Carrie and Zoong, among other protesters. All photos by the author.
Last Wednesday, a group made up almost entirely of aboriginal mothers, conducted their second railway blockade in association with Idle No More, on the CN line in Toronto. The demonstration is a part of a larger trend of protest across Canada, in direct response to the Conservative government’s refusal to launch an inquiry into over 800 missing and murdered aboriginal women. The Conservative government’s inquiry denial comes in the face of pressure from provincial governments and the UN.
Last week’s blockade in Toronto was originally organized through Facebook as an “Emergency Vigil,” but last minute organizers meandered up Spadina Avenue to Dupont, spilling onto the CN tracks, to block five trains for about four hours in a raging blizzard. The crew of around 20 sang songs, gave speeches, and attached a bouquet of flowers to a locomotive’s cowcatcher. Police eventually made their way to the scene, but they allowed protestors to leave on their own time, which proved to be a powerful contrast to the militant police response, which was marred with arrests at a rail blockade in Belleville a few days earlier.
Shawn Brant, the media spokesperson for the blockade in Belleville, was held overnight and fed potentially rancid McDonalds by the OPP—an allegation that the police force denies. Mischief charges against Shawn are still pending.
John Fox, who attended the Toronto blockade, was also arrested at the Belleville demonstration while he was ceremonially laying down tobacco for his daughter, Cheyenne, who was mysteriously found dead at the bottom of a high rise apartment building in Toronto last year after an alleged altercation. Police dismissed her death as a suicide—a charge that John and the Fox family blatantly disagree with. They suspect murder. After his arrest in Belleville, John was released once the blockaders dispersed.
In addition to these two rail blockades, a community rally was held in St Catharine’s, Ontario on Saturday the 15th. Over 150 people came out to march on Conservative MP Rick Dykstra's office and lay purple flowers in honor of missing and murdered indigenous women. Rick Dykstra was apparently out of town when the protest went down, but he issued this statement defending the government’s reluctance to launch an inquiry:
"An inquiry will solve nothing. There have been 40 noted and completed studies, none of which have impacted the issue. What has begun to help is tougher legislation for convicted felons and specific legislation to protect aboriginal women, like having matrimonial rights on reserves, which by the way, the opposition voted against… Will a public inquiry mean more aboriginal girls will get an education? Will it stop the incidents of fetal alcohol syndrome? Not one bit. We have invested in education, we've signed more treaty deals and for the first time, women have equal rights on reserves."
Earlier this month in the nation’s capital, a group of 100 gathered on Parliament Hill to demand an inquiry, while also memorializing Lauretta Saunders, a student who was found dead in the midst of her research into Canada’s missing and murdered aboriginal women. Rallies and marches have also gone down in Victoria, Montreal, Winn ipeg, and Regina. On March 22, the Grassroots Committee-Ontario is calling for nationwide highway and rail blockades, ceremonies, and MP office sit-ins.
I spoke to Zoong Deh Kwe, one of the Anishnawbe mothers from Toronto, about what brought her out to protest the government, and blockade the train tracks: “The OPP went in there [Belleville Blockade] on International Woman’s Day and stopped the warriors from standing up for the women. I think the police and Harper made a definite statement that was anti-women, especially anti-Aboriginal women. They wanted to make sure that no one was going to stand up for our women, so that’s why as women we have to make sure that we take a stand, too."
Beside Zoong was Carrie Lester, a Mohawk Onondaga mother who gave me this statement while standing in front of a line up of locomotives: “We demand a public inquiry into the missing and murdered aboriginal women of Canada. 825 lives gone, that would equate to over 70,000 non-native women going missing. If 70,000 is a big number, so is 825. We need an inquiry that’s going to take us beyond that Pickton inquiry. Only 3 of the 65 recommendations that came out of that inquiry were ever looked into. We need to have faith that an inquiry will go though and find those perpetrators, no matter what office, station, or occupation they hold. They need to be held accountable.”
Carrie is referring to the failure of British Columbia’s Missing Women Commission of Inquiry in the aftermath of serial killer Robert Pickton’s infamous pig farm atrocity. The report did at least succeed in pointing out that The RCMP and Vancouver police had both been receiving tips that the Pickton farm was responsible for the rash of disappearances, hinting that the law enforcement bodies were reluctant to investigate because the victims were drug users and sex workers. It was announced yesterday that the Province of BC and the City of Vancouver will pay out $50,000 to each child whose mother was killed in the Pickton massacre.
The largely inadequate BC inquiry raises the question: If a national inquiry were ever launched, would it even be successful? Perhaps if the police and government spent more time investigating the deaths of aboriginal women, and less time arresting those who speak up about them, we might not be in this terrible situation in the first place.