Families of Sisters in Spirit is a new grassroots, volunteer and non-profit organization led by families of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls in Canada.
Cendrine Marrouat: Hello Kristen, thank you for answering my questions. As a starter, tell us a little bit about you.
Kristen Gilchrist: I’m a community activist in Ottawa in addition to being a full time PhD student (in Sociology) at Carleton University. I am also a survivor of violence. I am non-Aboriginal myself but a large part of my mother’s family are Native so I feel connected to the issue of violence on many different levels.
CM: Families of Sisters in Spirit is the result of your partnership with Bridget Tolley. How did you two meet?
KG: I met Bridget a few years ago, three years ago I believe, when we were both scheduled to appear on the same panel entitled “Why Missing?” put on by the Carleton University Womyn’s Centre. I was there to speak about my past research on media stereotyping of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls and Bridget was there to speak about her experiences of losing her mother and her subsequent journey for justice. Immediately after the panel, Bridget came up to me and gave me a big hug and thanked me for being there. She was so open and supportive. We became instant friends. I hope that I have also been open and supportive of her these past years. I think we are a great team, as we bring out the best in each other. We garner strength from one another and from other family members who’ve welcomed the work we are doing.
CM: Is there a particular event that triggered your desire to create the organization?
KG: At the end of 2010, when it became clear that Sisters in Spirit (NWAC’s groundbreaking initiative) was essentially being dismantled, there was a need to act. There were rumours of staff layoffs and some minor press about SIS having to change their name to Evidence to Action and it did not sit well with Bridget. She had been used to very open lines of communication with SIS staff (especially during Bev Jacbobs’ tenure as President of NWAC) and as silence built from within NWAC/SIS, it was obvious that in order to keep the work going that it would need to be taken up at the grassroots level and directed by families. It was Bridget’s idea from the get-go and I offered myself up as support (using my skills of research, writing, speaking, etc) to help in any way possible.
CM: What type of events do you organize to educate Canadians about the issue of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls?
KG: We think visibility and awareness are so important, especially for families who must deal with their loss every day outside of public view. So we try to bring the stories of the families and the faces of the women to the public, often also to the politicians on Parliament Hill to remind them that actions taken are completely inadequate and decisions are being made in the absence of those most affected—Aboriginal families and communities.
On February 14, 2011, to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the Vancouver Memorial March for women in the Downtown Eastside, Families of Sisters in Spirit held our first ‘Day of Justice’ rally on Parliament Hill. We brought in families from Ontario, Quebec, and even as far away as Burnt Church, New Brunswick, to tell their stories and struggles for justice. We made beautiful colourful signs, white armbands, and invited volunteers to each hold a letter on the Hill that spelled out JUSTICE FOR FAMILIES! A number of opposition MPs were also on hand to speak and to show support for families.
On March 18th, the McGill Human Rights Law Commission (I think that’s their name) invited Families of SIS to join their ‘shoe statement’ vigil on Parliament Hill. The purpose of the vigil was to present a real symbol of the missing and murdered women to demonstrate the depth of the crisis of violence against Aboriginal women and girls. Upwards of 500 pairs of shoes were donated from women in Montreal and Ottawa and laid out on the steps of the Hill (the shoes were subsequently donated to women’s shelters). Along with Amnesty International who were also invited to speak out, there was Bridget, myself, and Maria Jacko, aunt of Maisy Odjick who is missing with her friend Shannon Alexander since Sept. 2008, and Sue Martin, mother of Terrie Ann Dauphinais, whose murder remains unsolved after 9 years.
On April 28th, Families of SIS held a memorial vigil on Victoria Island to mark the 9-year anniversary of the unsolved murder of Terrie Ann Dauphinais, who was murdered in her home outside Calgary. (Her mother Sue Martin who is also a founding family member of Families of SIS joined us from London).
That same evening we held a feast in memory of the missing and murdered that also featured a keynote speech from Bev Jacobs (flown in from Calgary), a founder of Families of SIS, and from Paul Dewar the NDP MP for Ottawa Centre. There was fabulous entertainment, including young singing star Aurora Finkle and her father David, drumming and hoop dancing, a tribute song to Kelly Morrisseau who was murdered in Gatineau (unsolved) in Dec. 2006, and other performances from local Aboriginal singers and artists.
On July 4th, Bridget and I presented about Families of Sisters in Spirit at the international Women’s Worlds conference in Ottawa and also included a table of materials and photos of the missing and murdered at the Indigenous Feminisms Rocks event that evening.
We also do TV, radio, and print interviews, and other community panels whenever asked to ensure that the word is always out there and that families know they are not alone.
End of part 1.
Cendrine Marrouat may be contacted for potential interviews, reviews and general enquiries at [email protected]
Official website: http://www.cendrinemarrouat.com