It’s everyone’s job to end the MMIWG crisis, proponents say – and here’s how

Lorelei Williams founded Butterflies In Spirit, a group that dances in honor of missing and murdered Indigenous women.  (Photo courtesy of Lorelei Williams / Enter-Tribal - photo credit)

Lorelei Williams founded Butterflies In Spirit, a group that dances in honor of missing and murdered Indigenous women. (Photo courtesy of Lorelei Williams / Enter-Tribal – photo credit)

WARNING: This story contains disturbing details.

Lorelei Williams is exhausted.

The Coast Salish woman has been on the front lines of the crisis surrounding missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Vancouver since 2012 when she founded Butterflies in Spirit to raise awareness of the issue.

Williams also knows firsthand the impact of the crisis. Her aunt Belinda Williams went missing in 1978 and her cousin Tanya Holyk was killed by Robert Pickton in 1996.

Today, Williams’ commitment has shifted from raising awareness through dance to supporting families of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and people of two souls in any way possible. This includes organizing rallies, being with families when they speak to the police, searching for missing loved ones and holding candlelight vigils when someone is found dead.

“This is my life now,” Williams said Unreservedly Hostess Rosanna Deerchild

Despite her work over the past decade and the attention the crisis has garnered from the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, Williams feels like nothing is changing.

The past year has been difficult for Indigenous communities – particularly in Manitoba and British Columbia. In December, Winnipeg police charged a man with first-degree murder in the deaths of four Indigenous women: Morgan Beatrice Harris, Marcedes Myran, Rebecca Contois and Buffalo Woman, whom police could not identify.

Families in Vancouver are mourning the loss of Chelsea Poorman, Tatyanna Harrison and Noelle O’Soup, all of whose bodies were found in 2022.

Submitted by Cambria Harris, Donna Bartlett and Darryl Contois

Submitted by Cambria Harris, Donna Bartlett and Darryl Contois

“I feel like we’re doing as much as we can to be heard. I keep saying the same things,” Williams noted. “I feel like I’m always banging my head against the wall. Why can’t we make these changes? What do we have to do?”

The final report of the National Inquiry was released in 2019 and considers violence against Indigenous women, girls and people of different genders to be genocide. According to the research, Indigenous women and girls are 16 times more likely to be murdered or disappear than white women.

As a document of over 1,000 pages and more than 200 calls for justice — changes needed to be made in many areas of Canadian society, the study says, if the crisis is to end — tackling the problem can seem like a daunting task to get.

But people like Williams, who have been studying the issue for years, say there are many things Canadians can do to weather the crisis and help them with the heavy lifting. And proponents say it’s not just governments and institutions like the police that need to make changes. It is the responsibility of all Canadians to take these steps.

CLOCK | MMIWG is a national emergency, proponents say:

“It starts with everyone”

“I don’t think Canadians in Canada can say, ‘Not my job,’ can they? Because it’s everyone’s job,” said Karine Duhamel.

“Whether you’re a teller at the bank, or you work at a dollarama, or … you’re a teacher, or you’re in government, you’re always able to create good relationship-building moments to create healing encounters. “

Duhamel, a member of the Red Rock First Nation of northwestern Ontario, is the former research director of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and authored the investigation’s final report.

“There is just so much people can do. I just always encourage people to stretch their imaginations about what’s helpful,” continued Duhamel. “This problem … is over 500 years in the making and it will take a lot to undo what has been done, but it starts with everyone taking responsibility.”

First and foremost, she said, it’s important for non-Indigenous Canadians to learn about the issue. That doesn’t mean they have to memorize statistics, it means they have to learn about a missing or murdered person. Read the final report or find the stories of indigenous women, girls and people of different genders from other sources.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Non-Indigenous Canadians can support Indigenous businesses or restaurants, or purchase artwork or jewelry from an Indigenous artisan, she said.

They can also have some difficult conversations.

“Are there other people around you who you think could benefit from a little more knowledge on this subject?” asked Duhamel. “How can you advocate for the dignity of indigenous peoples and families and communities in your everyday conversations… by countering negative stereotypes and racism?”

Small, simple acts

Williams always suggested that people who want to help end violence against Indigenous women, girls and people of two souls show up at events and rallies and donate to Butterflies in Spirit and other organizations. And those actions are still valuable.

Today, however, she recognizes that people may not have the money to donate or the time to come to a rally. But they all have something to contribute, Williams said.

“Everyone has their own special gifts,” she explained. “If they want to help with posters or they are lawyers, they could support us in that way, because sometimes we need lawyers. Just everything.”

Tristan LeRudulier/CBC

Tristan LeRudulier/CBC

Both Williams and Bernadette Smith, who lives in Winnipeg, have seen people offering food to volunteers, advocates and families. Those kinds of small, simple actions can help people know that others care about them, Smith said.

Smith is the MLA for horseback riding at Point Douglas in the Manitoba State Legislature. Before working in politics, she campaigned for change on the MMIWG2S+ issue in Winnipeg and co-founded groups such as Drag the Red and the Coalition of Families of Missing and Murdered Women in Manitoba.

Like Williams, Smith has a personal connection to the crisis. Her sister Claudette Osborne disappeared in 2008. Osborne’s case remains open to this day.

In terms of simple actions anyone can take to end the crisis, Smith says there are many. Sharing messages on social media, donating to indigenous organizations and groups, and writing to political bodies are just a few.

From “Othering” to taking care of each other

And like Duhamel, Smith believes countering negative stereotypes is crucial to keeping Indigenous people safe and ending the plight of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

“We need to change that other attitude,” she said.

“We are targets. Every day we leave our homes and we shouldn’t have to worry about ourselves or our children,” Smith said. “Society needs to change … the way we treat and care for each other.”

Smith sees this in young people, which gives her some hope.

Jeff Stapleton/CBC

Jeff Stapleton/CBC

She recalls a recent visit to her former elementary school in Winnipeg, in a neighborhood of the city that is plagued by poverty. The students, who were a mix of Indigenous and non-Indigenous, brought up the recent news of the four murdered Indigenous women in the city and told their teacher they wanted to do something about it, Smith explained.

“They thought, ‘What can we do?’ … I wanted to read [during that visit, but] we spent the whole hour talking about these women [and] this problem,” she said.

“They probably went home and had a bigger conversation [with their parents] because they had many questions. And you know, I think it’s going to take that. A shift in our next generation.”

For immediate emotional support, call 1-844-413-6649. This is a national 24/7 toll-free emergency number providing assistance to anyone needing emotional support related to missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. You can also access long-term health support services such as psychological counseling and community-based cultural services through Indigenous Services Canada.


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