When Connie Greyeyes realized, to her horror, that she found it difficult to keep track of the aboriginal women in her life who disappeared or died by violence, she started a list.
At a forum in Dawson Ceek Wednesday, Greyeyes read a list of 14 names aloud for people gathered at the Nawican Friendship Centre.
"It's sickening," she said, "that I have to have a list of women in my life who are missing or have been murdered."
Greyeyes, a Fort St. John resident who touched off a recent Amnesty International study on violence against aboriginal women in Northeast B.C., was the keynote speaker at Giving Voice, a forum on stopping violence against aboriginal women and girls.
Trips to Ottawa to advocate for an inquiry on missing and murdered women put Greyeyes in touch with Amnesty International, who agreed to come study how resource development impacts vulnerable women in Fort St. John. The findings of that study will likely change how the issue of missing and murdered women — usually associated with the Highway of Tears and Vancouver's Downtown Eastside — is talked about in the province.
"We had a banner of missing and murdered women from Fort St. John that we kept adding to," she said of the Ottawa trips. "[Amnesty] took notice of that. For a human rights organization to come in and investigate your city, you're not doing something right."
The first phase of the Amnesty mission wrapped up this month, and researchers expect to return in August for more fact finding and interviews on First Nations reserves. A final report is expected before the end of the year.
The focus is on how large-scale resource development and transient populations impact aboriginal people, especially women. For Greyeyes, who is from the Bigstone Cree Nation in Alberta, those impacts have been a fact of life.
When she was 16 and living in Fort St. John, her friend Stacey Rogers disappeared.
"I feel like I owe it to her," she told the audience in Dawson Creek. "To make sure no one forgets this beautiful young lady who disappeared in the middle of the night and hasn't been heard from since."
Her parents both went to residential schools, and her father struggled with alcohol when Greyeyes was young. She was sexually abused by a neighbour as a child.
As she grew older, she became addicted to alcohol and cocaine. She decided to get clean in 2003, checking into the North Winds Healing Centre. During that time, her thoughts were on her sons Jordan and Jason, who are now 8 and 10.
"It was my responsibility to raise them to be good people, good strong men who don't hurt women," she said.
Greyeyes now volunteers at the Women's Resource Society, and recently started a support group called Women Warriors. Visits to parliament have made her a figure in the movement for a national inquiry. An RCMP report released last year found 1,186 women across Canada had gone missing or been murdered in the past 30 years. The oil patch gives the problem in the Peace Region its own character, she said—especially in the role money plays.
"I know a lot of women in financially abusive relationships—it's his money and [the women] just stay home with the kids," she said. "It's a big reason women stay in relationships when they shouldn't. I can't tell you how horrible it is to hear those stories."
At the end of this month, she will deliver a keynote at Amnesty's annual general meeting in Halifax. She sees it as an opportunity to raise the problem's profile in the Peace.
"It's the first time someone has added the tag 'human rights activist' to my name," she added with a laugh.
In all, Greyeyes read out 14 names Wednesday. They include Florence McLeod, Molly Apsassin, Annie Davis, Stacey Rogers, Ramona Shular, Shirley Cletheroe, Sandra Calahasen, Rene Gunning, Krystle Knott, Cynthia Maas, Pam Napoleon and Lynn Gauthier.