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Missing and murdered Indigenous women event packs house

Still Dancing is an original artwork by Jonathan Labillois that inspired the title and theme of the event. (Artwork by Jonathan Labillois)

By: Zachary Kamel, The Eastern Door

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“Still Dancing,” a free public event hosted by McGill’s First Peoples’ House, saw the McCord Museum in Montreal filled to capacity Wednesday night, with organizers launching the evening to support a national inquiry into Canada’s missing and murdered Indigenous women.

The event featured a screening of the documentary Highway of Tears and a panel discussion with the filmmaker Matt Smiley and family members of the missing and murdered.

“In solidarity we can build the momentum to launch a national inquiry,” said Paige Isaac, co-organizer of the event and coordinator of the First Peoples’ House.

During the opening ceremony Kahnawa’kehró:non Frank Horn performed an honour song for the victims and their families, while Marie-Céline Charron performed a shawl dance.

Horn, who has been singing for over a decade, said that it was an honour to have been invited by the event’s organizers.

Prior to the screening, Isaac informed attendees that the film is extremely difficult to watch. She said that anyone in need of emotional support could speak with elders Jean Stevenson and Delbert Sampson, or one of four on-site counsellors from McGill Counseling Service.

Several audience members broke down in tears throughout the course of the film.

The documentary gave a face and voice to the terrifying statistics. According to a 2013 RCMP report, over 1,100 aboriginal women have gone missing or were murdered since 1980; a number that has been contested as being too low by activists. This number represents roughly 16 per cent of all female homicides, yet Aboriginal women only make up four per cent of the female population in Canada.

“I think this film brought out the truth, in that it is not afraid to name what the issues are, such as racism. Blatant racism is one of the major reasons that a lot of these girls are going missing and being murdered,” said Gladys Radek, co-founder of Tears4Justice, and aunt of Tamara Lynn Chipman, who went missing along Highway 16 in 2005.

“They spoke about all the other issues around it, such as poverty, crime, and the stereotyping of our women… it covers it all.”

Smiley’s film connects Canada’s racist past to its racist present. It cites the residential school system’s abuses and “obliteration of culture” as some of the many causes of the current crisis.

“That’s basically what we’ve been saying for a long time, and all of a sudden we get this nice, white young man here who comes out and brings out the truth for us,” said Radek. “I think that since this film has been out, the call has been a lot louder, and I think this has really helped us a lot.”

Megan Kanerahtenháwi Whyte was invited by event organizers to sit on the panel. Whyte, who is a member of the Indigenous Young Women’s Council, focused on women’s empowerment. She advocated for the “deconstructing the stereotypes” that enable a space in which Indigenous women are seen as disposable.

Panelist Delilah Saunders spoke about her sister Loretta who was murdered in 2014. At the time of her murder, Loretta was working on a thesis about missing and murdered Indigenous women. “Colonial constructs have created this stark and very grim fate for our women,” said Saunders.

The powerful and moving event had a profound affect on much of the audience.

“We wanted support for an inquiry around the missing and murdered Indigenous women from an Indigenous perspective. So often we don’t see it from an Indigenous perspective so it was really crucial to us that we have elders, that we have smudging, that we have Indigenous voices,” said Haidee Smith Lefebvre, co-organizer of the event.

The event was named after a painting by artist Jonathan Labillois. The painting, which depicts an Onkwehón:we woman wearing a dress made up of hundreds of missing posters, donned the cover of the event’s program.

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