Sisters in Spirit shines a light

A crusade by the Native Women’s Association of Canada is getting more recognition after a media blitz about murdered and missing women – but the federally funded program, too, is in danger of disappearing.

By RANDY BOSWELL, Canwest News ServiceOctober 25, 2009

They are the keepers of the flame for more than 500 missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada. And their crusade has become – for the moment, anyway – the whole country’s crusade.

From a cramped, west-end Ottawa office decorated with dream catchers and infused with hope, the place where a great divide is bridged between hundreds of grieving communities across Canada and the powers that be on Parliament Hill, a small team of researchers and outreach workers is trying hard not to say: “We told you so.”

But the people behind Sisters in Spirit, a five-year, federally funded initiative launched in 2005 by the Native Women’s Association of Canada, have been saying all along what most Canadians are just now waking up to after a recent media blitz about murdered and missing women in Western Canada.

They’ve been telling Canadians that the dead and disappeared are almost everywhere across the country; that there is no single serial killer at work, except apathy; that the tragedy runs deep into the history of aboriginal dispossession and discrimination; that jurisdictional tangles and cultural blind spots help explain why so many killings and so many vanished women have been relegated to the cold-case file.

Among the startling statistics that Sisters in Spirit researchers have compiled – apart from the group’s showcase figure of 520 missing or murdered Canadian aboriginal women since about 1970 – is that the toll would be equivalent to 18,000 dead or disappeared women from all ethnic groups for all of Canada.

The awareness of such facts is only dawning nationwide after a late-August splash of publicity about one of the 18 disappeared women along B.C.’s “Highway of Tears,” and a coincident push by Manitoba police to re-energize a probe into the murders of two native women in Winnipeg.

The alarm blared again in early October when vigils were held across the country – including one on Parliament Hill – to remember the lost and to demand, yet again, more resources and more action to solve old cases and prevent new ones.

“We’re dealing with a very marginalized, vulnerable community – I call it the cycle of distress,” says Sisters in Spirit director Kate Rexe. “It’s not just about violence. It’s health issues, housing issues, economic security, drug and alcohol abuse, mental health, racism, and all of those social factors that create a situation of being marginalized or vulnerable.”

The cruel irony, notes Rexe, is that it took renewed interest in the fate of the only white woman among the 18 who disappeared along a lonely stretch of B.C.’s infamous Highway 16 – Red Deer student Nicole Hoar – to finally prompt broader questions and revelations about the national tragedy unfolding among Canada’s native women.

Hoar’s disappearance “put the Highway of Tears on the map,” says Rexe, but the “17 other aboriginal women” were given footnote status.

And there’s more cruel irony. Just when the message Sisters in Spirit has been spreading for years may finally be sinking in with politicians and Canadians in general, the project itself is facing a fight for survival – a potential victim of divided funding priorities.

Rexe and the eight other Sisters in Spirit employees at the Native Women’s Association of Canada headquarters have applied for a new five-year mandate and another

$1-million-a-year funding promise from the current Conservative government. But they’ve been waiting months for federal approval of the project’s next phase.

The funding commitment would match the original 2005 outlay made by Paul Martin’s Liberal government and, says Sisters in Spirit, help the group sustain the momentum behind its research, prevention and publicity initiatives.

Those initiatives include tool kits – distributed to native communities throughout the country – to combat sexism, promote safety-conscious behaviour and generally help prevent violence against women.

But as a measure of the relentless sorrow gripping many aboriginal communities, another Sisters in Spirit tool kit offers grieving families advice on dealing with police and the media after a loved one has disappeared or been murdered.

“The best part about going to the communities is that we let them know this is a larger problem,” says Sisters in Spirit outreach co-ordinator Jennifer Lord. “We go in as a third party to say, ‘No, you’re not alone.’ Trust me. Communities across the board are going through this. Urban, rural, aboriginal, non-aboriginal communities.”

The driving force behind the creation of Sisters in Spirit, former Native Women’s Association of Canada president Terri Brown, had been spurred by personal tragedy: the beating death of her own sister, Ada Elaine, in 2001.

“How many more of our sisters have to die before it matters?” she said at the time. “I guess people think, ‘Just another dead Indian.’ But she was our baby sister. She mattered to us.”

Uncertainty about Sisters in Spirit’s future has arisen amid rumours that federal funding could be cut or dispersed more broadly – and less effectively, Rexe argues – among dozens of groups combating violence across the country.

Even further delays this fall before Sisters in Spirit’s financial future is clarified means that the organization – even if funds finally come through next spring – “could potentially go for a year without funding and lose the continuity and staff and the knowledge,” says Rexe. “We’re in a very tricky position.”

The government, so far, is providing expressions of support for the “great work” being done by Sisters in Spirit but no clear comment on the organization’s fate as the end of its funding draws near.

The uncertainty has emerged despite the fact that Status of Women Minister Helena Guergis has repeatedly highlighted Sisters in Spirit’s achievements to rebuff opposition charges that the Conservative government is doing too little to deal with Canada’s epidemic of missing and murdered aboriginal women.

Liberal MP Anita Neville, the party’s critic on women’s issues, has called for a national investigation into the high rate of missing and murdered native women, and for stronger measures from the “so-called tough-on-crime” Tory government to combat human trafficking – the suspected crime behind some cases of missing aboriginal women.

In response, Guergis has hailed Sisters in Spirit as “an example of a partnership that works to create tangible benefits” for aboriginal women.

“Sisters in Spirit aims at quantifying the actual number of missing and murdered women by understanding the root causes of racialized and sexualized violence, and by implementing a public awareness strategy,” she said in August, acknowledging that the group’s $5-million allocation runs out in 2010.

She expressed similar sentiments in response to the October vigils: “We absolutely support the great work that Sisters in Spirit has done,” Guergis said.

Sisters in Spirit, created by a Liberal government and kept alive – so far – by Conservatives, maintains a decidedly non-partisan posture.

But its director persists in asking hard questions of investigators and all parties and governments when it comes to the disturbing numbers of missing and murdered native women.

“Has there been a bias of some sort against aboriginal women?” Rexe asks. “Have there been gaps that have essentially ignored the red flags and the warning signs when a woman goes missing or has been murdered?”