The voice of Kwantlen First Nations member sesmélət cracked up at times as she spoke to a crowd gathered for the Red Dress Walk Friday about the epidemic of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls in North America.
“I will not stop talking about this,” she said.
The crowd of about 200 people included the family of Kristina Ward, who has been missing since 2017. The RCMP puts the number of missing and killed Indigenous women and girls at more than 1,000 (1980 to 2012) but the Native Women’s Association of Canada said the number is closer to 4,000.
Many, including the guest speaker, wore a red painted hand print over their mouths, a symbol of the violence that affects Indigenous women across the country and beyond.
After the speech by sesmélət, those in attendance walked from the Lower Fraser Valley Aboriginal Society office on Eastleigh Crescent through the downtown and back in the annual walk to raise awareness about murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people.
sesmélət (Fern Gabriel) spoke of the history of her people, who were a matrilinial society with governance handed down through the women’s lineages.
Since European settlement, the emphasis has been on wealth and property through patriarchal governance. She said patriarchy has a vested interest in keeping Indigenous people traumatized so their efforts have to go towards healing and not to stopping the destruction of nature.
“I’m talking about exploitation of the resources on the land,” she commented. “Capitalists, industrialists always wanted to make sure there was economic development. We’ve heard that all our life – economic development on the land and get the people working. Get the people working. Get the people working.”
She said that ignores the social and emotional well-being and physical safety of people. She urged those in power to use that power to make positive change so Indigenous women and men can be valued members of society.
“Langley needs to step up their game,” sesmélət urged.
She is pleased that the Canadian government has finally recognized there is a crisis of a missing and murdered Indigenous women. The roots of the crisis lie in the devaluation that starts when they are little. She noted that one in three Indigenous girls will be sexually assaulted before they are old enough to start school.
Indigenous women are 12 times more likely to go missing compared to women overall, she told the crowd.
She called on people from other cultures wanting to be allies to Indigenous women to be “real friends” by challenging racist behaviour and demanding action from those in power because Indigenous people can’t fight for justice alone.
“My knees aren’t that great anymore. I can’t stay in a fight anymore,” she joked. “I don’t know if you appreciate my sense of humour, but I know it’s dark, but if I don’t laugh, I’ll cry.”
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