Women walking together: conversation with Darlene R. Okemaysim-Sicotte

By Jacqueline Hansen, Amnesty International’s Major Campaigns and Women’s Human Rights Campaigner.

Iskwewuk E-wichiwitochik (Women Walking Together) is a grassroots network of activists established in Saskatchewan in 2005 to raise awareness about the human rights crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Iskwewuk members provide moral and direct support to family members of missing and murdered Indigenous women and collaborate with organizations working on violence prevention. Each year Iskwewuk organizes a Sisters in Spirit vigil on October 4th in Saskatoon, in addition to awareness-raising walks and other events to raise the public profile of violence against Indigenous women. Saskatoon-based Darlene R. Okemaysim-Sicotte is the co-chair of Iskwewuk and a long-time activist working to end violence against Indigenous women. She was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee medal in January 2013 in recognition of her community service. Follow Iskwewuk on Facebook

Amnesty International interviewed Darlene as part of a series marking the 10th anniversary of the Stolen Sisters report on violence against Indigenous women. We asked Darlene for her reflections on progress made and remaining challenges in making sure that there are No More Stolen Sisters. Here is what she had to say.

Ten years of inaction on violence against Indigenous women in Canada. What does this statement mean to you?

Struggle comes to mind. Frustration. Depression. What more can we do to engage more Members of Parliament to get on board to pressure the current government to do an national inquiry on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.

What progress have you seen over the last decade?

The progress is the increased awareness throughout the country, the task forces that were created and actioned on, in Saskatoon we have 3 missing persons liaisons that are based on missing Indigenous women’s files. Communities are doing their own thing to build monuments like in Winnipeg. Mikisew Cree Nation just announced they are doing their own database. It is those kinds of developments that we see, but there could be more done in terms of police sharing information from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Funds available to help families could be expanded.

How are you working to address violence against Indigenous women?

Collaborations with new projects like the REDress Project (red dress exhibit, traveling from campus to campus), Walking With Our Sisters (book chapter and vamp exhibit), and connecting to local Ariel Sallows chairs. Engaging and building rapport with the families, supporting their vigils, marches, searches, trials if need be. Remembering those who are missing and those missing-found-murdered, collaborating with like-minds and creating diverse ways that are not highly bureaucratic and dependant on government and municipalities to provide support.

What is the importance of families working together?

Families working together is important as it builds strength. They share tips on searches, work with justice personnel including victim services, judges, investigators, frontline police, media, etc. All these understandings can make for speedier work and put pressure on police services to not let too much time pass when searching and doing missing persons reports.

Are there things you think most Canadians don’t understand yet about the issue?

There are myths about the victims. They are given stereotypes and rigged research reports to point to the victims. They portray victims as poor, destitute, unloved, unvalued, and not worthy of having safety surround them like the rest of Canadian citizens. They don’t understand underlying factors such as residential schools, racism, sexism, the 60’s scoop, child welfare, foster parenting, and the loss of cultural connections.

What action would you like to see at the government level?

I would like the government to do a national inquiry, quit doing these special committees… and round tables. Families really need to have their own voice, something could be missed if they don’t give a chance for at least 300 families to speak to really, really have an impact similar to what the Royal Commission did back in the early 1990’s. They travelled and travelled and many recommendations were made – it will send a serious message to citizens to know the truth.

If you had a chance to speak directly to the government what would you say?

Let a national inquiry take place. Let it be supervised and overseen by a strong body of Indigenous families, Indigenous lawyers, Indigenous health care staff, Indigenous researchers, and Indigenous experts. Build on this by creating some legislation by indigenous MPs and governments.

What do you want to see ten years from now?

  • I would like to see half the yearly numbers of missing indigenous women.
  • Continue with building strategies, sharing, respect, and actions by national police bodies with each provincial chief or tribal councils.
  • Every police force have a missing persons liaison.
  • Have each tribal council have a search unit with mobile van units for searching.
  • Compensate families for loss of employment, income and healthy state of mind by providing adequate support as they do for workers comp, EI, etc.