I chose to spend a portion of Mother’s Day this year participating in the Sisters in Spirit walk that honours and remembers missing and murdered Indigenous women.
It was a holy thing to walk slowly and reverently with several hundred women, men, elders, children and youth through Winnipeg’s downtown; to absorb the drumming, dancing and singing; to hear the speeches and the prayers at the gathering place. This witness of remembrance for lives lost or vanished, this call for an end to violence – it was sacred space.
As I walked, the reasons for my being there became clear.
Solidarity – I wanted to stand with the Indigenous people in my community, people who have experienced the violent death or disappearance of a beloved mother, daughter, granddaughter, sister, auntie or friend. As a mother who has lost a child – my middle son died of cancer as an eight-year-old – I have a small window into the excruciating agony that families experience when a precious loved one is snatched away.
The reality of violence against Indigenous women in Canada is a travesty. Nearly 1200 Indigenous women have been murdered or gone missing since 1952.[i] This represents a rate nearly four times greater than the representation of Indigenous women in the Canadian population. One study indicates that the national homicide rate for Indigenous women is seven times higher than for non-Indigenous. Not only do Indigenous women experience a disproportionate amount of violence, the violence is also much more extreme.
Like many others, I want to stand with those who suffer from the violence and call for it to end. We must all work together to address the poverty, racism, marginalization and violence that makes so many Indigenous women statistics. Showing up with the Sisters in Spirit is one way to do that.
Resistance – I wanted to participate in this Mother’s Day community action because, to me, it is a powerful way of resisting all that is crass and commercial about Mother’s Day. One of the realities of our advanced capitalist system is that it commodifies everything it can – joy and happiness, peace and security, water and clean air.[ii] We see the most egregious examples of this at Christmas time, but it increasingly happens on Mother’s Day too.
At Mother’s Day we are programmed to again head to the mall to buy stuff – jewelry, clothing, electronics, appliances, spa visits, vacations and more – to show our mothers we love them. According to one source, Canadians were projected to spend $107 each on Mother’s Day, with an overall Canadian total close to $500 million. Many of us have bought into the lie that love is about buying and giving stuff, rather than expressing gratitude, compassion and caring.
Capitalism also teaches us that we are individuals – and only individuals. Our purpose in life is to seek our own personal gratification. Sure, if I buy a TV I will help to employ the people who built or sold the TV, but there is little in the capitalist agenda that promotes community. There is little inherent in capitalism that shapes us to work for the common good – to build just and caring communities.[iii]
The women who organize the Sisters in Spirit walk know that life is precisely about caring, compassion and community. Their actions are a wonderful act of resistance to the Mother’s Day of capitalist enterprise.
Recovery – Ever since I learned of the roots of Mother’s Day, I have longed for a recovery of its spirit and vision. According to at least one (if debated) tradition, the day has its origins in the work and proclamation of Julie Ward Howe, an American suffragist, writer and lecturer who lived from 1819 to 1910.
Moved by what she witnessed of both the U.S. Civil War and the Franco-Prussian wars, Howe issued her Appeal to womanhood throughout the world (later known as the Mother’s Day Proclamation) in 1870. The proclamation was a clarion call to women to condemn war, and to stop preparing their sons to kill the sons of other mothers. She understood that women – mothers, in particular – possess a special responsibility to build a world of peace.
The women of Sisters in Spirit hold a vision for Mother’s Day very much like Julia Ward Howe. They call people to mourn the murdered and missing, to acknowledge that all human lives are precious and deserve protection, and to work together to end violence against Indigenous women – indeed, against all life. Sisters in Spirit embrace a vision of justice, peace and healing. They embody the true spirit of Mother’s Day.
[i] This statistic, from the RCMP’s National Operational Review on Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women, has been challenged by various people, including Dr. Pam Palmater, a Mi’kmaw lawyer and professor at Ryerson University, who indicates that the number is likely much higher.
[ii] See Daniel M. Bell Jr., The Economy of Desire: Christianity and Capitalism in a Postmodern World (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), 105-109.
[iii] See Bell, 94-97.
By Esther Epp-Tiessen, public engagement coordinator for the Ottawa Office.