Inuk artist Annie Pootoogook remembered at MMIW vigil on Parliament Hill

As Ottawa police continue to investigate the suspicious circumstances of Annie Pootoogook's death, the Inuk artist's image was front and centre among photos of missing and murdered Indigenous women Tuesday at a vigil on Parliament Hill.

Family of Inuk artist believe she was murdered but police haven't called her death a homicide

A song for Annie

6 years ago
Duration 2:44
Two young throat singers dedicated a song called 'Little Dog' to Annie Pootoogook at the annual vigil for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls on Parliament Hill.

As Ottawa police continue to investigate the suspicious circumstances of Annie Pootoogook's death, the Inuk artist's image was front and centre among photos of missing and murdered Indigenous women Tuesday at a vigil on Parliament Hill.

"I wish I wasn't here. I wish Annie was standing here," Pootogook's second cousin Sytukie Joamie told the crowd at the annual vigil, which included dozens of members of the Inuit community, on the steps in front of Centre Block.

Pootoogook was found dead in the Rideau River near Bordeleau Park on Sept. 19 — an immediate red flag, said Joamie, because of her fear of water.

The Ottawa Police Service's major crime unit, which investigates homicides, is probing what they describe as "suspicious elements" about her death — but they have not classified it as a homicide.

The force has also come under fire, however, after a sergeant was was accused of making racist comments about the artist's death online, claiming that "many Aboriginals have very short lifespans, talent or not" and that it was "not a murder case." He remains on active duty.

Racist remarks are worse than a live bullet.- Sytukie Joamie, Annie Pootoogook's relative

Joamie said the police response is an example of "systemic racism" and suggested that there would "be a thorough investigation" if a white woman had been found in the river.

Pootoogook's family maintains she was murdered.

"We're tired of being hurt. Tired of the pain,"  Joamie said after the vigil. "Racist remarks are worse than a live bullet."

Prime minister called on to intervene in case

Joamie also called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to intervene in Pootoogook's case — without knowing Trudeau had joined the crowd and was standing directly behind him.

"Mr. Prime Minister should be doing something about that," Joamie said, adding that Ottawa Police Chief Charles Bordeleau "basically never did anything" about the sergeant accused of making racist comments.

Bordeleau told CBC News last week that the comments were "inappropriate" and that he had spoken to the officer accused of making them but refused to take him off duty.

"We'll be working with him and our officers will be interviewing him and ascertaining exactly the circumstances and the context around why he would make such, such, these comments," Bordeleau said

The chief drew criticism for not calling the comments racist.

Joamie lauded the fact that the government had followed through on its promise to launch an inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women, but added that Trudeau needs to turn that inquiry into "real actions."

"You cannot go through the political motions and appease us," he said. "You have to put your words in action."

'We still feel like we're forgotten'

Laurie Odjick, whose 16-year-old daughter Maisy disappeared from Maniwaki, Que., in September 2008 along with 17-year-old Shannon Alexander, also spoke at Tuesday's vigil.

Odjick expressed frustration that nothing would come of the inquiry, which was announced in August, and shared concerns that some Indigenous Canadians were being excluded from the process.

"I, for one, am tired of standing in front of a house of broken promises that they have given us over and over," Odjick said, holding photos of both teens.

"We gathered as families and we shared our journeys and our pain and our grief. And yet we still feel like we're forgotten. No answers. Shame on them."

Odjick also challenged politicians to imagine that their loved ones had either gone missing or been murdered.

"Do you think you've done enough? Give us an inquiry, make us go away, shut our mouths. 'We did something for you,' they say. 'Here you go.'" she said.

Inuk artist Annie Pootoogook was remembered at a vigil for murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls, even though her recent death has not yet been considered a homicide by Ottawa police. (CBC)

Trudeau, who addressed the crowd following the speeches, said he understood the impatience over the lengthy inquiry process.

But he emphasized the inquiry is one part of a much larger effort at reconciliation, necessitated by the failures of previous governments "to uphold the values and principles which they were supposed to defend" in their relationships with Indigenous peoples.

"This is not something that we're going to change overnight or in a week or in a month or in a year. It's something we're going to have to commit to work on every day — to fix, to improve, to build, to repair broken trusts and give back hope," Trudeau said.

Trudeau, who was accompanied by the ministers tasked to oversee the inquiry — Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould and Status of Women Minister Patty Hajdu — did not mention Pootoogook's case specifically.

​Bennett told the crowd that the inquiry is tasked with looking at many reports and documents, which takes time to get through.

Wilson-Raybould also said the government is working hard to transform the way it engages with Indigenous people.

"There is no relationship that's more important to our government than the one with Indigenous people," she said.