'I believe in justice': Fort Smith rally marks failure of feds to release MMIWG plan

Approximately 60 or 70 vehicles formed a convoy through Fort Smith, N.W.T., on Thursday to demand action on murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls.

People in N.W.T. town called on the federal government to do better

Connie Benwell's daughter was discovered dead in 2007. She is still waiting for answers. Here she stands beside a vehicle before a MMIWG rally in Fort Smith Thursday. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

A rally in Fort Smith Thursday pleaded for action, not more delays, after the federal government postponed the unveiling of its action plan on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls earlier this month. 

That delay announced on June 3 means Connie Benwell will almost certainly mark another sombre anniversary without whatever comfort might have come with knowing the government's plan.

The body of Benwell's 27-year-old daughter was discovered on June 21, 2007 near Wetaskiwin, Alta. Police closed the file on Leanne Lori Benwell, but 13 years later Connie still wants answers.

"Her killer is still out there living his life and hers was taken from her," she said. 

Vehicles in Fort Smith, N.W.T., carried placards made by volunteers before the rally in support of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

The June 3 plan, expected to have been released in full next month, would have outlined a strategy Ottawa is co-developing with provinces, territories, Indigenous leaders, families and women's groups. It's postponement was blamed on COVID-19 related delays. It was meant to coincide with the one-year anniversary of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls releasing its final report on June 3, 2019.

About 60 or 70 vehicles took part in the rally. Almost all of them were decorated with signs that a handful of volunteers made before the rally. 

Benwell, who participated in the rally Thursday, said the delay was not entirely unexpected.

"I wasn't surprised," she said. "I knew that would happen cause like nothing's been happening anyway so far. It's just a load of money spent on it and really nothing to show."

The inquiry cost $92 million, took two-and-a-half years to complete, and produced a 1,200-page report that included 231 "calls for justice."

"They need to act on what they say," Benwell said. "It's a shame that they put so much money toward it and nothing's being done to act on it."

Jeannie Marie-Jewell was one of the organizers of the rally. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

Jeannie Marie-Jewell, one of the organizers, shares Benwell's disappointment with the delay. She says people need to know what's being done to prevent more pain and sorrow.

"It would give them some comfort," she said.  "It also would help them to recognize what can be done in the future to avoid … the continual tragedies of having to face murdered missing women."

"I believe in justice. People should at least have answers to be given comfort for what happened to their loved ones."

Cars and trucks began to assemble in Fort Smith before the 2 p.m. rally Thursday. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

The convoy started at Fort Smiths recreation centre and wove through all of the town's major roads. Cars were stretched down the road as far as the eye could see. The convoy was lead by the RCMP and ended at the local Tim Hortons. Every participant got a small red dress cutout from Marie-Jewell which they redeemed for a free treat and drink inside. From start to finish, the rally was about 50 minutes long. 

As vehicles gathered before the rally, which was held as a motor convoy in light of COVID-19 restrictions around large gatherings, David Poitras, chief of Salt River First Nation, told CBC why he was there.

"I feel empathy before for people that have suffered tragedies … things that should never have happened," he said.

David Poitras, chief of Salt River First Nation said empathy brought him out to the rally. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

"I can't imagine how I would feel if I lost a mother, daughter, or son or brother. I want to come out to support people. So maybe with us doing this, they'll feel a little bit less hurt and maybe our Canadian government will … start to implement some of the recommendations from the commission.

"So those are some reasons … reasons why I came."