Secwepemc and Tsilhqot’in leaders and their members came together Monday evening, Oct. 4, in Williams Lake at Boitanio Park to hold a red candle amidst drumming and singing.
Despite any large gathering carrying the risk of potential COVID-19 exposure, chair of the Tsilhqot’in National Government (TNG) and Tl’etinqox Chief Joe Alphonse said it was important to mark the National Day of Action for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG).
The day is intended to honour the lives of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and gender diverse people, support grieving families and create opportunities for healing. Williams Lake First Nation Chief Willie Sellars began the evening ceremony welcoming everyone to their traditional territory followed by elder Virginia Gilbert providing an opening prayer and song.
TNG executive director Jenny Philbrick called the violence experienced by Indigenous women and girls and gender diverse people in Canada genocide.
“We demand action on an issue that impacts us all, so that’s why we’re here today,” Philbrick said.
Red flowers were handed out by young men to each woman in attendance to let them know they are valued, cared about and matter, with red balloons given to children.
TNG cultural ambassador Peyal Laceese provided smudging throughout the ceremony.
Alphonse noted how the Tsilhqot’in remain the only nation in Canadian history to win Aboriginal Title and recalled how he had asked someone for advice on negotiations, amongst other things.
“First thing they asked was how is the health of your people and that’s what this is about,” he said.
“Without healthy women, you can’t have a healthy community, a healthy nation—it’s about putting our women back in a place of strength.”
Alphonse was in his early 20s when he was provided a sobering statistic on violence and murder against Indigenous women he said shocked him.
He believes the violence against Indigenous women and girls can be traced back to Ottawa, where policies, laws and lack of recognition for Indigenous women start.
“Residential school I don’t know why they call it residential schools—that wasn’t a school,” he said.
“They were there to tear the culture out of our people, to tear the spirit out of our people. A lot of the stuff we see today is a direct link back to that and we’ve all been impacted by that.”
Chasity Davis Alphonse has been a long-time advocate for Indigenous women. It was about 15 years ago she had started taking part in marches for MMIWG in downtown Vancouver every Valentine’s Day and learning about the thousands of MMIWG across the country.
“I was appalled. I was disgusted. I was angry, and I was sad that this is the situation that we have here on these lands,” she said. “So I looked for ways to contribute to the movement to changing the society we live in.”
Davis Alphonse said she has done a lot of volunteer work in Vancouver and was on the Minister’s Advisory Council on Indigenous Women for about ten years advocating for the health, safety and wellness of Indigenous women in B.C.
She also provided some sombre statistics and briefly outlined a few of the 231 Calls to Justice of the “Reclaiming Power and Place: the Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls” that were printed on cards provided to attendees.
“How did we get here? Why do we continue to have an epidemic of violence against Indigenous women and girls?,” she said.
“This is an urgent issue that needs to be addressed every single day, and so in my research prior to Canada becoming a country over 80 percent our communities … the women were the leaders of our communities.”
Davis Alphonse said when colonists and early settlers arrived, they brought their Euro-Christian and Euro-Catholic values that had delegated women to the domestic sphere.
The Indian Act enacted in 1876 further oppressed Indigenous women and people, followed by residential schools, Indian hospitals and a child welfare system over-represented by Indigenous children.
“My vision is that Indigenous women are able to live safe, healthy and well lives and I hope that happens within my lifetime so that we’re able to work together as Canadians to make that a reality for Indigenous women,” Davis Alphonse said.
Sam Moody of the Nuxalk Nation at Bella Coola choked back tears as he spoke of his sister Gloria Moody who was murdered outside of Williams Lake in 1969.
He said his father drank himself to death two years after her homicide, and for more than 20 years, he struggled with the agony of loss.
Over the years, he had worked for the Friendship Centre and at the Prince George Regional Correctional Centre where he had learned about the pain and suffering caused by residential schools.
“My knowledge now I don’t think enough people pray for relatives or friends in their community. So every time you see somebody having trouble in the community, I would encourage you to say a quick prayer just to bless that person. You can’t believe how powerful your prayers are, especially if you’re just passing through,” Moody said.
“I know for a fact that when you do that, the prayers not only help you to heal but it helps the person that has been hurt, the pain.”
Joyce Charleyboy, a member of the TNG Women’s Council, shared the names of the matriarchs of her family that had carried on the knowledge and traditions of their family.
She said we’re all touched by MMIWG.
“It’s something that we don’t talk about enough,” she continued.
“We need to acknowledge those that have passed on and those that carried the hurt with them because today is the day we need to lay some of those things down.”