Solidarity walk raises awareness of missing and murdered aboriginal women

Matt Gardner
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Reports involving missing and murdered indigenous women have become a depressingly frequent staple of Canadian news.

But when Emil Bell saw a photo on Facebook of recently slain 15-year-old Tina Fontaine -- whose body was recovered from the Red River in Winnipeg last week -- something struck a nerve for the Cree elder.

“I saw the picture of Tina in Manitoba … and then it hit me,” Bell said. “Right about then I said, ‘Well, I’ve got do something about this.’

“We were quite busy fighting the tar sands,” he added. “But then I think this is also very important that we do get the federal government, (Prime Minister Stephen) Harper, to do something.”

On Thursday, Bell, 73, arrived in Prince Albert for the latest stop in his 400-kilometre solidarity walk to raise awareness of missing and murdered aboriginal women and to promote the need for a public inquiry.

Since he set off from his home community of Beauval on Tuesday, Bell’s journey has taken him from Green Lake to Big River to P.A.

Scheduled to begin making his way to Saskatoon on Friday, Bell plans to arrive in the city by 3 p.m. for the last leg of the walk, which will begin at Avenue P and 20th Street before moving down to Friendship Park for a pipe ceremony and open forum that will allow the families of missing and murdered women to share their stories.

Thus far, Bell said, response to his solidarity walk has been solid.

“The interest is very encouraging, and more and more people are getting involved to do something about this whole issue,” he said. “This is a very horrific issue.”

Underscoring Bell’s point is the Prince Albert RCMP’s ongoing search for Little Red River First Nation resident Mavis Bird, who was last seen on Aug. 21.

Besides drawing attention to the sheer number of missing and murdered women in Canada, many walk supporters had sharp criticism for what they saw as the Harper government’s neglect of the issue.

One of Bell’s local supporters, longtime activist Frances Buchan, singled out the prime minister’s response to the death of Fontaine.

“The fact that Harper has taken the position he has … saying it was only a crime, it’s not part of a bigger concern … I don’t have words for how ignorant that is, because it’s obviously something that has been occurring in our society for far too long,” Buchan said.

Referencing a homemade sign, she noted, “That’s why I’ve been talking about ‘solidarity for the sisters’ -- because each woman that an atrocity happens to is somebody’s sister, their mother, their aunt, their cousin, their daughter.

The interest is very encouraging, and more and more people are getting involved to do something ... This is a very horrific issue. Emil Bell

“They’re real people with real lives, and when a society does not honour and respect and protect the women, then it is not a healthy society.”

Walking alongside Bell on Thursday, Buchan carried a petition requesting that the Canadian government immediately launch a national public inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women.

Another source of support at Bell’s P.A. stop was the presence of local drumming group ThunderingSky.

“We really wanted to show our appreciation for what they’re doing in the walk,” group member Tyler Sakebow said. “I believe personally that there should be an inquiry into the missing and murdered aboriginal girls.”

Playing music at such an event, Sakebow noted, had the benefit of offering “good vibes” for the assembled crowd.

“It helps bring peace and comfort to some people,” he said. “So that’s what we hope to provide.”

During his stop in P.A., Bell led supporters through the downtown area to City Hall, where he offered further remarks to the crowd.

Besides Bell’s walk, his daughter and her husband have set out on their own cross-Canada walk from British Columbia to raise awareness of the issue.

Given the positive response thus far, walk organizers are hoping that the cause will eventually make its way south of the border.

“We are hoping that this news will go into the States as well,” Bell said. “We’ve been pumping information out there to some of my friends in the Lakota country in South Dakota, so more than likely they will take it up up there.”

Though one of the aims of the walk is to generate support for a public inquiry, Bell believed the growing pressure of public opinion would force Harper’s hand sooner or later.

“Whether he changes his mind or not, he’s going to get forced into it,” the elder said.

Bell stressed that while the walk revolves around missing and murdered indigenous women in particular, its concerns apply equally to people of all backgrounds.

“We should be looking at the whole issue against women on equal footing, regardless of the colour,” Bell said. “That’s the way I look at it.”

Organizations: Cross-Canada

Geographic location: Prince Albert RCMP, Winnipeg, Manitoba Beauval Green Lake Big River Saskatoon 20th Street Friendship Park Canada British Columbia Lakota South Dakota

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