The heart of Smithers swelled with the sound of a Wet’suwet’en womens’ warrior song on Friday, when a procession of 50 marched down Main Street to honour missing and murdered aboriginal women.
Local First Nations women, some wearing traditional button blankets, sang and drummed to a steady rhythm as they led the Stolen Sisters Memorial March last week.
The march began at the junction of Main Street and Highway 16, the latter a notorious stretch of highway at the centre of 18 unsolved murders and disappearances.
Among the victims are women from the Hazeltons, Gitsegukla, Terrace, Prince Rupert and Smithers.
The families of some of those victims attended the march, some carrying photographs of the mothers, daughters, sisters or wives who vanished from their lives.
For people close to the victims, the second annual march was a chance to keep their memory alive, but it was also a call to action.
According to a 2014 report by the RMCP, the number of missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada totals more than 1,180.
The same report says aboriginal women are over-represented among the country’s missing and murdered women, and that most of those homicides were committed by men known to the victims.
Maddy Wilson’s 16-year-old daughter Ramona disappeared near Smithers in 1994. Her body was found near the Smithers Regional Airport in 1995.
Speaking after last week’s march, Wilson added her voice to the call for a national inquiry, something Prime Minister Stephen Harper has repeatedly rejected, saying studies have already been done.
Wilson also emphasized the need for increased scheduled transportation between communities along Highway 16, widely known as the Highway of Tears.
“There’s so many isolated areas like Kispiox, Kitwancool, Gitsegukla, Babine and all these areas,” she said.
“Some of them are way out in the bush and you need some kind of schedule for the weekend, even a small little bus that can take them wherever they want to go every weekend, that would be the answer.”
A shuttle bus service was a recommendation of the 2006 Highway of Tears Symposium Recommendations Report, but the provincial government has abandoned the concept because it said it would not help.
Despite the challenges to finding solutions, Wilson said attitudes towards aboriginal women had changed for the better since her daughter was killed.
Although she believes the federal and provincial governments should be doing more, locally, events like the march gave her hope that more women could be protected in the future.
“It gives us more strength to carry on and to avoid another person to be missing because these people, these murderers figure that we would have just forgotten about this.”
“This is going to keep on happening every year and we’ll be standing, if not me it will be my children, grandchildren and my supporters and this will never end.
“As long as we have this, these murderers will know that we are not going to stand for it, no.”
Donalee Sebastian was 16 when her mother Elsie went missing from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside in 1993.
Sharing her story with a crowd at the Dze L K’Ant Friendship Society Hall after the march, Sebastian said her mother’s disappearance was not taken seriously by investigators for many years after her death.
“Because she was an aboriginal woman who lived with addiction, she was marginalized, she was judged and she was pushed out of society,” she said.
But Sebastian also spoke of the hope instilled in her by last week’s march.
Pointing to her one-year-old daughter, she spoke of the need to remember that missing and murdered women lived on in their children.
“I hope that each family member who did this walk today find hope in their heart too, to remember that our missing moms, our missing sisters, our missing cousins, they’ll still live on,” she said.
“They live on in you. They live on in [my daughter] and I cried when I did the march with you today and I sang the womens’ warrior song and I remembered mom.
“This is part of my healing, part of your healing, part of our healing as a community.”
Smithers Mayor Taylor Bachrach, who has been an outspoken advocate for increased public transportation on Highway 16, spoke at the march.
He said recognition of the need to find solutions was growing across Canada.
“This is not something in our past, this is very much a tragedy that is created by circumstances that we still see in our communities every single day,” he said.
“It’s time that we create communities and a society that is free from the kind of discrimination that we’ve seen where all people from all walks of life look out for each other and recognize each other’s humanity and create safety for each other.”