Strawberry ceremony for MMIWG held on Valentine's Day outside Toronto police headquarters

A large crowd gathered at Toronto Police headquarters on Valentine's Day to honour missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls across the country.

Gathering held in memory of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls

A crowd gathers to hold a strawberry ceremony to honour MMIWG on Valentine's Day in front of Toronto Police Headquarters. Feb. 14, 2018 (Rhiannon Johnson/CBC)

A large crowd gathered at Toronto Police headquarters on Valentine's Day to honour missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls across the country.

Indigenous people and non-Indigenous allies gathered to hold a strawberry ceremony and to listen to the stories of families whose loved ones have been killed or gone missing.

Strawberries are called ode'min in the Ojibway language. Ode means heart and when cut open, strawberries look like a heart.

The ceremony, led by Elder Wanda Whitebird, involved members of the crowd receiving a strawberry and a small cup of water. 

Whitebird said a prayer before the the water and berry were consumed, in memory of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. 

Strawberries or ode'min in Anishinaabemowin are named because when cut open, they look like a heart - and ode means heart. (Rhiannon Johnson/CBC)

'Honour the families'

Meggie Cywink from Whitefish River First Nation near Manitoulin Island was part of the organizing committee for the strawberry ceremony.

"I'm here just to honour the families that can't be here today — the families that are grieving, the families that have no ways of being present at this location, and families from across the province," she said.

Meggie Cywink, originally from Whitefish River First Nation, is one of the organizers of the Strawberry ceremony, now in its 13th year in Toronto. (Facebook )

She was also honouring the memory of her sister, Sonya Nadine Cywink, who was killed in 1994. Her body found 65 km west of London, Ont., in Elgin County. Her case remains unsolved.

The crowd gathered this year was nearly twice the size it was last year, Cywink said, and it formed a circle around family members, drummers and singers.

"I think what spurred a lot of people to come out was the Stanley verdict," she said.

On Feb. 9, a Battleford, Sask., jury found Gerald Stanley, 56, not guilty of second-degree murder in the death of Colten Boushie, 22. Boushie was shot and killed after he and four others from the Red Pheasant Cree Nation drove onto Stanley's rural property near Biggar, Sask., in August 2016.

Rallies and marches have been held in many communities following the verdict, with speakers supporting the family of Colten Boushie and lobbying for changes to Canada's justice system. 

Hope and rebirth

The ceremony has been happening for the last 13 years in Toronto, and organizers say it has been an chance to gather as a community in ceremony and prayer for loved ones who have been lost to violence.

Although strawberries aren't in season in February, they are part of the memorial because strawberry is the woman's fruit and also a symbol of hope and rebirth, said Audrey Huntley, one of the organizers of the ceremony.

A crowd gathered in front of the Toronto Police headquarters for the 13th annual strawberry ceremony. (Rhiannon Johnson/CBC)

Huntley is also a co-founder of the No More Silence group, founded in 2004, that has been gathering the names of MMIWG.

Huntley said they also hold the event outside Toronto Police headquarters for a reason.

"What's really important to us is that we're calling attention to state complicity in these murders, that's why we're at police headquarters not only because of their inaction but because sometimes they are perpetrators of violence against Indigenous women, girls, trans, two-spirited and people in general," said Huntley.

Community hearings for the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women were held in Moncton Tuesday and Wednesday. Hearings will next be in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, Feb. 20-22.