Voice after voice spoke of the need to end violence against Indigenous women and girls and to make the lives of Indigenous people “matter.” Many stood up to announce what actions they’re taking in their communities and what more needs to be done.
At the day-long Peoples’ Gathering at Carleton University on Feb. 27, one woman’s voice spoke more strongly than the others. Beginning and ending the proceedings by drumming and singing the Woman’s Warrior Song, CeeJai Julian (Shining Eagle Woman) said the event, which attracted some 150 people was “an amazing gathering.
“Something was done here for me today – hearing different ways of healing. It is up to us to take responsibility to make the change,” said Julian, who grew up on Vancouver’s downtown eastside where she lost two sisters.
A recovering drug addict, Julian related how her older sister was murdered in September 1992, and another sister in 1995, and how she turned to drugs and alcohol to try to deal with the pain and loss.
“I feel the police failed my sisters. They didn’t care because we were drug addicted. We were native.”
Today, Julian works as a support housing worker for people living on the street in Vancouver’s poorest area to “give back to my brothers and sisters because they matter. They need to be loved.
“Today I am standing here because I am soldiering up to fight against the government. I stand here for those missing and murdered women and girls and I make a statement that we have had enough. It has to stop. It could be your daughter. It could be your grand-daughter. It could be your mother or the girl next door, the one who is standing on the corner by the 7-Eleven, the one who decides to go to a movie and never comes home, the one who is at a university.
“How ironic,” she added, “that I have come from the back alleys of the downtown eastside to educate you and to say that our lives matter.”
The Peoples’ Gathering was held in conjunction with the National Roundtable on Missing and Murdered Women and Girls.
John Osborne, the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, opened the gathering by suggesting universities are places where people of many origins come together to examine the past and to contemplate the future.
“We cannot change history,” he said, “but we can attempt to chart a better course for the years ahead. We can and we must work together to change the future.”
Harold Tarbell, a Mohawk facilitator from Vancouver who moderated the event, said change requires a stronger and more collaborative approach and a better commitment to Indigenous people by the federal government.
Karen Harper, of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, said that in September 2014, Manitoba established a Families First initiative to engage elders, youth and community members in a united discussion.
“Our hands need to be joined together to address the systemic issues and to implement the processes being identified by the Families First initiative. Our people should be writing their own history. Our loved ones must be honoured, respected and remembered.”
Said Margaret Sutherland of Fort Albany’s Cree Nation: “We have to convince government, industry and the educational system that we are the ones who have to bring our practices to be applied in the Canadian system, so our young people will become proud of who we are. It starts in our own communities. We need the grassroots level of working with each other on common ground.”
Ellen Gabriel of Kanehsatake, Que., suggested it is time for women — the backbones of Aboriginal nations – to take things into their own hands.
“We need reconciliation among ourselves to rebuild our nations. It’s about relationships with ourselves, our family, our nation. And most important, Mother Earth. Violence against Aboriginal women,” she said, “is a human rights issue. We mustn’t allow another sister to go missing. We need to rebuild our nations.”
Added Looee Okalik, of Canada’s national Inuit organization, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami: “United nationally and internationally, we will be stronger. Inuit come from a sustainable lifestyle in the past before we were relocated into settlements. We need to reconcile so our young men and women can be healthy people again. We have to regain our strength if we are to soar again.”
Indigenous people need to adapt to one another’s beliefs in order to support one another and have a better society, whatever the ethnic background, added Okalik. “Hopefully our grandchildren will live in a better place.”
Also attending the gathering was federal Aboriginal Affairs critic Niki Ashton, MP for Churchill. “I am here to listen and to take back any messages,” she told participants. “I work very closely with families of missing and murdered women. I take seriously my role to speak out for the people of northern Manitoba and to report your struggle for justice. I will fight until no Aboriginal woman is missing or murdered again.”