SASKATOON — The issue of murdered and missing Aboriginal women and girls was the theme of an April 18 ecumenical joint study day held at Mayfair United Church in Saskatoon. The event was attended by more than 200 people.
The impetus for the day goes back to the release of a federal government special committee report released in March 2014 called Invisible Women: A Call to Action. The Roman Catholic Diocesan Commission for Truth and Reconciliation (DCTR) looked at the report and discerned the idea of hosting a day of reflection. Bishop Donald Bolen agreed and asked that it be done with other churches.
The theme of the day was to give Aboriginal women an opportunity to speak directly to church leadership about their experience, and to offer ideas about how the different churches could support the various First Nation communities in their mourning of the women lost and how to heal the factors that led to this crisis in the first place.
As of the day of the event, 1,017 women and girls had been reported murdered and 164 missing.
The day began with an early morning pipe ceremony. This is a traditional First Nations way of gathering up the intentions and asking an elder to pray for particular concerns. The elder for the pipe ceremony was Edward Baldhead.
Deb Walker, one of the ministers from Mayfair United Church and a member of the Voices of Our Sisters organizing committee, opened the day by acknowledging that indigenous people have walked this land for thousands of years “in the area most recently defined as Treaty Six.”
Periodically throughout the day, Delvin Kanewiyakiho from Oskâyak High School would step to the microphone and explain different cultural aspects of the day, ranging from why tobacco was offered to the speakers to translating phrases that were offered in Cree.
Elder Maria Linklater opened the event with some words of reflection and a prayer that was followed by an honour song by her grandson, Blue Jay.
“What brings us here today are our sisters who have passed on to the spirit world,” Linklater began. “We have to pray to them and we pray for each other . . . it is a good purpose.”
“We have to talk with each other,” Linklater insisted. “We can’t be afraid of each other. We need to be friends.”
The first speakers for the morning were Prof. Winona Wheeler of the University of Saskatchewan and Glenda Abbot, the program co-ordinator for Wanuskewin Heritage Park. They introduced participants to The History of the Indigenous Woman.
The next speaker was Pauline Muskego, the mother of Daleen Bosse, a woman who was murdered more than 10 years ago in Saskatoon. Muskego spoke of Bosse as a little girl, of the young woman and mother that she became, and the mourning process that continues to this day.
After lunch, a panel discussed different aspects of what needs to be done to reduce the number of indigenous women and girls who not only go missing and are murdered, but also those who live with abuse and marginalization throughout their lives.
The panel was made up of Myrna LaPlante and Helen Smith-McIntyre, both of Iskwewuk E-wichiwitochik (Women Walking Together); Monica Goulet, who is the Aboriginal Relations Consultant for the Saskatoon Police Service; Marcel Petit, a local filmmaker most well-known for his film, Hookers: A Documentary; and finally two young women from Oskâyak High School, Kiona Sanderson and Maggie Eastman.
The entire gathering then broke into 12 groups to discuss what they heard and how their particular church could respond to the crisis.
Many noted the importance of simply trying to involve more First Nations people on committees and in decision-making bodies.
Others spoke of their desire to attend more Aboriginal events like powwows, sweats or memorials.
“We need to get to know not just the cultural pieces . . . but also befriend (Aboriginal) people,” wrote one participant. Others noted the need for non-Aboriginals to re-educate themselves more about the history of the reserve system, the Indian Act, and the various prairie treaties.
The committee is unsure what the next step is for their group but hope to use the momentum of this day to guide their followup action.