Fifteen years ago, the Prince Albert Grand Council Women’s Commission started a walk to shine a light on the plight of missing and murdered Indigenous people.
They were hoping they could stop hosting the event after ten years.
That wasn’t the case.
Thursday, about 150 people gathered in Memorial Square in front of Prince Albert City Hall for the Women’s Commission’s 15th annual Honouring our Sisters and Brothers Memorial Walk.
“Today we walk for the people who have gone missing or have been murdered,” said Shirley Henderson, the Women’s Commission chair.
“It’s really sad that we’ve had to do this for 15 years. The need to continue this walk, sadly, grows. It is with the people like all of you gathered today that we know in our hearts families will feel supported and those in leadership will understand the movement that needs to happen.”
Henderson said a place to start would the recommendations of the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
“Walks like this help bring us back together and spread the message,” she said.
She wasn’t the only one stressing the importance of implementing the recommendations from the report.
Prince Albert Grand Council Grand Chief Brian Hardlotte said that whoever wins the 2019 federal election, he and his team will be watching carefully to ensure the report’s recommendations are implemented.
“We will do that work as leadership because the Women’s Commission will be there to remind us of the work, to hold the government accountable, … to follow up on the recommendations from the report. Not just the federal government, I’m also talking about the provincial government here,” he said.
“The chiefs will continue to support the Women’s Commission. The leadership of the Prince Albert Grand Council will continue to support this walk.”
He thanked the Prince Albert Police Service for signing an agreement promising to work closely together and implored all police forces to take cases of missing or murdered Indigenous people seriously.
“I want to say to the police service … not to close the files. Keep them open, and keep working the file. These are our loved ones,” he said.
“We pray for you for the work you do. We know you’re busy, but care for our people that are on the street. That’s what I ask.”
Chief of police Jon Bergen promised he would. He said the force wouldn’t just keep the files open but also active.
His comments were met with cheers from the families gathered for the walk.
“Thank you for including the Prince Albert Police Service in this important event. Thank you for continuing to shine a light on his important issue,” he said.
“Today we honour the women and men whose lives have been lost to violence and to those who have gone missing in our community. Losing a loved one takes a toll on families and the entire community including the police service. We want you to know that we support you. The PAPS is committing to being part of the discussion to find answers and positive solutions to address violence in our community and that’s why we walk with you today.”
15 years of stories
Throughout the 15 years of the walk, the Women’s Commission has seen several stories and families come along for the journey. Some have attended for all 15 years.
Erica Beaudin of the Regina Treaty Status Indian Service has been on a 15-year journey of her own.
Fifteen years ago, five-year-old Tamra Keepness disappeared without a trace from her Regina home.
Beaudin, at the time, was working for the FSIN, which was called on to assist the family and to help with the search.
“We found out very quickly that there were gaps in service, there were gaps in understanding for cultural considerations and knowledge about what Indigenous people needed for search and rescue,” she said.
“We were, at that time, very sadly lacking in terms of search and rescue, especially in the area.”
Other communities helped come to the rescue, including people from Montreal Lake Cree Nation and Lac La Ronge Indian Band. They participated, with Regina police, RCMP and search and rescue. But Keepness wasn’t found. Officials called off their search.
“That wasn’t good enough for us and our communities,” Beaudin said.
“Montreal Lake, in particular, continued to come down over a number of months. Our people don’t give up. We know our people are still missing and we need to find them.”
Henderson and the PAGC Women’s Commission were also involved. They helped teach their southern counterparts search techniques and other skills.
Now, the Regina Treaty Status Indian Service holds a barbecue each year to mark the anniversary of the disappearance. The event is “not to honour her as though she’s gone, as we still have hope that she will be coming home,” Beaudin said.
“But to continue to have the community, as there is at least one person who knows where Tamara is.”
The family, Beaudin said, hasn’t been the same. Keepness’ siblings have taken up the cause as they continue to hunt for their sister.
“We become broken when people are missing, and the need does not stop for services,” Beaudin said.
‘The need does not stop for cultural ceremonies, religious ceremonies. Even 15 years later, we continue to work (with the family).”
Beaudin said she’s seen it with other families as well.
“It is so important that when a person goes missing, is murdered or is a survivor of violence, that there is a wraparound of service, that there is forever care there for the family. That type of trauma does not stop when the search is deactivated.”
Beaudin was able to share her experiences with the national inquiry. That included the knowledge she learned from her partners in Montreal Lake and Lac La Ronge.
“We as community members, we as family members, have that responsibility to do whatever we can to assist,” she said.
Sisters lead the walk
The family of Happy Charles has become one of the regular attendees and most vocal advocates at the annual walk.
Happy Charles went missing on April 3, 2017. Two years ago, her parents, Regina and Carson Poitras, and her daughters joined the PAGC walk at City Hall.
Thursday, Happy’s daughters opened the event with a song and continued to lead the walk with voice and drum, four sisters singing as one.
“We’re here to support everyone who has lost their loved ones,” said Margaret Bird, one of the sisters.
‘We had a pipe ceremony this morning and we prayed for the women to be found. We prayed for closure. We prayed for everyone struggling.”
Bird said she and her sisters felt grateful and honoured to be asked to help lead the 15th annual walk.
“The walk is very important. It gives a lot of awareness to the missing people. It has been making a difference in different communities to have walks like these,” Margaret said.
She explained that it’s important to keep the conversation going.
“It’s best to continue to keep talking and let people know, even though they’ve heard it before, to continuously hear it over and over again to get it into people’s minds,” she said.
“Keep helping to bring awareness, because it helps. People will be constantly hearing it.”