TORONTO – February 14th, 2015 marks the tenth annual Strawberry Ceremony in which some 1500 people gathered in front of Toronto Police Headquarters, to honour and mourn the loss of their loved ones, murdered and missing indigenous women and girls.
The ceremony lasted just over an hour, and was followed by a march in the bitterly cold downtown core of Toronto. Thousands of people huddled together while each person received one strawberry and a cup of water.
The organizing group says: “We recognize that February is out of season for a ceremony involving strawberries, but the violence we are experiencing is also a disruption in our traditional ways of life.”
Elder Wanda Whitebird has often led the ceremony and did so again this year, honouring the strawberry for carrying her seeds on the outside and water as the source of all life.
At this event, relatives of MMIW are given a platform to share their stories and speak about the women that they miss, love and grieve for. Beautiful songs, like Strong Woman and Missing You by Whitefish Jrs, were sung throughout the ceremony and during the march across College Street and up Yonge Street.
During the march Drummers and Flag carriers led followed by some jingle dress dancers and masses of people displaying signs of women’s names and/or demands for a national inquiry and acknowledgment.
The day ended at the YMCA for a community feast prepared by Na Me Res, Native Men’s Residence in Toronto.
Relatives of MMIW have been gathering in Vancouver for the last 25 years. The original ceremony began with one family whose daughter was brutally murdered on Powell Street in Vancouver.
All across Turtle Island vigils and marches for these women have been held ever since, and increasingly so in the last decade. In Toronto, the early gatherings began with 50 or so people and the group/campaign motto, ‘No More Silence’.
The phrase was born to signify that no longer would people involved stay silent about the alarming rate of MMIW, often downplayed by the mainstream media and government officials. Over the years, No More Silence has put forth huge community building efforts, along with Sisters in Spirit to create a database documenting violent deaths of Indigenous women and Two Spirited/Trans people.
The annual ceremony, march and community feast afterwards have always been held on what is known as Valentine’s Day.
Each year the event gains more endorsers, climbing to well over 150 now, from small community groups like No One is Illegal to major institutions like the University of Toronto.
Organizers now have the relief of receiving financial support to accommodate the large crowd, and worked hard to host wonderful fundraisers, benefit art shows and beautiful events over the years for this issue.
Audrey Hunltey, a co-founder of No More silence, has been a backbone of this event, noting to CBC reporters that this issue is finally getting some media attention after over 25 years of community organizing.
“We come together to hold ceremony and to provide a place for family members to find some support, and to grieve together and publicly mourn. We have to do that because unfortunately there has been a huge societal indifference to this issue. So family members who are devastated by the loss of their loved ones, have their grief compounded by the trouble they have in getting help or assistance. For example when they go to the police and they receive racist responses instead of support.”
Huntley added “I think it’s important to look at government complicity in this. The RCMP say that most of the cases are solved, but that’s not true. We need to look at the legislation that is in part responsible for making indigenous women vulnerable, like the Indian act, and we need to look at the poverty that our communities face and address those issues immediately.”