Several thousand people — some beating drums, some singing and others carrying photographs of deceased friends and relatives — turned the Downtown Eastside into a walking memorial Tuesday.
Starting at Main and Hastings and winding its way through Gastown and other parts of the community, the 27th annual Women’s Memorial March attracted indigenous leaders, social workers, activists, children, politicians and police officers to walk in memory of Downtown Eastside women who lost their lives to violence, poverty and illness.
“I’m feeling very sad this year because there seems to be an overwhelming amount of women who have died,” said Carol Martin, one of the march’s organizers, in a news conference at the Carnegie community centre prior to the march. “My heart is really heavy today. I walked this walk for many, many years and you think something is going to change.”
Myrna Cranmer, who also spoke at the news conference, said she was tired of adding more women’s names to the annual list of those who have died in the Downtown Eastside. She and Martin were among a group of women who said racism, poverty, domestic violence and trauma brought on by residential schools and the resulting dependence on drugs and alcohol has led to the growing number of deaths; in 1997, there were 136 women on the list and that has grown to 879.
“And those are just the names of the women I have access to,” said Cranmer, noting the opioid drug overdose crisis has also contributed to the death toll. “My heart hurts because we don’t know what to do. All we can do is be here for our women.”
Jerry Adams, executive director of Circle of Eagles transition house for Aboriginal men leaving prison, participated in Tuesday’s march. He told the Courier as he walked through Gastown that as a former social worker he worked with some of the women who were murdered more than a decade ago by serial killer Robert Pickton.
“It’s hard to be part of [the march] because it brings back so many memories,” said Adams, noting the women were kids when he knew them. He added that he couldn’t foresee a day when the march will no longer be necessary. “Not the way our country is. We’ve got so much work to do, as far as healing ourselves and taking care of one another. It’s going to take us a while to do that.”
Police Chief Adam Palmer participated in the march and was joined by more than 30 officers, all in plain clothes. He has been a regular at the march for more than six years, with this year being his second as chief.
Over the years, the department has made efforts to better its relationship with the Aboriginal community and Downtown Eastside residents, including creating a program with women called “Sisterwatch” to prevent predators from stalking vulnerable residents.
“So many tragedies have happened in the community, so many people are mourning, so many people are still healing and I think it’s important that we’re building those relationships,” said the chief as he walked along Water Street. “We should be working together.”
Mayor Gregor Robertson, who stopped at Alexander and Main streets to speak to the Courier, described the march as a “hugely important cause in Vancouver.” Robertson likened the event to Remembrance Day.
“The history is horrific and we can’t forget it,” the mayor said. “In the same way we have Remembrance Day, losing so many women and girls has to be something we vigilantly remember and fight for change on. Every year it gets bigger and stronger, which is heartening.”
The march began 27 years ago after a woman was found murdered on Powell Street. The march’s route includes stops at sites where women died or were last seen. The federal government has agreed to hold a national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. The inquiry follows on the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry in Vancouver, which was launched in 2010 and concluded in 2012.