HIGHWAY 17, ONTARIO – Evan Pitawanakwat is too shy for an interview, but the placard he carries speaks volumes for him. It says simply, “Help me protect mom and sister.”
The only male in his household, the burden is heavy on his six-year-old shoulders. But unfortunately, it is reality.
“I brought my children here today so that they can gain awareness of how times are changing, and as Native people, how they need to stand up all across Canada. … Change needs to happen for these kids,” Evan’s mom, Ashley Pitawanakwat, says. “I encourage them to be strong in who they are, to have no shame. I try to raise them to have strength and pride in who they are, and to not let anyone take that from them. That’s about all we have.”
Evan and his nine-year-old sister, Grace, along with their cousin Katryna Debassing-Bebonang, also nine, accompanied Pitawanakwat to a small but mighty gathering that took place on Friday at the crossroads of highways 6 and 17.
Civil action is in Pitawanakwat’s blood – her father was active during the 2006 land reclamation protests at the Six Nations reserve near Caledonia.
“That’s a big part of my upbringing – to always stand up for your people, unified. If everybody got together, the outcome would be amazing,” she says, adding she is worried that First Nations voices in Canada remain silenced, despite protests, inquiries and RCMP reports.
Part of the broader Idle No More movement, Friday’s event was organized by the Manitoulin chapter of the United Urban Warrior Society to protest against the federal government’s inaction on solving the murders and disappearances of Aboriginal women.
“It’s a very shameful thing it had to come to a third inquiry, which was requested by a lot of our people. It’s not going to stop. (Stephen) Harper just doesn’t want to sit down and actually recognize that it’s an ongoing thing,” Armando Wemigwans, from Wikwemikong Unceded reserve, contends. “It’s going to get worse before it gets better, but I remain hopeful this will come to a close.”
For Wemigwans, who has two children of his own, including a nine-year-old daughter, rallying on behalf of missing and murdered women is personal.
“I’m trying to remain positive and to teach my kids there’s more to life than what the government has done to our people; it’s very shameful,” he says. “My daughter keeps asking me if things will be better in 10 or 20 years. I keep telling her I don’t know. I’m just grateful my children have the opportunity and the right to stand up and say, ‘ok, enough’s enough’.”
Standing at the frigid intersection, Wemigwans does not recall all the names of women from the island who have gone missing, but says there have been “countless.” He cites at least 15 women from Wikwemikong and two from Manitowaning who have disappeared without a trace.
Closer to home, there is the sad and repugnant case of Virginia May Nootchtai, originally from Atikameksheng Anishnawbek, whose dismembered body was found in a Toronto rooming house in 1988. Where First Nations women are concerned, there is a long legacy of hurt, trauma and deplorable indifference.
A 2014 report published by the RCMP indicates 1,181 First Nations women have disappeared or been killed since 1980. Although they constitute only 4.3% of the Canadian population, Aboriginal women account for 16% of female homicides.
Izzy Pangowish, who heads the local chapter of the United Urban Warrior Society, points out there are other issues to consider. Friday’s event was most definitely a call to action aimed at drawing attention to Canada’s murdered and missing women. But Pangowish says participants were also protesting Bill C-51, the anti-terrorism bill that critics say will curb civil liberties; Bill C-45, which undermines waterway protection and environmental assessment processes, and catapulted the Idle No More movement in late 2012; and Bill C-46, which regulates pipelines and reinforces polluter-pays principles.
“There are a lot of First Nations people who are scared; they don’t really understand everything that’s going on and what will be happening,” Pangowish says. “Pretty soon, there could be no reserves; there’ll only be municipalities. … We are not going to give up and we are not going to be quiet.”
The Shut Down Canada day aimed to paralyze the economy for 24 hours and to stall the capitalist system organizers say has created mass inequity and has led to the disintegration of Aboriginal cultures across the country.
“This government blatantly oppresses Indigenous peoples in a calculated effort to create dysfunction within communities to maintain control of the land and exploitation of natural resources,” states the Facebook page created for Friday’s event. “The rape and destruction of our mother earth is another facet of the ongoing genocide, which holds no prejudice, affecting all children of the earth. We are all directly affected by ecocide.”
The peaceful protestors at Hwy 17 on Friday stopped traffic for five minutes every hour. Not a major disruption, but enough time to invite idle drivers the time to reflect on Idle No More.
“It’s shameful that half these people out here driving by don’t realize that what we’re doing is a good thing, not a bad thing,” Wemigwans concludes.
Originally published on Feb. 14, 2015 in The Sudbury Star