by Nicole Oliver
“The strawberry represents love, courage, and women,” explained Wanda Whitebird in Toronto at the 9th Annual Strawberry Ceremony Honoring Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and those who have died violent deaths by colonialism in ‘Canada.’
“Over 600 strawberries and cups of water were handed out,” Audrey Huntley of No More Silence posted on the Strawberry Ceremony Facebook event page.
The Toronto ceremony took place February 14 outside the Police Headquarters in downtown Toronto. From coast to coast, other communities also gathered to mourn and remember beloved sisters, daughters, mothers, and grandmothers who have gone missing or have been murdered in recent decades.
“We stand together on this day to show our solidarity with the community of the downtown eastside in Vancouver where the Memorial March has been taking place for 23 years and because the violence is here too and inherent to settler colonialism”, Huntley shared with BASICS.
Indigenous women are five to seven times more likely than other women to die as the result of violence, cites Canadian government statistics. Still officers of the colonial state, including the police, have a track record of over-persecuting and under-protecting indigenous women. In Canada, Onkwehon:we (original) peoples make up four per cent of the population, yet First Nations, Inuit and Metis women account for 32.6 per cent of the inmates in the federal prison system.
Blu, the event’s emcee, shared with those gathered at College and Bay that “when my Kohkom [grandmother] was murdered – her life was taken and this took something away from me, my family members, from people in my community”. When describing how healing and solutions to end the violence requires the collective efforts of community members, Blu stated, “we ask the men to help, to stand beside us, to support us as we are a community and a community involves everybody”.
Tobacco ties were handed out to participants as the Strawberry Ceremony progressed into a march from Toronto Police Headquarters to the 519 Church Street Community Centre. As an indigenous medicine, tobacco is seen as a plant responsible for acting as a medium for communication with the Creator, with its smoke seen as lifting prayers to the Creator to be heard. When offering tobacco in ceremony it signifies that those involved are to be of one heart, one mind, and one spirit moving forward with the same purpose. Those who took the tobacco ties were asked to “tie them in a place where they will be seen, so that those who come will know that someone has been there before representing not a closing, but a beginning” explained Whitebird.
John Fox, father of Cheyenne Fox, led the march of over 200 community members to 519 Church. Cheyenne Fox of the Sheguiandah First Nation died at the age of 20 in April 2013 after mysteriously and tragically falling from a 24-storey condo in Toronto. After only 8-hours police had ruled the death a suicide. John Fox has been vigilant in pressuring the police to look further into the death of his daughter.
Michelle Schell, an Ojibwe woman, shared with BASICS, “I was staying at a Native women’s shelter and I heard a story of a woman who was raped in the backyard…I later found out that this was Cheyenne Fox. The fact remains that she was harmed in a place where she was supposed to be safe. So it’s not just a question of whether she jumped from that balcony or whether she was pushed, but I cannot help but wonder had she not left that place because obviously she did not feel safe after what happened, if things might have happened differently. Either way she may not have found herself in the position of being on that balcony”.
Schell’s insight into Cheyenne’s death speaks to the continued systemic failings that indigenous women are continually subjected to by service providers and agencies set up by the Canadian colonial government.
Since last year’s ceremony, Toronto has seen the unresolved violent deaths of three indigenous women – Cheyenne Fox, Terra Gardner, and Bella Laboucan McLean.
As the march carried forward to the beat of hand drums and songful voices, major intersections were occupied by those who came out to honor the lives lived and the loved ones of indigenous sisters no longer with us. Before partaking in a community feast prepared by the men of NaMeRes, a round dance took place at the intersection of Church and Wellesley. Schell told BASICS that the Strawberry Ceremony is held in front of Toronto Police Headquarters because “it’s symbolic… to make it visible and to let people know that they have failed in so many cases and that they just don’t seem to care”.
Native hip-hop artist Young Jibwe (Cameron Monkman) of Lake Manitoba First Nation created a song featuring Robbie Madsen entitled “Come Home” to raise awareness about Missing and Murdered indigenous women of Turtle island. Young Jibwe was in attendance at the Feb 14 event in Toronto and he told BASICS that “I want to show my respect to the missing and murdered women and acknowledge my cousin Unice Ophelia Crow. She was murdered in Winnipeg in August. She was 19. She was stabbed multiple times on her upper body. I came out to shine light on that. I feel people need to know who she was. She was a great person. It’s just sad that community loses great people”.
In discussing where the solutions to end the violence will come from Schell told BASICS, “I think the answers will come from the community itself; whether it’s an indigenous issue or not we have to stop relying on the government…obviously they don’t listen, obviously they don’t do anything … they keep saying there’s no money, we don’t have it, so we have to look to ourselves to organize.”