TOP STORIES OF 2010 | Justice for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women

This is the second of five installments of our “Top Stories of 2010″ countdown. Here we tell the story of how the announcement of the “BC Missing Women Commission of Inquiry” and of “Project Sister Watch” were made possible only by the constant advocacy of aboriginal women.

None of these stories would have unfolded or seen the light of day in the absence of community organizing and grassroots activism. The take-home-message of 2010, it seems, is that activism can be effective while defining who we are.

BC Missing Women Commission of Inquiry

On September 27 2010, the BC Provincial government finally announced an official commission charged with investigating the failure of the police to respond meaningfully to reports of missing women in the Vancouver Downtown Eastside between 1997 and 2002.

The commission has come far too late, is too small in scope, and is chaired by the wrong person. But it is important to recognize that its existence is owed to the persistent advocacy of community activists. The Women’s Memorial March, for example, has continued to be held in the Downtown Eastside on Valentine’s Day annually since 1991.

Community activist Gladys Radek maintains that at least 3,000 indigenous women have gone missing in Canada since the 1970s. Over the years, her organization Walk4Justice has organized several treks to raise awareness of the fact that the Pickton murders are only the tip of the iceberg.

Project Sister Watch

On Dec 6 2010, the VPD and the City announced the Project Sister Watch, a program aimed at promoting the safety of women in the Downtown Eastside. While the Sister Watch news story has made it onto other 2010 “top ten” lists, its significance as part of a larger movement for justice for missing and murdered indigenous women may have been missed by many. It is important to tell the story of how this program also owes its existence to community activism in the Downtown Eastside.

On Sept 15 2010, Ashley Machisknic, a 22-year old Indigenous woman was found dead in an alley behind the Regent Hotel in the Downtown Eastside. Community members, believing that Machisknic had been murdered, petitioned the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) to investigate the death, but the VPD did not respond.

On Oct 4th 2010, the National Day of Action for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, a community vigil was held behind the Regent Hotel. The vigil participants then marched to VPD’s Main Street headquarters, requesting to speak with Police Chief Jim Chu about their petitions. A delegation of women entered the police station, declaring they would not leave until Chief Chu agreed to investigate Machisknic’s death, and to work with the DTES community develop pro-active measures to stop violence against women. A crowd of over 100, rallying outside the police station for several hours, was periodically updated on the status of the negotiations inside.

Then, without warning, three of the delegates were forcibly arrested and the others (mostly elders) were expelled from the police station. The crowd, saddened but determined, expressed solidarity with the arrestees, and vowed fresh rounds of non-violent civil disobedience should police fail to investigate the cases of missing and murdered sisters in the future.

The arrestees, who were released without charges the next morning, made it clear that this action in the Downtown Eastside (“ground zero when it comes to violence against women”) was part of a larger movement to end violence against aboriginal women.

Five days later, the VPD held a “town hall” meeting about “working together to end violence against women in the Downtown Eastside.” The attendees demanded justice for Machisknic. Of note, Radek and others demanded that the Provincial commission into missing and murdered women be headed by aboriginal women, rather than by Wally Oppal – who had been “asleep at the wheel” on the missing women file as Attorney General from 2005-2009. (Indeed, on Nov 25 2010, the UBCIC filed a complaint with the BC Law Society, arguing that commissioner Wally Oppal is in a conflict of interest.)

Although slow to respond, the VPD agreed to investigate Machisknic’s death, and announced on Dec 6 that they would reorganize Project Guardian and rebrand it as Project Sister Watch, in accordance with the requests of the Women’s Memorial March Committee (see articles: Sun, TheProvince, 24Hours, TheStraight).

As imperfect as they are, these milestones represent progress. Credit where credit it due: there would have been no progress at all without pressure from the grassroots. And so 2010 was the year we took large steps toward justice for missing and murdered women.

Image by Murray Bush / Vancouver Media Coop