Some say the tragic death of Tina Fontaine helped spark the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
But well before the Manitoba teenager’s short life, the groundwork was being laid on the mean streets of Vancouver.
“To go into areas where I say, ‘Is where even angels fear to tread,’” said veteran local MMIWG advocate Bernie Williams.
It was the murders of her mother and three sisters in the notorious Downtown Eastside – a poor neighbourhood home to many Indigenous people living off reserve – that prompted Williams to join the cause she is still fighting for.
“Women were going missing back in the late 1970s when it fell on deaf ears,” she said as the inquiry kicked off five days of hearings in the suburb of Richmond. “It took a long hard fight.”
There has been a lot of blood and tears shed, Williams said, to get the country to pay attention to why so much violence is directed at Indigenous women.
And the goal wouldn’t have been realized without the work of local activists and leaders like Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations Shawn Atleo, now-federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, and friend and mentor Gladys Radek, she added.
“They opened the doors for us to come through,” said Williams. “Then the movement started to move.”
With Radek and Phillip looking on, Williams addressed the opening day crowd. She admitted it was a bittersweet homecoming that caused her a few sleepless nights.
After all, for all their success in raising awareness, the West Coast still has a sad record of dealing with crimes again Indigenous women, including the botched police investigation into serial killer Robert Pickton.
“(Wally) Oppal was a nice man,” said Jamie Lee Hamilton, a transgender activist who was among the first witnesses Wednesday.
Oppal, a former B.C. judge and attorney general, presided over the post-Pickton Missing Women Commission of Inquiry in 2012. He produced 65 recommendations to counter what he called “systemic bias” by police towards missing Indigenous women.
But Hamilton, who was an expert witness at the Oppal inquiry, said many of Oppal’s recommendations remain unfulfilled. Even though she said the bias still exists.
“Women and girls and young men in the sex trade won’t turn to the police…there’s lack of trust.”
Hamilton, who said she was born to a First Nation woman and Irish father, clutched an eagle feather as she testified before Commissioner Marion Buller. She said police harassed her for sex when she worked the street and one on-duty officer took it by force, abandoning her in a park to walk home in the middle of the night.
She said she was threatened with arrest if she didn’t comply and alleged police officers continue to extort sexual favours from others this way.