Smoke rose from a sacred fire into the early morning mist at Winnipeg’s Kildonan Park on Tuesday, as people gathered for a sunrise ceremony to mark the Oct. 4 National Day of Action in honour of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, two-spirit and gender-diverse people.
The sunrise ceremony took place at the Rainbow Butterfly warming hut — originally set up at The Forks and later moved to Kildonan Park — which represents the lives that have been taken, said Angela Lavallee, a community activist and co-creator of the hut.
“This [warming hut] is an honour to all the Indigenous women, girls, babies and two-spirited relatives who have transformed into spirit, and whose lives continue to change and inspire us all to create a new world that is worthy of our children,” Lavallee told CBC on Tuesday.
Words cannot capture the full experience of being inside the warming hut, she said, much like they fail to truly describe the gender-based and systemic violence that MMIWG2S face.
“Until you’re actually in it, will you ever really know?” Lavallee asked.
Posters displaying some of the 231 calls for justice from the final 2019 report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls were also placed on the grass outside the hut.
All Indigenous women and gender-diverse people encounter violence in different ways, Lavallee said, and the 231 calls represent that spectrum of experience.
She hopes Canadians will read the posters and find something they can personally do to promote safety.
“It starts from your heart first, right? Your heart, your home, your community, and then all of Canada. It’s just like that ripple of water,” she said.
At the ceremony, attendees wrote the names of friends and family who have been lost to violence on butterfly posters, before standing them up on the grass.
Lavallee’s grandson, Jay Lavallee-Constant, wrote the name of his sister Zaylynn Emerald Rain, who was killed in 2015. Lavallee says the cause of her grandchild’s death was deemed undetermined, and no further investigation was conducted by police.
“We are more than just numbers. We are mothers, we are grandmothers, we are children,” she said.
A day for education as well as remembrance
Several attendees of the ceremony also wore red dresses, which Lavallee says can take on different meanings depending on who wears it.
“The reason I wear [a red dress] is going to be different from the woman beside me,” she said.
The colour red symbolizes the spirit and sun dance ceremony for Indigenous people, said Lavallee, but the red dress can also represent bloodshed and the need to redress the MMIWG2S crisis.
A survey conducted by the Southern Chiefs’ Organization in 2021, which was open to all citizens of SCO member nations, found that the vast majority of respondents said they were related to, or were a friend of, a missing or murdered Indigenous person.
On Tuesday, SCO announced a new multimedia awareness campaign, which will draw attention to the ongoing MMIWG2S crisis through T-shirts, billboards and bus boards throughout southern Manitoba, according to a news release.
Southern Chiefs’ Grand Chief Jerry Daniels says he hopes the campaign will help people understand they have a personal responsibility to help address the crisis.
“I hope they feel that they have a role in this,” he told CBC in a Tuesday interview.
Sandra Delaronde is project lead for the MMIWG2S Implementation Committee, a Manitoba organization made up of survivors, family members, knowledge keepers, Indigenous organizations and governments.
She says the national day of action is an opportunity to honour and remember lost loved ones, but also to educate the public.
The fact that the government of Manitoba officially recognizes the event is especially important, said Delaronde, thanks to a motion by NDP MLA Nahanni Fontaine. But although the issue has received widespread support, the number missing and murdered people continues to rise.
“This is ongoing,” she told CBC. “Despite the national inquiry, there has been no change.”
There has been a lot of support from the community to address the MMIWG2S issue, according to Delaronde, but the government needs to start addressing more of the calls for justice.
Tuesday’s sunrise ceremony took place not far from the Red River, where the body of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine was found in 2014. Fontaine’s death was the catalyst for the national inquiry, but Delaronde says more still needs to be done to prevent cases like Tina’s.
“We still have not addressed the systemic issues that created the situation that ended Tina’s life,” she said.
She hopes survivors and their families take care of themselves, with the day of action coming on the heels of last Friday’s National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
“We’re constantly in a challenging situation, and I really hope that families and survivors take time to be gentle with themselves.”
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