the beginning.