15th Annual Strawberry Ceremony for
Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, Trans and Two Spirit People
and those who have died Violent Deaths
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: 13/02/20
WHAT: Gathering at Toronto Police Headquarters
WHEN: Friday, February 14th , 2020, at 12:30 pm
WHERE: 40 College Street
Toronto’s first February 14th event honouring missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls took place 15 years ago. At that time, members of a recently founded grassroots advocacy group, No More Silence, called on Toronto’s Indigenous community and their allies to join them at police headquarters to gather in ceremony. It was the year that Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside community was bracing itself for the beginning of the Robert Picton trial — their annual Memorial March for missing and murdered women had already been taking place since 1991. In Toronto, we organized to show solidarity with our relations on the West Coast, but also to demonstrate that this phenomenon was country-wide and not limited to the aberration of a serial killer but rather of a systemic nature. No More Silence identified impunity as a central component of violence against Indigenous women in Canada. We choose to gather at police headquarters in order to underline the complicity of the state and its institutions. 14 years later, police continue to under-protect and over-police Indigenous people. Not infrequently, the violence stems from the institution itself as evidenced in the RCMP’s ongoing invasion of sovereign Wet’suwet’en lands. The arrest of matriarchs at the healing camp Unist’ot’en while in ceremony to honour missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls is enraging and flies in the face of a specific call to action out of the National Inquiry in MMIW to
“to ensure that all Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people are provided with safe, no-barrier, permanent, and meaningful access to their cultures and languages in order to restore, reclaim, and revitalize their cultures and identities. These are rights held by all segments of Indigenous communities, from young children to Elders.”
We also understand a driving force of the violence to be cis-heterosexism and patriarchy — therefore it is no surprise that our trans and Two Spirit community members experience the highest rates of violence, along with community members who are sex workers. Honouring their experiences is a priority for us.
The Toronto gathering has grown from a small group of 150 people in 2006 to being attended by over 1000 people in 2019. The event is endorsed by dozens of community groups, agencies, unions and churches. Expenses are covered by donations from these same groups and individuals. No government funding is solicited or received. A feast following the outdoor ceremony, served by the residents of Na-Me-Res Men’s shelter, feeds between 150 and 200 people. Similar gatherings now take place every year in over 20 cities across the country.
Decades of pressure by families and community advocates led the federal government to call a public inquiry into the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women. After holding hearings across the country, the Inquiry completed its work and released their final report in 2019. The Calls for Justice listed the final report address underlying causes of violence against Indigenous women, girls, trans and two-spirit people, and explicitly name the ongoing genocide being commited by the Canadian state.
As No More Silence and other members of the February 14th Organizing Committee have noted in past years, while the increase in public attention by media and government has been important to the bereaved — whose grief was compounded by societal indifference for years — it does little to stop the violence. In fact, Bonnie Atagoogak, 34 from Pond Inlet, was found dead in Ottawa near the hotel where she lived with her kids on February 1st, 2020.
While the federal government spends millions of dollars every year funding militarized police to invade Indingeous territories and criminalize our communities, resources and housing for survivors of intimate violence are continuously under-funded. In Toronto there is only one shelter for Indigenous women fleeing violence, and it is always at capacity. Homeless and under-housed community members continue to die on Toronto’s streets while the mayor attributes the crisis to mental health, despite the lack of shelter beds and affordable housing. Across Canada, we have seen a marked increase in white supremacist sentiment and hate crimes, and the opioid crisis rages on unabated while provincial and federal governments refuse to act.
While we are gathering on February 14th primarily in ceremony and to share our love and grief, we will continue to name these specific forms of state violence. We understand that gender-based violence is a fundamental feature of settler colonialism, a political structure that is driven by cis-heteropatriarchy, racism, and violence to uphold ongoing occupation of Indigenous lands. When police and government fail to act when it comes to instances of violence against Indigenous women — focusing instead on victim-blaming, and failing to implement the hundreds of recommendations brought forth by families — the existing systemic conditions of gender-based violence are maintained. We stand in defense of our lives and to demonstrate against the complicity of the state in the ongoing genocide of Indigenous women and the impunity of state institutions and actors (such as police, RCMP, coroners’ offices, the courts, and an indifferent federal government) that prevents justice for all Indigenous peoples.
“We reject the notion that any top-down, state-led approach to ending violence against Indigenous women and girls will be effective. Generations and legacies of experience have shown us how government-led inquiries are ultimately ineffective in bringing transformative change and will be, by their very nature, influenced by colonial power dynamics.” says Krysta Williams of the Native Youth Sexual Health Network, one of the members of the planning committee. “Many families and communities have worked tirelessly over decades and we acknowledge that it is those affected by the violence– families, communities and Indigenous Nations–who have the answers”.
Over 100 names will adorn signs and be printed on brochures handed out at the event this year: Indigenous women, girls, trans and Two Spirit people from Ontario who have died violent deaths primarily over the last 30 years. In 2019, No More Silence released a report on the research it has conducted with its community database. “We do not look to the state for solutions but rather to strengthening our community’s capacity to take care of itself.” says co-founder Audrey Huntley. “It makes sense to us to take direction from family members and to work intergenerationally as we have done in partnership with Ottawa based Families of Sisters In Spirit and the Native Youth Sexual Health Network.” The database, which is independent of government funding, fills a gap left by the funding cuts and subsequent shutdown of the Native Women’s Association of Canada’s Sisters In Spirit program. For more information please visit www.itstartswithus-mmiw.com
Marches will also be held in at least 20 other cities including Vancouver, Montreal, Sudbury, Thunder Bay, Edmonton and Calgary.
February 14th Organizing Committee (No More Silence, Native Youth Sexual Health Network, Individual Community Members)
Audrey Huntley, No More Silence, 647-981-2918
Krysta Williams, Native Youth Sexual Health Network firstname.lastname@example.org