Pat Reavy introduced our AGM Speaker Bridget Tolley, a First Nations grandmother from the Algonquin Kitgan Zibi Anisinabeg reserve in Quebec. On October 4, 2006 she organized the first vigil of a series of annual Parliament Hill vigils to acknowledge missing and murdered aboriginal women. This grew from a grassroots non-profit organization, whose goal is finding justice for missing and murdered indigenous women. It is now an international movement. In collaboration with the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) they formed “Sisters in Spirit” which instituted research and education programs and had documented over 600 cases, before federal funding cuts to NWAC ended the collaboration in 2010. In early January 2011 Bridget co-founded “Families of Sisters in Spirit” (FSIS) along with non-Aboriginal ally Kristen Gilchrist and former President of the NWAC Beverley Jacobs. A non-profit organization of families of missing and murdered Aboriginal women, FSIS advocates for justice and supports affected families. (Facebook: ‘Families of Sisters in Spirit’.) Pat offered and Bridget accepted the traditional gift of tobacco as an invitation to share her story.
Ms. Tolley began her presentation by displaying photos of a dozen missing or murdered native women. The haunting portraits, showing women of all ages and abilities, were in view throughout her talk. In a soft-spoken voice, Bridget emphasized that she is just a daughter, mother and grandmother, like most of the women in the room. She did not set out to be an activist; she just wanted to know what had happened to her mother. Gladys Tolley died Oct. 4, 2001, when struck by a Sûreté du Québec (SQ) provincial police vehicle as she walked home along a reserve road. She was 61. Her family was told it was an accident and that alcohol was a factor, but were denied access to the coroner’s and police reports. When they hired a lawyer and pressed for more details many anomalies in both the coroner’s and police reports became apparent. The SQ officer who examined the scene was the brother of one of the officers in the car; both the SQ and native police failed to secure the scene; when Montreal police arrived 8 hours later, to verify details since police were involved, the body was gone; though a local doctor attended at the scene, her mother was not transported to hospital for autopsy and the coroner never viewed the body; its was falsely reported that family had identified the body but family were not permitted to see the body. Later reconstruction determined that there were errors in the calculation of the speed of the vehicle and the “black box” from the cruiser could not be located; even the date, time and location were wrongly reported. The family eventually paid a series of eight lawyers over $1000 to get what should have been “public” information.
Bridget and her family felt quite isolated and abandoned by the justice system, but she soon came to realize that they were not alone. There were many native families across Canada who had similar experiences when loved ones went missing or were murdered. Working within NWAC, she obtained federal funding from the Liberal government in 2005 to found “Sisters in Spirit.” The goal was to document the number of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls in Canada and raise awareness of the problem. Finally she got several native women’s organizations, the organization of First Nation’s Chiefs and Amnesty International to request an “independent investigation” of her mother’s death. Still nothing happened. The jurisdiction for an unbiased investigation was “complicated,” since the police involved were either employees of the Quebec government or Federal employees. In 2006 she took her request to parliament in Ottawa. The NWAC and Amnesty organized a protest March on Oct. 4, the anniversary of her mother’s death. That protest has continued annually since then and now concerns all missing and murdered native women. In 2010, more than 100 vigils were held across Canada.
Federal funding for “Sisters in Spirit” was abruptly terminated in 2010. By then SIS had clearly documented more than 600 unsolved cases of missing and murdered native women (there may be as many as 3000 cases in the past decade). Too often, disappearances were dismissed or ignored because the some of women were thought to have lived a high risk life-style, even so they were still someone’s loved one and families were grieving while left in the dark. Bridget is doing her part by keeping the “stories” of these women alive.
Maisy Odjick and Shannon Alexander were 16 and 17 in 2008 when they went missing from the Maniwaki reserve after leaving to attend a dance off the reserve. Even though they had no money, clothes or identification with them, the police maintained that they had just “run off” and decided to wait before initiating a search. The families claimed that was out of character for the girls who were both doing well in school and had ambitions for the future. Shannon was looking forward to attending nursing school in a month. When the families organized their own searches, the police stood idly by and did not assist. Instead they argued over who had jurisdiction, reserve or provincial police. Earlier that year, when “Boomer” a lion cub went missing from his temporary custodian on the same reserve, dogs and helicopters were called in to aid in the search and hundred’s of police from several forces assisted in his capture within two days. Bridget asks, “Why does an exotic animal merit more attention than two young women?” Stories of other missing women are similar.
In 2010, the Conservative government cut federal funding, and NWAC was told that they could no longer organize the Sisters In Spirit campaign, maintain the database of missing women, or use that name for projects or educational material, without risking loss of all other funding. That same year the government budgeted $10 million for projects to assist with the issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. Most of that money went to generic missing persons projects within the established justice system, much of it directly to the RCMP.
In response, affected families in Manitoba made a “toolkit “ to assist others in navigating the justice system. Ms. Tolley co-founded “Families of Sisters in Spirit” (FSIS) a grassroots organization by and for families of missing and murdered Aboriginal women, focused mainly on those located east of Manitoba. Without government funding or the support of NWAC, they rely on their own money, community donations and in-kind support to help the many affected families. In their first year they arranged face-to-face meetings between families, politicians and Native Assemblies, and participated in more than 60 vigils, rallies, fundraisers, forums and public education/lecture sessions. The principal question remains, “Why are native women not important?” Their families are facing a tough road in seeking justice. Coupled with increasing government cuts to reserves, unemployment and poverty, their lives are difficult at best.
Violence against women of all origins is pervasive, difficult to document and even harder to control. This is a national shame. We must recognize that the disappearance and murder native women is only one manifestation of such violence and recognize that we are ALL Sisters in Spirit. How can we help? It is important to share the stories and get the word out. These families need to be heard, not ignored. Ms. Tolley urged us to ask our MPs what is being done and to fill out the postcards to Steven Harper that she provided. If there is a way to inform the next generation of young women, we must do that, for they are the leaders of tomorrow.
Everything Bridget has done is for her Mom, as a tribute to keep her memory alive. She reminds herself that her mother did not die because she was drunk; she died because a police car hit her. Though the issues are complex it is important to open a dialogue. She thanked us sincerely for opening a door by inviting her to speak at our meeting. For her, personal appearances such as this make her efforts real.
Ms Tolley, ended with a prayer for a better life for all women, and peace for the families of those who are lost.
Katharine Gunnel-Gavin thanked Ms. Tolley for her powerful presentation. Katharine lived in Vancouver during the serial murders of women by Robert Picton, and there are many similarities between that case and the horrors that Bridget has described. She is a truly courageous woman whose efforts have put a spot light on these dark pages. CFUW stretches from coast to coast in Canada and could be another vehicle to distribute the message. This would be in keeping with the International Federation of University Women’s goal to ensure “human rights across the world.”
Attendees were encouraged to contribute to “Families of Sisters in Spirit” and they responded generously. Members who did not attend the talk can contact FSIS by email – firstname.lastname@example.org
For donations cheques should be made out to Families of Sisters in Spirit and mailed to: Families of Sisters in Spirit, 250 City Centre Ave, Suite 500, Ottawa, Ontario,K1R 6K7
FSIS rallies are held on Parliament Hill (Algonquin Territory) every Oct. 14 and on Feb. 14, in conjunction with the rally to end violence against women.
Letters and post cards asking the Federal Government to take action may be sent to:
Prime Minister Harper
House of Commons