Winnipeg Free Press 09/7/2014
Heartened by hints of a national roundtable on missing and murdered aboriginal women and thrilled by some strong words from Winnipeg’s police chief, a peaceful protest camp in Memorial Park dissolved Saturday evening.
At its height, the two-week camp had as many as 50 tents, but only a handful remained at midday Saturday as many had already begun dismantling the makeshift village. A final feast and pipe ceremony were planned for Saturday evening.
“I’m pretty emotional about it,” said Chelsea Cardinal Saturday afternoon as she crafted moosehide medicine bags to give to key supporters.
But the mother and social work student said news the federal government is open to a roundtable discussion with premiers and indigenous leaders counts as a partial victory, enough to end the protest and take the fight to other fronts.
The women-led camp was set up in the aftermath of the death three weeks ago of Tina Fontaine, the 15-year-old found dumped in the Red River 10 days after she went missing.
A cluster of four tents grew quickly after Prime Minister Stephen Harper said on Aug. 21 Fontaine’s slaying, and the disappearance and deaths of 1,200 other indigenous women since 1980, were crimes with no deeper sociological causes.
“I was incensed,” said Cardinal. “How could he possibly say that in light of a 15-year-old girl being disposed of? I was angry, angry, angry.”
The tent village has since run on food donations from local social-service and student groups and allowed to continue relatively free from police or government pressure. Even the ManyFest beer tent moved a little farther down Broadway over the weekend so as not to disturb the camp.
Campers such as Cardinal say they would prefer a full-fledged national inquiry, but are hopeful a roundtable, whatever form that takes, will focus political attention on the problem. But Cardinal said real action is needed immediately to fix the child-welfare system that failed Fontaine and to deal with huge rates of sexual trauma and exploitation among indigenous women.
In Winnipeg Friday, following a committee meeting, police Chief Devon Clunis said the city ought to lead the way on the issue of missing and murdered aboriginal women, and indigenous Winnipeggers have faced historic marginalization that’s at the root of the epidemic of violence against women.
“I was so happy about that,” said Sandy Banman, one of the camp’s key organizers and a staffer at a local aboriginal women’s shelter. “He reached out his hand.”
The campers were less impressed with the views of some mayoral candidates, particularly Gord Steeves, the only candidate who failed to echo Clunis’s words Friday and who has repeatedly declined to speak to the issue of poverty and racism many indigenous Winnipeggers say is endemic.
“You tell Mr. Steeves he is more than welcome to come down here and talk with us,” said Cardinal.