“We have nothing more to lose. That which was most precious to us—our mothers, our daughters, our sisters, our grandmothers—has already been taken from us.”
Her mother Gladys died after being hit by a Sûreté du Québec police car in 2001. The police and coroner investigations that followed had several problems, and left Tolley with no confidence in systems she has described as having failed First Nations for generations.
Through the Sisters in Spirit project, Tolley found that her experience was not unique.
Sisters in Spirit was established by the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) in 2005 with an aim to “address the root causes, circumstances and trends of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls.” Information on missing and murdered Aboriginal women was compiled in a complex database, providing invaluable statistics on the violence and illuminating a national crisis that has received shockingly little redress.
When defunded by the Conservative government in 2010, Sisters in Spirit had documented 582 cases of missing or murdered Aboriginal women. The project emphasized that “Aboriginal women continue to be the most at risk group in Canada for issues related to violence, and continue to experience complex issues linked to intergenerational impacts of colonization, particularly those resulting from residential schools and the child welfare system.” The project’s supporters have argued that it was defunded because it often focused on the complicity of the justice system, all levels of law enforcement, and news makers in ensuring that cases of missing and murdered Aboriginal women across the country were systematically deprioritized .
The Spirit Rising
Recently, the Sisters in Spirit project has been renewed at a grassroots level as Families of Sisters in Spirit and relocated to an office at Ottawa’s Coalition to End Violence Against Women. Families of Sisters in Spirit is not connected to the NWAC and picks up where the original project left off. Project volunteers, including Tolley, say it fills an information void, as police do not track numbers of missing and murdered Aboriginal women.
“It’s so sad because I post these pictures of missing girls almost every day,” Tolley told the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network. “But very rarely I post anything about [cases] being solved.”
The work of anti-violence groups is often hampered by limited resources. But for Families of Sisters in Spirit, having no funding is an advantage, according to volunteer Kristen Gilchrist. “We don’t fear the punitive nature of the government,” she said.
The Spirit Illuminated
I lit a virtual candle to honour the missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls. And to remember that Aboriginal women and girls suffer violence—gendered, racialized, colonial violence—at rates that are hard to comprehend. To remember that they go missing and aren’t found. To remember that they are murdered and the cases aren’t solved. To remember that they are assaulted and keep on surviving as best they can with limited supports. To remember that they are carrying a high HIV burden and that to change this, the violence has to stop.
The NWAC noted in a Sisters in Spirit report that the entrenched nature of interpersonal violence against women in Canadian society, and the colonial strategy of dehumanizing and undermining Aboriginal women, make it difficult to uproot the violence against Aboriginal women and girls. But it can be done:
Ending violence against Aboriginal women and girls lies with both men and women, with both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities, as well as all levels of government. It ends with recognition, responsibility and cooperation. Violence against women ends with restoring the sacred position of Aboriginal women as teachers, healers and givers of life.