The 27th annual Downtown Eastside Women’s Memorial March brought hundreds to walk together to remember missing and murdered loved ones on Wednesday, February 14 — Valentine’s Day.
The first event, held in 1992, was in response to the murder of Cheryl Ann Joe, a Coast Salish woman killed on Powell Street in Vancouver. Every year since, the march continues to be a place where people can come together to remember and honour the lives of the missing and murdered women of the Downtown Eastside (DTES).
It also works as a platform for change and justice for the women of the DTES, especially Indigenous women, who are forced to live in fear while dealing with ongoing violence and adversity.
While the march is first and foremost “an opportunity to come together to grieve the loss of our beloved sisters,” as is stated in the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre’s February newsletter, it also provides a platform for DTES women, their families, friends, supporters and the entire community to showcase how unsatisfied they are by the state of the area and its growing list of missing and murdered women.
Evelyne Youngchief is a family member, survivor, witness in the Pickton trial. Families of the Heart, which she created two years ago, she describes as, “a coalition of people who will speak for the ones who can’t, for the ones who are no longer with us, the ones who are too shy to speak and the ones who are still under addiction.”
While every march is emotionally challenging, she knows this year is going to be difficult due to the ongoing fentanyl crisis.
“It’s going to be a really, really hard one because of the fentanyl crisis and all the women, and men, we have lost,” Youngchief says. “It’s going to be extra heart wrenching this year.”
She is also concerned because the National Inquiry in Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls has now set its dates in Vancouver for early April, when her organization was under the impression it would be happening in September, later this year.
“It comes at a really bad time, it’s a blow,” Youngchief says. “It’s not enough time and they aren’t even including (Vancouver Island).”
She works at Atira Property Management, a social enterprise who donates all its profits to the Atira Women’s Resource Society. The society funds transition housing and services for women and children who have left abusive families. Through her work and her history, Youngchief is extremely attached to the DTES community, and feels its losses deeply.
“I don’t know the current count, I’ve lost track. I remember there was one week where we lost six women in one week, that we all personally knew,” she says, of the vast number of fentanyl deaths the DTES has seen over the last two years.
While herself, other members of the march, and the DTES community want to shine a light on this event, she says it has been a struggle dealing with the media in past years. As a guardian for the march, Youngchief acts as security for the proceedings and works to keep media away from the families, elders and the traditional medicine that they use for smudging the sites that they visit along the march.
“I’m trying so hard to stay positive,” Youngchief says about the way the media interacts on the day of the event and the stories they choose to tell. She wants the women, their families and the people working every day to make the DTES better and safer to be the focus. She feels they are the most important part of the story.
Sarah Siska, attending the march as a member of the First Nations Studies Student Association, is there in support of the DTES women. She feels that Vancouver as a whole hasn’t cared, and hasn’t valued, these women as human beings because of the racist and sexist lenses they use to view the women of the DTES.
“This march is an act of remembering and honouring, but it’s also important to remember that attending the march is an act of witnessing,” Siska says. “For people like me, white settler women, attending the march is not about us. It’s an opportunity to listen to the women of the community, rather than continue the systems that silence them.”
She also feels that there is a current trend in Vancouver, and similar cities, where people are participating in these types of rallies for the wrong reasons.
“In cities like Vancouver where activism is nearing the mainstream, there’s a trend for protests and marches to be seen as ‘fun’ ways to pass the time,” she says. “Opportunities to snap a picture for some good old social capital on social media. This is not one of those marches.”
Myrna Cranmer, a long-time activist who spent 25 years on the streets of the DTES, would love to say that things are getting better, but they’re not. She’s saddened to know that this march, and others like it, will be going on for years and years to come.
“So, we keep marching and we’re still marching,” says Cranmer. “The train wreck continues and we keep marching, and while all that continues women are still going missing and women are still being killed, and in the Downtown Eastside women are still being ignored to death.”
Cranmer, who works tirelessly on the DTES, specifically at the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre, knows this isn’t just a Vancouver issue, or a B.C. issue.
“Women are going missing everywhere,” she says. “In big cities, in Winnipeg, in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Thunder Bay… what a horrific story. People have known about all of these horrible, horrible things for years and we’re not keeping an eye on it.”
The city of Thunder Bay, Ont. has been dealing with unsolved cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women for almost 30 years, stemming from what many believe to be alleged systemic racism throughout the Thunder Bay Police Service.
In Saskatchewan earlier this week we saw a similar example of injustice. The trial of Gerald Stanley has caused an upset throughout Canada, when an all-white jury ruled Stanley not guilty in the murder of Colten Boushie, a 22-year-old Red Pheasant First Nation member who was shot by Stanley in 2016.
These issues are nationwide and need to be addressed in so many Canadian communities. Over the years marches have been held in other cities like Toronto, Montreal, Saskatoon, Calgary, Thunder Bay and many more. There have also been marches in the United States, in Denver, Fargo and Minneapolis. This year similar marches are hitting smaller communities like Terrace, Penticton and Courtenay, in rural B.C.
When Cranmer reflects on what these marches mean to her, and the women of the Downtown Eastside she says, “it’s very important, because they know it could’ve been them. And it still might be.”
Caitlin O’Flanagan is a writer and editor who is passionate about telling people's stories. Born and based in Vancouver, B.C., she has a strong connection to the area and works to tell the stories of her community. Caitlin is a Langara Journalism graduate who loves sports, music and reading.
Photo: Mathew Kagis/Facebook
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