For 10 years, participants in the Honouring Our Sisters and Brothers Memorial Walk have gathered in Prince Albert to call for more action from senior levels of government against violence affecting First Nations people.
Thursday’s march featured the long-standing, yet-to-be fulfilled call for a federal inquiry into the issue of missing and murdered aboriginal women. The marchers made stops at four locations to pay their respects to a victim of violence at each place. They then made their way through the slowly dissipating rain to the Senator Allan Bird Memorial Centre where they would honour missing Regina-area girl Tamra Keepness.
But along the way, one recent victim of violence weighed heavily on the marchers: Marlene Darlene Bird.
Family of the 47-year-old Montreal Lake woman took part in the late morning march. Bird was seriously injured in an attack that left her with serious burns, which resulted in a double amputation and numerous skin grafts. She also sustained facial injuries requiring reconstructive surgery. She is now recovering in Edmonton’s University of Alberta Hospital, and is breathing on her own without the aid of life support.
Her aunt, Lorna Thiessen, was on-hand for the walk and said she knows there needs to be awareness about the violence happening worldwide and in Prince Albert.
“People need to know that, so it’s not a little blurb on page 20 of your newspaper just once. They need to know the atrocity that went on during that time, and people need to know that it can happen to anybody at any time.”
She’s taken part in walks similar to this one in the past and is hoping this march accomplishes a number of things. Among them, she sees more attention paid to legislation, safety procedures and even what is lacking in cities like Prince Albert.
“For individual people, family people, it’ll help by saying ‘hey, listen, let’s teach people how to be safe.’ Let’s bring in some sort of a cab company or a program where people walking after midnight, they’re leaving somewhere, and you know they’re inebriated, let’s call in somebody. Let’s call in somebody to help them, or let’s call them in, so somebody could, RCMP or city police could pick them up and give them a hand.”
She wasn’t alone in calling for action from senior levels of government against violence in the community.
Mayor Greg Dionne said the issue is not just a Prince Albert problem; it has become a nation’s problem.
“We’ve talked long enough,” he said. “It’s time to take action.”
Dionne plans to apply “political will” over the next year to press the federal government to address the issue of violence in the community nationally.
The mayor said he fears what happened to Bird could happen to others. “But it could happen in any community and that’s what frightens me. It could happen on a reserve. So we have to all work together to prevent it.”
He too, knew Marlene Bird and spoke of her independence. “I think she felt that’s the only thing she had left was her independence … But she did feel safe on our streets. And I want everyone to know you can feel safe on our streets. That this incident happened, it could have happened anywhere.”
It’s also crime that the Prince Albert Police Service has set aside an unlimited amount of resources for and has tapped other law enforcement agencies and national crime labs to help solve. An arrest has yet to be made in the case.
Prior to the walk’s start, the Montreal Lake Cree Nation Chief Edward Henderson announced the Prince Albert Grand Council would put up a $2,000 reward for information that could solve the case.
The reward was made on the behalf of Bird’s family. Additionally, he announced a trust account would be set up at RBC that the public could donate funds to in support of Marlene Bird.
The night before the walk, he spoke with Bird’s family members. He went to visit Bird in hospital last week and said it saddened him.
“There are many Marlene’s out there yet. Do we take the time to say ‘hello?’ Do you take the time to say ‘how are you?’ Or do you walk across the street and walk by her.”
Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) first vice-chief Kimberly Jonathan said the walk began in the wake of a federal report that highlighted nine case studies of aboriginal women who were the victims of violence in Western Canada. Four of those cases involved women from Saskatchewan.
Late Thursday afternoon, she issued a statement calling on the federal government to hear calls for action on violence against indigenous women. She also called on the Prince Albert Police Service to handle the investigation into Bird’s attack with the “utmost urgency and diligence.”
“There must be justice served for Marlene Bird. We all play an important role in preventing and putting a stop to the violence.”
The next step, according to Thiessen, is for people at the grassroots level to start asking how to make places like Prince Albert safer.
Thiessen spoke at the second stop on the walk, where she laid down roses at the Margo Fournier Center, where her niece was discovered after the June 1 assault.
She told the crowd Bird was from the small community of Molanosa, Sask., went to residential school at the age of six and went into foster care after that. She said Bird didn’t have the support system to continue on and just struggled.
“It’s sad to say, Marlene was victimized in so many different ways all her life.”
Bird was among a number of people that were honoured at the memorial walk.
At the first stop, the Prince Albert Provincial Courthouse, the marchers recognized Montreal Lake Cree Nation man John Bird.
John Bird, 51, was walking along the side of a road on the First Nation in 2011 when he was struck by a vehicle and killed. The driver of the vehicle has never been caught and has not come forward.
His sister, Sherry Naytowhow, said he was a fun-loving, friendly man. “Still sad today,” she said.
She paused as she teared up when she described her brother. She said he didn’t have any enemies.
“It affected us a lot,” she said about his death. “I hardly talk to my family nowadays because of the memories.” She said the walk is making them come together.
Naytowhow said in the time since her brother’s death, the family has been trying and looking for justice, but there hasn’t been any. “And that’s what we need—closure. To find who did that.”
Other marchers taking part honoured relatives affected by violence in their own way.
Julianne Naytowhow carried a poster with her brother, Aaron Halkett’s, photo. She braved the rain with the children of her late brother’s wife.
Halkett was killed in a house fire that was deliberately set.
“It hurt, yeah,” she said. “It affected all of us really harsh. But, still here.”
Victims of violence honoured during the walk
-John Bird was honoured at the first stop at the Prince Albert Provincial Court.
-Marlene Bird was honoured at the second stop at the Margo Fournier Center.
-Jack St. Pierre was honoured at the third stop at the Court of Queen’s Bench.
-Denise McLeod was honoured at the fourth stop at Kinsmen Park.
-Tamra Keepness was honoured at the last stop at the Senator Allan Bird Memorial Centre.
On Twitter: @thiajames
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