Bernie Williams’s murdered family were “written off as just another Indian.”
How many Indians does it take to get a public inquiry into the cases of hundreds of missing and murdered indigenous women?
Fourteen indigenous women and men on a cross-Canada Walk 4 Justice are hoping their efforts - and heart-wrenching personal stories of lost loved ones and abuse - will be enough to convince the feds when they arrive in Ottawa next week.
Bernie Williams and Gladys Radek led the Walk 4 Justice out of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside on June 21. They arrived in Toronto Friday night (August 29) at First Nations House on Spadina, where a reception was held.
Resting on couches after a welcoming native ceremony and meal, the close group easily cracks jokes or breaks into tears. They've had their bad days on the road, when they feel afraid, when they're haunted by tragedies in their lives.
Several bear severe scars from losing family members to violence, others from their experiences in residential schools. All are making sacrifices to call attention to this ongoing human rights issue.
"Three-quarters of this group is not going home to a job," Williams points out. "A few of us will not have a home."
Williams's mother was found murdered on Vancouver's notorious Downtown Eastside, as were two of her sisters.
"They were written off as just another Indian," says Williams.
Radek's niece Tamara Chipman went missing in 2005 on a stretch of northern BC's "Highway of Tears," where so many other women have disappeared.
According to Radek, "The only reason the Highway of Tears got any notoriety is that one white tree-planter went missing. Then it was known across Canada. But Nicole Hoar [from Red Deer, who vanished along the highway in 2002] enabled us to speak out about it."
But little else has changed since Amnesty International intervened on behalf of indigenous women in 2004 and called out the federal government for its neglect of crimes against them. Indian Affairs stats show that indigenous women are five times more likely to die violently than other Canadian women.
According to that report, "Police in Canada have often failed to provide indigenous women with an adequate standard of protection. The resulting vulnerability of indigenous women has been exploited by indigenous and non-indigenous men to carry out acts of extreme brutality against them."
Mabel Todd, the Walk 4 Justice's oldest participant at 74, sheds a few tears. "In every province," she says, "we hear about murdered young girls."
It's not only indigenous women in high-risk activities like prostitution or hitchhiking who have met with violence.
Some, like Tashina General, who disappeared last January from Six Nations outside Brantford, were close to their families and learning about their native traditions. She was last seen at the Village Pizza in Ohsweken.
The investigation of General's disappearance and murder suggests that authories don't respond promptly to missing persons reports made by frantic native families.
Norma General, Tashina's grandmother, painfully recalls, "When my daughter called the police to report Tashina missing, they told her to wait and see if she shows up."
In the absence of official attention, grassroots organizations estimate more than 500 missing or murdered native women across the country.
"The hardest thing," says Elvis Wilson, who survived one of this country's worst residential schools, "is knowing all the people who died on some of these roads."
Communities and friends know whom they've lost.
Walk 4 Justice arrives on Parliament Hill September 15. walk4justice.piczo.com