Rene Gunning was a 19-year-old like any other.
Paige Wilde, 17, describes her as an “amazing” person: “She always made everybody laugh and smile. She was really outgoing.”
Gunning had travelled to the West Edmonton Mall, and the last thing her family heard, she was going to hitch a ride back. And six years later, in 2011, some travellers happened upon her skull and backbone.
Gunning – and a growing list of other women, particularly of First Nations heritage, who have been murdered or gone missing – were memorialized at the Fort St. John Sisters in Spirit Vigil last Friday.
About 60 marchers walked from the Fort St. John Native Friendship Centre to City Hall, carrying banners, one with photos of 12 such missing and murdered women.
Northeast B.C. has been linked to an unfortunate number of these cases in the pat. Most recently, Pamela Napoleon’s body was found in a burned out trapper’s cabin after a long search this summer.
While the event was also meant to commemorate women, some of the marchers also chose to highlight the case of Christopher Davis, a Blueberry River First Nations man whose body was found near Charlie Lake in 2013. (At the time, police described his death as drug-related.)
Many people who drove by gave support by honking, and one person in particular handed out water bottles to the marchers. For people like Wilde, it’s important that people like Gunning – the daughter of her mother’s boyfriend – are remembered.
“I find that a lot of time when they’re Aboriginal women, they’re just pushed aside and not shown a lot in the media. But when it’s white, they’re shown everywhere,” she said. “They’re just forgotten about. But they’re never forgotten to us. They’re still family with us.”
The issue also inspired a new event in Dawson Creek that took place last week. Walking For Justice: Remembering Our Missing and Murdered Sisters held its first vigil on Oct. 9.
Darys Larocque, an organizer, said RCMP escorted the 60-person procession from NAR Park down to 10 Street, then down 102 Avenue to the Nawican Friendship Centre, where a feast, drumming and a candle-lighting ceremony were held.
“It was a good turnout,” Larocque said.
Larocque said the event was put together in a very short amount of time after she found out that no vigil was planned for the Dawson Creek area to coincide with the Sisters in Spirit vigils that take place nationwide. “That’s where the ball got rolling,” she said.
Back in Fort St. John, Wilde and local Aboriginal activist Connie Greyeyes both spoke in front of City Hall about the dangers facing Aboriginal women.
“I don’t want to have to worry every weekend about my nieces going out and something happening to them because of the colour of their skin,” said Greyeyes. “It’s time to start demanding justice for our sisters, their families and our children.”
Greyeyes also turned some of her criticism to Fort St. John’s City Council. “You can see by the lack of any of our politicians in Fort St. John, this is how serious they take this,” she said.
(Councillor Larry Evans did join the march. He was the only councillor who attended.)
Afterwards, Greyeyes said she thought the march had a “good turnout.”
“Every year, there are new faces that come,” she said. “Look at how many young people are – young men, young girls. It’s going to have to start with them. It’s important to show them that you can use your voice, and eventually our voices will be heard.”
Greyeyes said that many of the people marching had a personal connection, and thus a major drive, towards the event.
“Probably most of the people you’re looking at right now have somebody in their life that is either missing or murdered,” she said. “Many of the women that have been missing or have been murdered, I had a friendship with – some way more than others.
“As a human being, I can’t see how this doesn’t affect everyone. This is such a small community, so to have this many deaths and missing women cases ... when people like this show up, there’s a sense of ‘somebody cares.’”