A small group gathered last Thursday in the city to keep the memories alive of aboriginal women missing in Canada and to raise awareness of the problem.
Speaker Lori Whiteman, program director with Sisters In Spirit (SIS) said the number of missing aboriginal women is a crisis.
“In 2004, Amnesty International undertook a groundbreaking and alarming research study to closely examine the issue of missing aboriginal women in Canada. Their findings were alarming. More than 500 women were “reported” to be missing. This number, with further research has risen to nearly 600. Imagine this space filled with people and suddenly they vanish, never to be seen again,” she said at the presentation at the Western Financial Group City Centre Park.
“The more troubling aspect of this statistic is that this number is an estimate only—it doesn’t take into account the women who have not been reported. We can only guess what the true number of missing aboriginal women across Canada is.
“In Saskatchewan, the SK Association of Chiefs of Police reports that 17 out of the 29 missing women reported are of aboriginal descent.”Whiteman said the ‘Stolen Sisters Report’ outlines several recommendations to start to address the problem, starting with acknowledgement of the seriousness of the problem.
“In the work I’ve done over the years in anti-racist education, I recognize the power of ‘naming’ the issues. For many to say these words out loud is uncomfortable. This is not polite dinner-table talk and many stumble on the words. The power of acknowledgment and naming is that once spoken the individual becomes part of the circle of those who may potentially act upon their statement. Once named, it becomes an individual choice to move into action. Actions may take too many forms,” she said.
It is also critical action be taken to help Aboriginal women not to get into situations of danger.
“My mother, like many whose lives moved in a direction that was unhealthy, did not choose such a lifestyle for herself. I believe that firmly. Sometimes our choices are very limited,” offered Whiteman.
Whiteman said too often women end up “labelled even by their so-called protectors in law enforcement, as prostitutes, drug addicts, whores … as if to diminish their value as human beings. These labels further remove these women from the public and allow people to judge them as somehow deserving their fate and this places them even further from receiving support, and moving toward healing and safety.”
To that end providing training and resources for police to make prevention of violence against Indigenous women a priority is essential, said Whiteman.
“In order to protect us, you must see us as human beings, value us as human beings and we in turn must feel deeply that you are indeed there to protect us also,” she said.
Whiteman said when they started SIS three years ago it was their hope that it would help lead to “no more stolen sisters,” but added “the reality is that this will continue to happen in our society because the change in the hearts and minds of peoples has not changed significantly enough to prompt such a change. Therefore, it is more important than ever for us, as Aboriginal women and all those men and women, youth and children who stand with us, to continue the momentum with strength and dignity as our grandmothers would have done before they were forced onto reserves and out of the circle where their wisdom and knowledge about childrearing, traditional values, health and healing, and governance were held in great esteem. In those times, women’s voices were in balance with those of men. At the centre of decision-making were our old people and our children, the gifts of our communities.”
For Whiteman the reality of missing Aboriginal women is a keenly personal one.
“My mother, Delores Marie Whiteman is missing. Her nickname is Lolly. She was born on the Standing Buffalo Dakota First Nation in 1947. She attended the Lebret Indian Residential School. When she was two years old, she lost her mother to TB. When she was nearly five, she witnessed her kunsi die of alcohol poisoning … her choices became limited,” she said.
“I also represent the missing statistics – because it took too long for her report to be taken seriously, and too long once reported to investigate. She is now a cold case. I am the only one looking for her. If I don’t look, she will be forgotten …
“I know there are similar stories in our communities. People who have drifted out of our memory and whose families have lost hope. These are sacred beings who must not ever be forgotten. To those families, I honour your strength and encourage you to keep hope alive.”