Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Snow, slush and freezing temperatures did not deter Sunday’s annual Women’s Memorial March from marking its 30th anniversary in Vancouver.
The differences from previous years of the annual event were obvious. Participants had all been asked by the organizing committee to wear face masks and socially distance because of COVID-19, but also one of the key ceremonial roles changed hands after three decades.
Speakers after the event spoke of the long-time impact and role Cree Elder Reta Blind had played in creating the event and helping guide it ever since. In 1991, she was known for walking throughout the Downtown Eastside offering prayers and support to Indigenous people on the streets.
As the numbers of missing Indigenous women climbed, but police continued to dismiss the community’s growing fear and concern, Blind and others in Vancouver decided an annual event was urgently needed to honour and pray for those who vanished and to support families and loved ones seeking justice.
On Sunday, as every year, Blind and a group of Elders continued their tradition of stopping at places women were murdered or were last seen in the neighbourhood, offering prayers, tobacco, song and drumming.
Afterwards, Blind passed the ceremonial torch as lead Elder to Cecilia Point, of Musqueam Nation, to carry the role forward.
“I say to you my dear beloved brothers and sisters, stand up. It’s our time. Our time is here,” Blind told attendees at Main and Hastings Street. “I believe we are the change. Stay strong, pray, look after your families, look after your children, and we need to look after the Earth.”
For another of the original early 1990s march organizers, Carol Martin, the Elders’ influence and importance could not be understated. In a tearful tribute, Martin honoured Blind’s supportive role for three decades.
“Reta stood by us like a tree — our strength — someone we could go to when we fall to our knees, someone who reminded us of who we are,” Martin said. “She brought medicine when we needed it, and our culture saved our lives.
“Everyone standing here has lost someone very close to us. This Elder who’s been with us all these years will still be with us.”
One of those who lost someone and who has marched for years to remember them is Sarah-Anne Mitchell, who attended with her daughter Sofia handing out red sweaters, granola bars, bags of candy and water with Mitchell’s coworkers at the Aboriginal Mothers Centre.
“I'm here to walk in honour of my mother, France Mitchell,” she told Windspeaker.com. Her mother died in the Downtown Eastside in 2000. “She was a beautiful soul.
“We were very close. Being here brings me a sense of connection to her. My mother lived down here for many years. Every year I march in her honour.”
Another participant this year was Jamie Smallboy, for whom it was her first march. She marched to remember multiple fellow Indigenous women she was friends with who “one by one I never heard from again.”
But the Cree woman said she was so moved by having been gifted a ceremonial ribbon skirt when she was struggling, and the healing power it brought her, that she decided to sew ribbon skirts for others at the march. She never expected she would end up handing out nearly 120 of them on Sunday, but to see so many of their red colour weaving throughout the march moved her to tears.
“It was heartfelt, and so good to see them all in solidarity, knowing we’re all connected, and knowing that their loved ones probably see that sea of red as well, that the spirits recognize, and I hope they are marching with them today.”
She said that she honours women who took care of her when she first arrived in the Downtown Eastside, but “one day they just weren’t there anymore.”
“I didn’t know I was suffering the impacts of colonialism,” she said. “But Indigenous women and girls wear a target where we’re the most likely to be abducted, kidnapped, raped or killed.
“I didn’t know what genocide or intergenerational trauma was before. But Canada’s court system says it’s okay to harm Indigenous women. But genocide is happening, but our women aren’t invisible. This march is a yearly reminder that we’re not.”