Manitoba photo campaign honours lives of missing and murdered Indigenous women

A photo series of families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls is launching Oct. 4, an official day in Manitoba meant to honour the lost lives. 

Oct. 4 is province's official day to honour MMIWG

Betty Rourke and her husband Mike Rourke took part in the photo campaign. She said that it's important to reach out to people for help when you are experiencing grief. (Doug Thomas)

A photo series of families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls is launching Oct. 4, an official day in Manitoba meant to honour the lost lives. 

"Any time I can be my daughter and my sister's voice, I'm happy to do things like that. It's healing," said Betty Rourke.

Rourke, along with her husband Mike Rourke, were photographed for the social media campaign organized by Manitoba Moon Voices Inc., a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting Indigenous women and gender diverse people in the province.

Since COVID-19 public health restrictions have reduced gathering sizes in Winnipeg, the organization decided to go with a professional photo shoot and social media campaign that will feature seven families who have lost loved ones to mark the day.

Thelma Morrisseau is the co-chair of Manitoba Moon Voices in Winnipeg. (Shannon Hoskie)

"I want people to see that these are real people and their family matters to them and they still continue to grieve and to mourn the loss of a loved one. It's not something one forgets. It stays with you forever," said Manitoba Moon Voices co-chair Thelma Morrisseau.

For Rourke, the healing journey is a constant walk she must take. 

Her daughter Jennifer McPherson was murdered in 2013. Her sister Jennifer Johnston was killed at age 20, in 1980.

"It never even dawned on me that anything like this could happen in my family," said Rourke. 

"And then it happened. So that feeling — that horrible, ugly, terrible feeling — was now in my family."

She said going through the experience as a family has put her in a position to help others. She reaches out to family members who have lost their loved ones to violence and has been making and sending personalized bracelets to women across the country.

Looking out for each other

Myrna Abraham, Anishinaabe from Sagkeeng, also took part in the photo series. 

Her sister Sharon Nora Jane Abraham went missing from New Westminster, B.C. in 2004. She is remembered for her sense of humour and friendliness.

Myrna Abraham, her daughter and grandchildren took part in a professional photo campaign to honour the lives of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. (Doug Thomas )

Abraham was happy the photo project was able to acknowledge and honour the life of her sister.

"They're loved and missed. I guess you got to cherish your time with what you have today," said Abraham.

With COVID-19 restrictions, she said it has been lonelier this year as she was used to going to in-person counselling sessions through the Medicine Bear program at Ka Ni Kanichihk. The program offers grief counselling and activities for the families of MMIWG2S.

"Before Medicine Bear, I just knew a handful of people. Now I know a lot of families that have been affected by the women that have been murdered and missing."

Abraham said programs like Medicine Bear have helped her on her healing journey, but also the support of people like Jennifer Dethmers. Dethmers was killed last week when a pick-up truck whose driver was fleeing the Winnipeg police smashed into the van she was a passenger in.

Abraham said she was in shock when she found out the news last week.

"When we heard it was Jenny, we were really affected because Jennifer really helped everybody, especially my daughter." 

Rourke said she encourages families who lose their loved ones to violence to connect with local organizations but also to other people who have lost family members.

There will be an informal gathering on Sunday hosted by NDP MLA Nahanni Fontaine at the MMIWG2S monument at the Forks in Winnipeg from 1-2 p.m.


Lenard Monkman is Anishinaabe from Lake Manitoba First Nation, Treaty 2 territory. He has been an associate producer with CBC Indigenous since 2016. Follow him on Twitter: @Lenardmonkman1