A soft glow emanating from a sea of candles illuminated the evening of Tuesday, February 14, as hundreds of people gathered in Montreal for a peaceful Valentine’s Day vigil and march honouring missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit people (MMIWG2S+).
The large crowd convened at 6 p.m. in Cabot Square to attend the event organized by the Iskweu Project – an initiative started by the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal (NWSM) that aims to help families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls by ameliorating the support and response provided by institutions when a case arises, and ultimately solve the current crisis.
Throughout the evening, a variety of speakers and performers took turns addressing the crowd about the dire consequences of historic and ongoing colonial violence. Following a performance of traditional song by the Traveling Spirit Drummers, Kahnawake elder Kevin Deer kicked off the speeches with powerful words.
“We have no right to hurt another human being. We have no right to rape and destroy women,” said Deer.
The crowd, which included a large number of non-Indigenous people, also had the opportunity to learn from Kanesatake human rights activist and environmental advocate Ellen Gabriel, whose moving speech elicited multiple waves of claps and cheers from the attendees.
“Indigenous women are over-incarcerated. Indigenous women are the most marginalized because you do not teach in your curriculums the problems that have caused a genocide in this country that claims to be a human rights defender,” said Gabriel. “When is that going to happen? Because until that happens, we are going to have vigils like this forever. This should not be tolerated…. It’s about time you guys stepped up to the plate and pressured your politicians to do better.”
Canada’s minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Marc Miller was present at the march. Gabriel made a point to address him directly while she spoke about the lack of progress made by the federal government in responding to the 231 Calls for Justice established in the final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
“I know (Miller) is here amongst us, and I thank him for coming because, as a human being, he should care. As a human being, I respect his right to be in freedom and to live without fear. I wish the same would be done towards us to respect our rights,” said Gabriel. “The Stolen Sisters report came out in 2004. It’s 2023 and we’re still no further ahead on this issue.”
Following Gabriel’s speech, the march began at Atwater Ave. and continued along St. Catherine St., eventually culminating at Phillips Square. As the group walked, the streets were filled with posters, lively music, and chants that featured phrases including “no more stolen sisters” and “land back.”
A final round of speakers approached the microphone at the end of the march, including an emotional Janis Qavavauq-Bibeau, who has been involved in the crisis both personally and professionally.
Through tears, she remembered asking for her mother’s coroner’s report and seeing the first phrase on it was, “This client is obese and unclean.”
“Well, this was my mom, and she was the best, and she’s not here today,” she said.
Qavavauq-Bibeau also asked the attendees to imagine if they were all murdered there that night, simply because they were Indigenous, in reference to the more than 200 names of missing and murdered Indigenous women she has found throughout her time as a researcher and coordinator for the Iskweu Project. The 200 names will be compiled as part of a comprehensive online database for all of Quebec’s murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls that she is in the process of creating.
The vigil concluded with a throat-singing performance by Nina Segalowitz and her daughter Sierra. Before they sang, Nina initiated one of the most affecting scenes of the night, asking for all the women in the crowd to come to the centre and for the men to form a protective circle around them.
“As men, this is your job – to protect us. Remember this tonight and when you walk home; remember that you need to spread that,” said Nina. “We should not be scared to walk on the streets.”
NWSM director Nakuset closed the event by thanking attendees for their presence and encouraging them to extend their compassion beyond the march and vigil.
“The Iskweu Project is a really awesome project that we’ve had for many years,” said Nakuset. “Please check out the website for Iskweu and continue to support the work that we do at the Native Women’s Shelter.”