Hundreds stood in silence as they remembered the women in their communities who have, over the years, either disappeared or been killed. After a few minutes, shouts and cries filled the room as each expressed the joy that these women brought to their lives.
The conference room at Penticton’s Lakeside Resort and Conference Centre saw, for the first time, a gathering of members from the Okanagan Nation and beyond to discuss how Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) have affected their communities.
In addition to discussing how this has affected them, they also honoured those who have been lost and tackled what they can do to begin supporting each other.
By the end of the conference Friday night, all seven member communities within the Okanagan Nation will have worked together to develop their own strategy for steps that their nation, communities and individuals can take to start supporting each other.
In the North Okanagan, eight Indigenous women have gone missing or were found to be have been killed over the years, including three that have been reported missing in the past five years alone. There are still a number of women missing specifically in the area between Enderby and Vernon.
These women are among about 4,000 missing and murdered Indigenous women across Canada.
“We need to have awareness because it’s a systemic issue based off of systemic racism that Indigenous women are the lowest respected (individuals) of society,” said Jennifer Lewis, wellness manager at Okanagan Nation Alliance.
“We want to find spaces to support each other to ensure no one is alone, everyone knows that our women are valued, and important, no matter their lifestyle, and that we will be there to support them.”
Keynote speaker Elaine Alec examined The Path Forward Sessions, an initiative to support the creation of a safe space for Indigenous women and girls. About 300 community members from every corner of B.C. banded together to develop a list of strategies and initiatives related to causes of systemic violence against women and girls.
“They left feeling empowered, and they left feeling like they could actually do something now, and they felt like there was a path forward,” she said to the crowd.
“This report does not belong to anybody,” she said. “That was an agreement we all made. Knowledge is meant to be shared. We need to come together and support each other if we want to create a safe space for our women and girls.”
On Jan. 5, 2015, Roxanne Louie disappeared in Penticton. The next day, RCMP contacted Roxanne’s friends and family, which led to a lengthy investigation that was undertaken by Roxanne’s family and RCMP.
A family member shared with the audience the story of Louie’s disappearance.
The purpose of sharing her story, they said, was to raise awareness and promote accountability. They shared a summary of the events that occurred during the investigation and examined various levels of response from the media, justice system and ministry.
Not only did they talk about their experience with her loss, but also systemic barriers that made the search for her a challenge.
Specifically, family members highlighted the advocacy taken on behalf of Louie by her family, the Osoyoos Indian Band and the larger nation to help find answers.
As relatives spoke about their search, coverage by the media, and the trial itself, there was a sense of anger, frustration and sadness in the room. Even now, there are questions left unanswered, and some share a feeling of injustice.
One family member shared their feelings that some individuals within the justice system are operating from deeply-rooted colonial biases.
Over lunch, Louie’s father, Roger Hall, shared something about her that not many knew.
“The thing about my daughter that a lot of people don’t know, is how much of a loving person she was,” said Hall.
“How bubbly, and just a fun person to be around and to be with,” he said, stopped short by a man pushing a cart loudly past him down the hall.
He paused, looking in the direction the man went.
“It was like that — people don’t know how they impact people by just doing what they’re doing,” said Hall. “They don’t understand, and it’s – in all of society today, how we perceive our First Nations people. We’re nice people.
“When you came here to this land when your forefathers came to this land, we didn’t meet them with our bow and arrows. We met them with warmth. We were hospitable, we fed them, we nurtured them.
“We call the non-native people our little brothers,” he continued. “So that’s how we want to be perceived, as a brother.”
Gladys Radek has, for years, supported those searching for missing Indigenous women in B.C. She has also walked across Canada multiple times since 2008 to raise awareness for the cause.
Her involvement with MMIWG started when her niece Tamara Chipman disappeared from the Highway of Tears in northern B.C. in 2005.
She was another keynote speaker at the gathering in Penticton and shared not only stories from her work with Indigenous communities in the Vancouver area, but also her plans to continue advocating for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
This summer, she and many others will be walking again, this time from Prince Rupert to Osoyoos.
She explained that when these walks first started, around ten people showed their support. She was encouraged by the room full of individuals on Thursday, who came to show interest in the cause.
She also spoke to how the population of Indigenous peoples in Canada has dropped significantly over the years.
“Our DNA is unique, let’s hang onto it,” she said, adding that the only way to do this is by ending violence.
Hall said he hopes he will be around to see things improve.
“It’s going to be a challenge, and we’re all in this canoe together,” said Hall. “And how we find solutions, I hope I’m around to find the beauty in all this trauma.”
Hall added that he loves all the work people are doing to help create solutions, whether that’s through their own healing, or just to come together as, “the four colours of people.”
“Let’s keep going,” he said.
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