The slaying of Loretta Saunders has galvanized communities across the country to take even more action around the issue of missing and murdered aboriginal women.
Saunders, 26, an Inuk student studying at Saint Mary's University in Halifax, was working on her thesis about missing and murdered indigenous women when she disappeared. Her body was later found alongside a New Brunswick Highway. A man and a woman are facing first-degree murder charges in her death.
Just days before Saunders disappeared on Feb. 13, Mohawk activist Shawn Brant issued an ultimatum for an inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women. And on Feb. 14, the Nova Scotia Native Women’s Association delivered 20,000 signatures to the House of Commons, also calling for action.
“It just seems the irony … was probably the same time they were dumping her [Saunders's] body,” said Cheryl Maloney, president of the Nova Scotia Native Women’s Association.
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Ultimatum for Ottawa
Brant gave gave the government an ultimatum to call an inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women by end of February, or face the consequences of direct action.
Brant was behind a 30-hour blockade of a CN rail line and Highway 401 – to draw attention to an ongoing unresolved land dispute – on a the Aboriginal Day of Action on June 29, 2007.
“You can’t have a more high profile case than Loretta Saunders and I just don’t know why it doesn’t compel the prime minister … [to] simply reach out to First Nations people, and say that he believes in the value of our women,” said Brant, a Mohawk who lives in Tyendinaga, near Belleville, Ont.
Brant and about 80 supporters erected a barricade on Sunday near their the reserve. By Monday, there were 15 to 30 people, with the police presence outnumbering those at the blockade.
Currently the group is camped at an intersection near Shannonville, with OPP barricading the road, a short distance from a CN and CP rail intersection, as well as Highway 401.
“I have a daughter and a mother and aunties, and for the very fact that it’s not safe for them to be on the street, be in this country ... that is simply unacceptable to us ... we’re committed to seeing this matter resolved,” Brant said.
Still, he has asked people not to “rush” to Tyendinaga.
“We’ve had a lot of offers of people coming to Tyendinaga … but rather than have people come to our community, instead have solidarity, this issue of missing and murdered native girls and women affects everyone, and people should organize.”
Pressure on Ottawa
Today there is a vigil in Ottawa in memory of Saunders, symbolically calling on the government to finish the work she started with her thesis about missing and murdered aboriginal women.
“We have the stats against us, the numbers are against us, just being born as a young aboriginal person in Canada we have so much to overcome,“ said Maloney.
Maloney was interviewed by Saunders in the fall when she was doing research for her thesis, and supported Saunders’s family members in their search when the woman was missing, and in the planning of Wednesday’s events on Parliament Hill.
“People expect our aboriginal women to be in the drug trade or sex industry, but actually if you look at the statistics ... we’ve had grandmothers, activists, university students ... so Loretta, her story broke through all those barriers and stereotypes of what the problem was and whose fault it was.”
Maloney asks that Canadians “step up and finish the work” that Saunders started.
“The relationship with aboriginal people needs to be reconciled, we need to recognize the issues. I think an inquiry will do that,” concluded Maloney.
#ItEndsHere looks beyond inquiry
Saunders’s death has prompted the Indigenous Nationhood Movement to launch the #ItEndsHere social media campaign. The group describes itself as "a peoples’ movement for indigenous nationhood, resurgence, and decolonization."
The campaign is looking beyond and inquiry, and calls on both aboriginal and non-aboriginal people to think about community-based solutions.
“I'm skeptical about any government lead initiative ... there’s nothing binding with inquiries, they don't necessarily lead to action,” said Sarah Hunt, of the Kwagiulth Nation, who recently finished her PhD in human geography with a focus on law, at Simon Fraser University in B.C.
“I’d like to see widespread change at the community level," she said.
Youth inspired by action
Kevin Settee, 23, a University of Winnipeg undergrad, had planned on travelling to join Brant, but the group he planned to leave with Wednesday is reconsidering.
“If we don’t go, we can still support from our territory,” said Settee.
He is literally a “poster boy” for the Province of Manitoba’s aboriginal men’s anti-violence campaign, called Break the Silence, which seeks to encourage change from within the community.
“We have to honour our women, they are our life givers,” said Settee.
“Not only should we work towards having healthy communities where women are supported, but we [as men] need to look at ourselves.”