Riders on horseback made their way down Main Street Monday stopping at the steps of the Penticton courthouse to join a group of 100 promising to keep the memory of Roxanne Louie alive.
She is the 26-year-old single mother and member of the Osoyoos Indian Band who was found dead on Jan. 12. Grace Robotti and her brother Pier Robotti have been charged with second-degree murder in relation to Louie’s death.
The Robotti’s did not appear in court Monday, but their case was in front of the judicial case manager to schedule a future date. The timing was more symbolic, according to Louie family spokesperson and Roxanne’s uncle, Dan Wilson.
“We understand the next court appearance is not going to be until sometime in 2016, so we wanted to end off this year with Roxanne’s memory alive and fresh in everybody’s memory,” Wilson said.
Wilson is still finding out more about his niece since she died, including Roxanne’s volunteer efforts with elders in the community.
“You don’t really know a person, unfortunately, until after they pass away and then you really learn how much that person is really loved,” Wilson said. “I think we don’t express our love to our loved ones when they are alive. I think we need to do more of that and I think that’s a lesson we are learning from Roxanne’s death.”
A rally was held at Gyro Park across from the courthouse with speakers including Chiefs from the Okanagan Nation Alliance.
Harron Hall, Roxanne’s younger cousin, shared her memories of Roxanne, who she said was more like a big sister to her.
“Her best quality was probably how big her heart was. She loved deeply and always forgave those who hurt her, and she always gave everyone the benefit of the doubt.”
Hall also called attention to the response from police and the media upon the announcement that Roxanne had gone missing.
“Both the initial response from the media and the RCMP speak to the marginalization of indigenous women. As a family we were appalled when the RCMP spokesperson portrayed Roxanne as another Indian woman just out partying. This dismissed the urgency of the situation and very real concerns her family had for her safety,” Hall said. “These concerns were very well articulated to both RCMP and media.”
She and Roxanne were planning on attending a fashion show to benefit missing and murdered indigenous women in Vancouver the last time they spoke.
“I’m here to say enough is enough this type of lateral and systemic violence directed at indigenous women will not be tolerated,” Hall said. “We will not let her be forgotten and we will not let this case be dismissed.”
Chief Clarence Louie of the Osoyoos Indian Band said the issue is a national one that has hit close to home.
“Now it’s our issue as well, it’s a personal issue,” he said.
“Canada has stated over the last few years that they want to get tough on crime, well here’s their chance.”
Coola Louis, women’s representative for the Union of BC Indian Chiefs and councillor with the Okanagan Indian Band shared an emotional speech as well.
“We do notice, and we want to make sure everybody else notices, that our women are human too. Our women, their lives matter and that’s why we’re here today. To acknowledge that, to acknowledge our life-givers, to acknowledge Roxanne,” Coola said.
As riders came down Main Street President of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip said that his “heart swelled with pride.” He noted that he had been to many rallies, marches and candlelight vigils in relation to missing and murdered indigenous women — nothing that had hit so close to home though.
“I was never rocked and so deeply touched as when I became aware of what happened to Roxanne in our own territory, in our own backyard, in our own home,” Phillip said.
Putting politics aside, federal Liberal candidate Connie Denesiuk and NDP candidate Richard Cannings spoke together at the rally.
“This is not as much a political thing, but it’s about doing what’s right. So we’re people who want to stand up for what’s right so that’s why we’ve decided to come up together,” Denesiuk said.
“Today we’re here for justice, we’re here for Roxanne and I think we’re here for our country,” Cannings said.
He noted that during Thomas Mulcair’s rally in Penticton a call for an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women got the loudest and lengthiest applause.
“That really made me proud to be a member of this community and we really have to work to fix the broken relationship between the federal government and the First Nations people in Canada,” Cannings said.
“My heart aches for the family of Roxanne,” Denesiuk said. “I stand here because I believe that some things have to change in this country. I’m ashamed of the response that Canada has given to murdered and missing indigenous women. When I say I strongly support an inquiry, I know that’s only the beginning.”