They came from near and far. They came as brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters and friends. They came to raise their voices, and comfort each other.
Over 100 people came to Prince Albert Thursday to march in honour of the missing and murdered Indigenous women and men from the local community and beyond.
The annual event, now in it’s 13th year, is organized by the Prince Albert Grand Council. It attracted several leaders, from the PAGC, The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN), city and province. NDP leadership candidate Trent Wotherspoon made the drive, as did Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women National Inquiry member Marilyn Poitras.
So did several family members of some of the names of those missing and murdered – Timothy Charlotte, Evan Bear, Jared Bear, Happy Charles and Colten Boushie.
Their message was one of sadness, and hope, that the community may build a future where today’s children will feel safe in their community.
“For the past 13 years, this community has held this event to call for solutions and to end the violence against women and men, our brothers and sisters,” said PAGC women’s commission chair Shirley Henderson.
“There has been progress, but there is so much we still need to do, because our women continue to disappear.”
FSIN Vice Chief Kimberly Jonathan focused on the needs of today’s children.
“We want to make sure these little girls do not see and do not live the same reality of pain and heartbreak, the heartache that many of us have,” she said.
“We’re all touched by it. All humans are affected by this. There are so many people in this room that make a difference, when (they) wake up and make it a priority that all of our baby girls and baby boys know they belong, that they have an identity. Everyone is deserving of respect and dignity.”
Police Chief Troy Cooper also came up to speak. He said 529 people have been reported missing in P.A. so far this year. Three reported on Wednesday night alone.
He reflected on something Lawrence Joseph, the Indigenous political leader, had said 10 years ago.
“He said ‘you promised to take care of us, but we’re not safe,’” Cooper recalled.
“Here we are, ten years later, and the faces have changed a little bit, but the message has not.”
Cooper outlined how Indigenous women are overrepresented as victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. And how those who work in the survival sex trade are at an even higher risk of violence and death.
“The examination of risk can’t start when people go missing, when it’s reported, when the police get involved,” Cooper said.
“Their risks to safety start far before then. It’s tied to many things, but it shouldn’t be tied to race. Race shouldn’t be a risk factor.”
Cooper called on the community to work together, to find upstream solutions to poverty, addiction, lack of education, unemployment, the impact of colonization and discrimination.
“As a community, we have to ensure that Indigenous women are not dismissed as victims because of their social status, and that they’ve valued as community members,” he said.
“They’re our sisters, our mothers and our neigh ours. They’re not statistics in a report for us. The treatment and understanding has to start with those of us charged with protection – the politicians, social service agencies and the police.”
In a particularly emotional moment, Jonathan invited Debbie Baptiste, the mother of Colten Boushie, to come up to the front.
Boushie was killed last August on a Saskatchewan farm. Gerald Stanley has been charged with second-degree murder in his death.
“Very cruel and heartbreaking circumstances brought this woman into many of our lives,” Jonathan said. “Image your child, or those children around you, and how much hurt, excruciating pain right to your soul – beyond that – and how much anger that would provide, if one of our babies despite any circumstances, were taken from us.”
Jonathan thanked the elders, and the community, for coming together to comfort Baptiste, and all the mothers mourning the loss of their children. She also honoured Baptiste herself for continuing to call on love and respect instead of anger, even when it became difficult.
‘That’s what this is all about, coming together, to love each other and hold each other near and close,” Jonathan said.
“Thank you to each person who makes a difference to make tomorrow a better day for all of us, to make tomorrow a safer place for our little boys and little girls to play together. No matter what your background is, we say thank you.”