Gladys Radek holds a picture of niece Tamara Chipman close to her heart, something she has done every day since Chipman disappeared in 2005 along Highway 16 in northern British Columbia.
“It kind of hit too close to home for me, first of all because she is my niece, she is my brother's only natural child and she was also a young mother," Radek said from her home in Orillia, Ont.
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The shock of losing her niece jolted Gladys Radek into action. She had been attending annual memorial marches for murdered and missing aboriginal women since 1994, to support friends and relatives who have lost loved ones. But in 2005, the fight for justice became personal.
On Friday, Radek, of the Gitxsan and Wet'suwet'en First Nations, is hosting the first annual Memorial March for Murdered and Missing Aboriginal Women in Orillia, one of 20 confirmed citiies participating in this year's event.
The now national march started in 1991, after a woman was murdered on Powell Street, in Vancouver. Her name is not spoken today, to honour the wishes of her family.
The Women’s Memorial website says, “This woman’s murder in particular was the catalyst that moved women into action. Out of this sense of hopelessness and anger came an annual march on Valentine’s Day to express compassion, community, and caring for all women in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, Coast Salish Territories.”
She co-founded Walk4Justice, a campaign to raise awareness and seek justice for missing and murdered women. In 2008, the first walk was held and women fighting for justice marched 4,000 kilometres, from Vancouver to Ottawa.
Spreading awareness about the heartbreaking losses in so many indigenous families, Radek said, was done with the help of her War Pony — a van covered in pictures of missing and murdered women and girls.
“She [the van] carried the spirit of our women through all our walks, she’s been on six walks, she's been on several journeys across Canada, she's raised awareness, been to every parking lot you can imagine.”
The War Pony has been on about four Valentine's Day marches in Vancouver, and has carried many family members to and from the Pickton inquiry into missing and murdered women, many from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.
Now Radek, as well family members and walkers, want the van — now out of driving commission — to become a missing and murdered women's memorial on the highway outside Winnipeg.
In 2011, on National Aboriginal Day, Radek set out on a caravan with volunteers, and brought a message to Parliament Hill. In the House of Commons, she told MPs that a national public inquiry for missing and murdered Indigenous women was needed.
“The majority agreed, they all felt that yes it was needed. The main concerns that Canadians have is the cost, but from my view, it would be cost effective.”
Pressing for national public inquiry
She said an inquiry would deal with some of the systemic or root causes of violence against women — poverty, lack of affordable housing, human trafficking and exploitation, for example.
'A public inquiry is going to show where the ball was dropped — in the seriously flawed judicial system itself.'- Gladys Radek
This week's federal budget included renewed funding — $25 million for five years, beginning in 2015 — to reduce violence against aboriginal women and girls. There was no promise of a public inquiry.
Radek said it’s just a drop in the bucket.
“When you think about the levels of violence especially with aboriginal women, we have 637 bands in Canada affected by violence — the budget is over five years, so that's five million a year — its not enough.
"A public inquiry is going to show where the ball was dropped — in the seriously flawed judicial system itself."
But she says there’s one thing anyone can do to help.
“If you do hear about a missing or murdered women, you know take your blinders off and help the family ... there’s a lot of pain that is involved with i t... and we also want people to know that we are still pushing for a national public inquiry.”