Dozens of vigils were held across the country Sunday to remember more than 500 aboriginal women who have vanished in the last three decades and to draw attention to what organizers called a national tragedy.

In Vancouver, the haunting chant and drum beats of the women's warrior song opened the event at a waterfront park neighbouring the city's gritty Downtown Eastside.

A large billboard was erected at the vigil showing the pictures of dozens of women who have been murdered or never found – including many victims or alleged victims of serial killer Robert Pickton.

But Gladys Radek, one of the organizers of the Vancouver event, said it's time the focus shifted away from murder trials.

"It's not about Robert Pickton. It's not about the killers that are out there. It's about the women. We love those women," Radek said, her voice cracking with emotion.

Pickton was convicted in 2007 of killing six women and still may face another 20 murder charges.

Radek's niece, Tamara Chipman, vanished in 2005 from the so-called Highway of Tears in central B.C., where 18 women have either disappeared or been murdered since 1969, most of them aboriginal.

No arrests have been made since the first incident on the highway 40 years ago, even though a special investigation started in 2006.

"When Tamara disappeared, she tore a piece of my heart out," Chipman said to the crowd of about 150 people.

Manitoba Sagkeeng chief calls for national effort

In Manitoba, members of three federal political parties attended a Sunday afternoon remembrance at Sagkeeng First Nation north of Winnipeg.

Some groups estimate as many as 75 native women have gone missing in Manitoba in the past two decades.

This summer, the bodies of two young aboriginal women were found on the outskirts of Winnipeg.

Sagkeeng Chief Donovan Fontaine says the issue has reached a crisis point and needs swift bipartisan action from all levels of government.

"We can't have these things in silos or in isolation. It has to be a national effort," Fontaine said.

A joint RCMP-Winnipeg Police Service task force has been set up to investigate all open and unsolved cases of murdered or missing women in Manitoba.

The Sisters in Spirit vigils included a national service in Ottawa to honour aboriginal women and events were held in every province and two territories.

The Native Women's Association of Canada said it has documented 520 cases of missing and murdered women over the last 30 years.