Today, Linda Kay Peters is thinking of her niece Shawnee, of Shawnee’s two children and how much promise she had to get on another path with her life.
“I think of the potential that she could have had in her life. She was struggling and we all tried to be there for her and help her out where we could. But everybody knows that people have to want to change and act,” Peters said.
But Shawnee Inyallie wouldn’t live to see that future. After going missing in the summer of 2018, her body was found in the Fraser River over 150 kilometres from where she was last seen. While police initially said they believed no foul play was involved, a BC Coroners Service investigation into her death is still open.
Peters isn’t the only one thinking of a loved one who has met a tragic end – on what is known as ‘Red Dress Day’ many are hanging red dresses and donning red clothing to remember their loved ones and the thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women across Canada. May 5 is the National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
Estimates range about how many women have been killed or have gone missing, anywhere from 1,200 cases according to the RCMP’s 2014 count, up to 5,000 according to some advocate counts.
Few will live through or even be able to understand what it’s like to have a loved one go missing without a trace, or have their life ended by violence. Few, except the thousands of Indigenous families who live this reality and many live it more than once.
For Inyallie’s family it went from reporting their loved one missing, to organizing frequent searches along highways, in tent camps and on the Fraser River amid their grief. And finally, when the news came that Shawnee’s body had been found, it entailed picking out a pink dress and matching scarf for their 29-year-old niece to be cremated in.
“It was very traumatic for our whole family, the whole time we were searching,” Peters said.
And standing on her deck in the hot May sun wearing a red shirt and beaded earrings in the shape of red dresses, Peters is thinking even further back than 2018. She is thinking of the violence perpetrated on her mother in her childhood home of Red Lake, Ontario.
“I was only 8 years old when my mom was beaten and raped and thrown in the bush and left to die. But my mom survived and I’m really thankful she survived,” Peters said of her mother, who is now 96 years old. “But she never had a voice because she never took it to police…at that time…nobody paid attention, nobody cared, there was no point in reporting anything.”
Today was a day to remember these women, some of whom have survived the violence perpetrated on them. Many others have died as a result and still more remain missing, an open wound for many families.
For Tammy Francis, whose cousin April Parisian is missing, she said she feels in her heart the family is ‘bringing a body home.’ And while this is a tragic fact few would ever want to contemplate, Francis said the alternative is much worse. Without finding April she will always be a missing person and there will never be closure. “Living with that horror is just, it’s really unbearable, of just not knowing,” Francis said.
Today is not only about remembering the loved ones, it’s about recognizing that despite a national inquiry with 231 calls for justice and despite Canada’s Prime Minister acknowledging violence against Indigenous women and girls amounts to genocide, this violence continues.
“It’s happening too often and it’s still happening. To me it doesn’t seem like it’s lessening up,” Peters said. “It’s just ongoing.” While she sees a lot of organizing within the Indigenous communities, she doesn’t hear much change happening in the legal or justice system.
Today, the Assembly of First Nations’ regional chief Terry Teegee called for an end to ‘apathy and lack of political will that has defined the public’s response’ to this crisis.
“No one should be ignorant, but should instead make themselves aware of the causes and range of impacts of such violence. Everyone has a responsibility to take swift action to prevent and respond to violence against Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA+ individuals,” he stated.
“All levels of government must implement meaningful strategies and law reform to address the root causes and risk factors of violence in full partnership with tribal governments and communities.”
Teegee also called for justice and police reform, enhancing tribal sovereignty and cooperation between various jurisdictions and making supports that are culturally appropriate widely accessible.
Communication between Indigenous families and police, long a very difficult process for many families, is improving but very slowly Peters said.
And while there has been a lot of trauma, Peters said she keeps praying every night to the creator and connects to her culture. “Culture saves lives, I really, really believe that. I think it’s knowing about your culture that gives you that strength to fight, to believe in yourself,” she said.
Normally on this day, marches, gatherings and demonstrations would be organized. Yet with public health restrictions in place to stop the spread of COVID-19, gatherings for the national day of awareness could not take place.
Note: 2SLGBTQQIA+ is an acronym that stands for ‘two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, and asexual.’