It was a mild day in February 2018, Valentine’s Day, when Shailla Manitowabie made her way to 40 College St. in Toronto. Hundreds of people gathered under the pink granite pillars in front of the 12-storey headquarters of the Toronto Police Service on a busy downtown street in Canada’s largest city.

Manitowabie, who is Anishnaabe, was 23, fighting her way out of abuse, violence and exploitation that had enveloped her life for years. She had recently started college and found an apartment.

She hadn’t wanted to attend the annual Strawberry Ceremony, an event held every Feb. 14 to commemorate the thousands of Indigenous women and girls who are missing or have been murdered. In cities and communities from coast to coast, survivors, families and supporters share their stories, march and remember those who have been taken.

But Manitowabie’s mother had convinced her to go. She certainly didn’t plan to speak at it. She was shy, very quiet. And what had happened to her, she didn’t intend to tell anyone. “I planned to just keep it a secret forever,” she says. “I didn’t want to ever acknowledge it happened at all. That’s what I’d been doing, just burying it.”

But then her mom got up to speak about the weeks when Shailla was missing and the struggles the family faced afterward. No one knew what had happened to Shailla, and she heard people in the crowd scoff and suggest her mom wasn’t telling the truth. She wanted to protect her mom.

So without thinking, she got up in front of everyone, took the mic in trembling hands, and, through tears, told her story about going missing, revealed she was trafficked as a teenager and shared the multitude of traumas and violence she had survived.

Afterward, people came up and thanked her. One woman said the same thing had happened to her niece; another said the same thing had happened to her. Someone gave her a T-shirt that read, “Silence no more.” The crowd marched to a feast, where everyone stood to honour survivors and their families. “It was a powerful moment that I’ll never forget,” she says.

That was the moment when Manitowabie found her voice.

Thousands of Indigenous women and girls are missing or have been murdered in Canada, part of what a recent national inquiry defined as a genocide. While the RCMP puts the number at about 1,200 in reports released in 2014 and 2015 — the first time the national police force counted; no one has since — advocacy groups estimate it is far higher.

“The normalization of violence against Indigenous women is really ingrained in, unfortunately, our Canadian society,” says Cora McGuire-Cyrette. “We have to unpack that.” #MMIWG

The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, a key election promise of Justin Trudeau’s Liberals in 2015, held hearings and collected evidence across the country from 2016 to 2019.

Its final report, Reclaiming Power and Place, concluded the vastly disproportionate rate of violence against Indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA people is a result of “persistent and deliberate human and Indigenous rights violations and abuses” and ongoing colonialism and colonization baked deep into nearly every facet of Canadian institutions, governments and systems.

The commission issued 231 Calls for Justice, recommendations to stop the violence, that require action from every level of Canadian society: governments, educational institutions, media, businesses, individuals.

But in the nearly three years since the report’s release, progress has been slow to non-existent. A national action plan, one of the final report’s key recommendations, was released a year late in June 2021 and widely criticized by Indigenous organizations and advocates for failing to “provide the comprehensive, system-wide, inter-governmental plan that is needed to end genocide,” noted the Ontario Native Women’s Association in a press release.

“There is no commitment for urgent emergency services to prevent the abuse, exploitation, disappearances and murders of Indigenous women and girls; nor is there a monitoring mechanism — independent of the government of Canada — to monitor the urgent end to genocide.”

Cora McGuire-Cyrette, the executive director of the association, says Ontario has made some positive strides. The province created the Indigenous Women’s Advisory Council, which McGuire-Cyrette co-chairs, to advise the government on its response to the recommendations.

In May 2021, Ontario released a government-wide strategy, dubbed Pathways to Safety. The province did a good job of working with Indigenous women and communities, she says, and recently launched an anti-human trafficking strategy and ended birth alerts, the practice of hospitals and social services flagging soon-to-be parents as unfit and resulting in newborns being apprehended by social workers. Birth alerts target Indigenous people at vastly disproportionate rates and are the subject of numerous lawsuits across Canada.

But more is needed: substantial investment in violence prevention and healing, community safety, leadership, education, supportive services and crisis intervention.

“The normalization of violence against Indigenous women is really ingrained in, unfortunately, our Canadian society,” says McGuire-Cyrette. “We have to unpack that.”

Cora McGuire-Cyrette is the executive director of the Ontario Native Women's Association. Photo courtesy of ONWA

Ongoing public pressure can help keep the issue at the forefront and is a responsibility of all Canadians, says McGuire-Cyrette. “It’s not just an Indigenous women’s issue,” she says. “This is everyone’s issue, and we would like to see this on everyone’s agenda and political platform.”

Suze Morrison, the provincial NDP critic for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, says the Ford government isn’t interested in supporting women period, let alone Indigenous women.

“One of their first moves when they came into office in 2018 was to cut the planned funding increase for rape crisis centres by 33 per cent,” says Morrison. “We’ve got a government that can’t get its head around supporting non-Indigenous women. You add an intersectional layer [and] that increases Indigenous women’s vulnerability to violence and higher rates of violence — they’re going to be more impacted.”

Suze Morrison, Ontario NDP critic for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, says the government needs to provide the necessary funding to improve safety. Photo courtesy of Suze Morrison

The provincial cabinet doesn’t have a dedicated minister for Indigenous affairs, she says, and has stalled for years on implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. There are also no Indigenous members of cabinet and Morrison says the current government displays a “shocking” lack of cultural competency.

“I’m constantly having to stand up in the legislature and remind government members of perhaps some culturally insensitive language that they’re using — really basic stuff like that,” she says.

“It’s been frustrating. I would argue, not only are they not necessarily making progress on the calls for justice, but they’re also actively making life harder for Indigenous women.”

Morrison points to economic hardships brought by the pandemic, the lack of cleaning drinking water in many Indigenous communities, ongoing gaps in pay between women and men, Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

While the Pathways to Safety strategy might look good on paper, she says, it all depends on whether the government shows up with the money needed to make changes.

Failure to follow through on recommendations is something Mantiowabie and other advocates have seen time and again over the years. After speaking at the Strawberry Ceremony in 2018, Shailla got involved in the National Inquiry, travelling the country to take part in hearings and advisory groups. She reported her traffickers to the police. She became a speaker and advocate. She now works with youth to help them overcome the same kinds of barriers and trauma she has faced.

In June 2019, when it was time to present the final report and Calls for Justice to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, it was Mantiowabie who was chosen to hand it to him.

She climbed on the stage at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, heart pounding, sweating from nerves. She said to the prime minister, “Make sure you do something.”

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