23 years after her unsolved murder, Hamilton remembers Helen Gillings

Helen Gillings's case was cold long before the national spotlight shone on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Friday, Hamiltonians gathered to remember her.
Members of the Hamilton Regional Indian Centre women's drum group sang to begin a vigil to remember Helen Gillings on Friday afternoon. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

Twenty-three years ago, on Feb. 17, Helen Gillings' body was found under a couch, in an alley off of King Street in Hamilton.

She had been strangled.

19-year-old Helen Gillings' body was found in 1995. The case of her death has still not been solved. (Hamilton Police)
She was 19. Her case is still unsolved.

She was often seen near there, where King and Emerald Street North meet.

She worked in the sex trade, police say, and frequented a bar at that corner called the Straw Hat. 

On Friday, about 40 people gathered nearby in the alley where Gillings' body was found, to remember her.

'I lived the same life as her, right?'

A friend of hers, Wawaskones Kiwenzie Accra, met Gillings in Hamilton when both women were "not in a good space," she said — forced into sex work, and using drugs.

Both women are Indigenous. Gillings's case was cold long before the national spotlight shone on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

Accra is now 41, is a mother now, and thinks of her friend Helen every year on this date.

Accra herself was beat up badly and escaped her circumstances about a year after Gillings died, she told CBC News.

Wawaskones Kiwenzie Accra knew Gillings when both women were living in Hamilton. She left Hamilton about a year after Gillings' death, and still thinks about her friend. (Wawaskones Kiwenzie Accra)
A few years ago she came to Hamilton and put down some tobacco and smudged in the place where Gillings was found, saying a prayer for her friend.

"I cried a bit – it was kind of hard," Accra said. "My heart was pounding."

Accra said she has spoken about Gillings death at Missing and Murdered vigils. She said her dad encouraged her, saying, "You know that could be us talking about you."

Accra had been with Gillings at the bar the night she was last seen.

"I lived the same life as her, right?" Accra said. 

A vigil in Gillings' memory

Gillings is one of hundreds of missing and murdered Indigenous women, some of whom grew up in nearby Six Nations, some of whom, like Gillings, were killed in Hamilton.

The vigil Friday provided a chance to remember that to each one of those names belongs a life story.

They gathered near a streetlight that has been lit in her memory.

The vigil featured elements that connected to Gillings' Indigenous identity: drumming and smudging, speakers from the city's Indigenous strategy and the Native Women's Centre.

A red dress hanging near Helen's light

Several weeks ago, photographer Krista McMillan shot a photograph under the light.

McMillan is Indigenous herself, from Curve Lake First Nation, and has photographed red dresses as a symbol of missing and murdered women, often in the locations where they died.

A photographer recently visited the alley near King and Emerald streets in Hamilton where Gillings's body was found in 1995, setting up this portrait of a red dress under the light lit in her memory. (Krista McMillan)

The local Sisters in Spirit chapter, which organized Friday's vigil, asked McMillan to take a photograph at Helen's light.

Police reviewing the case

Hamilton police have a $10,000 reward advertised for clues leading to the arrest and conviction of the person responsible for Gillings' death.

You are not safe. We will not stop.- Hamilton police Staff Sgt. Dave Oleniuk, to the person who killed Helen Gillings

Gillings was last seen alive at 1 a.m. on Feb. 16, 1995, leaving the Straw Hat and going into the alley with a man.

Hamilton police Staff Sgt. Dave Oleniuk inherited the cold case and spoke at the vigil. He said police are reviewing the case "to see if there's anything else that can be done."

"It's a homicide," he said before the vigil Friday. "It doesn't get more serious than that. It's important to reinforce to the public that the case is open."

About 40 people gathered for a vigil Friday afternoon in the alley where Helen Gillings was found dead 23 years ago on Feb. 17. The streetlight above them is known as Helen's light. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

Though police said they have identified the man she entered the alley with, Oleniuk declined to comment on whether that person is a person of interest in the case.

He issued a stark message to the person who killed Gillings.

"Somebody is looking over their shoulder, every day," he said. Police want to "reinforce to that person that yeah, maybe you should be looking over your shoulder. You are not safe. We will not stop."



Kelly Bennett is a freelance reporter based in Hamilton. Her writing has appeared in CBC News, the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, Voice of San Diego and in the National Observer for the Local Journalism Initiative. You can follow her on Twitter @kellyrbennett or email kelly@kellyrbennett.com.