By Jorge Antonio Vallejos
I have been attending the “Women Won’t Forget” vigil for the 14 women killed in the Montreal Massacre in 1989 for seven years. I started going because I’m opposed to violence against women but also to bring attention to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in the land now known as Canada.
“Women Won’t Forget”, and the hundreds of vigils held across the country every December 6 since 1989, forgot they were on Indigenous land and forgot about the thousands of Indigenous women murdered or gone missing.
To be clear, systemic isms and phobias are the reasons many different women were, and are, left out of the countrywide vigils: Indigenous, Of Colour, Sex Worker, Transgender… Because of this I made and carry the yellow sign you see above in the banner of my website.
Things have gotten better. Indigenous women now open the vigil with a smudge, teaching, and songs. And the epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women is talked about.
In the last seven years I have missed one vigil (2012) to participate in a Candlelit Conversation about December 6th at York University alongside Zaianab Amadahy and Kim Katrin Milan. What I have noticed since 2007 is numbers in attendance going down drastically. And it’s not because of the weather. This past Saturday, the 25th Anniversary, saw the lowest numbers in my short history of attendance even though it was a warm night. Many people were wearing vests, and many jackets were unzipped. Still, there was a maximum of 100 people.
In 2007, my first vigil, there were close to 300 people braving the cold: shivering, teeth chattering, and standing in solidarity to challenge violence again women and remember women no longer here because of violence. I remember standing with a group from the Centre for Women and Trans People University of Toronto that night. We huddled close together, held signs and lit candles, listened, and remained spiritually and mentally present although our bodies wanted to leave.
What happened to this strong presence? What happened to those numbers? What happened to the solidarity?
It’s more than low numbers that made this Saturday, the 25th anniversary, a disappointment. It was sad to see phobias and isms still in play: racism, sex work phobia and a total erasure of Trans women (via no mention throughout the vigil) minus my yellow sign.
Two speakers, Angel Wolfe (daughter of Brenda Wolfe, one of the many woman murdered by Robert Picton) and Katarina McLeod (a survivor of forced sex work and violence that came with it) spoke against sex work and Toronto organizations who support sex work. Wolfe’s and McLeod’s stories are true and they have the right to tell them. But with no mention of Trans women all night (Trans women experience violence 6x more than cis gendered women, especially Trans women of colour), and no voice for sex workers who view the trade differently than Wolfe and McLeod, I felt like I was at a right wing conservative “Focus on the Family” conference and not a vigil.
When names of women murdered in Ontario in 2014 were read two sex workers were mentioned: Evelyn Burmatay Castillo and a woman’s name who I could not catch, my apologies. Their work was described respectfully: “service provider”, “services”, and “sex work”. Whoever wrote their descriptions chose to see their work as positive and not make negative assumptions as is commonly the case.
Adding to the transphobia, racism came into play in different forms. The first being a white man (who I will not name so as not to give him any publicity) invited to sing on the mic. Him being white was not the problem; it was his lyrics and not checking his white privilege. Poorly rapping about women of colour who experienced violence and his plans to save them with his fists launched at their attackers, the tirade was another “The White Man Saves the Day” performance.
When did the vigil become about stopping violence with violence? When did the vigil become about men saving women, in particular white men saving women of colour?
One angry vigil attendee said, “Where did his Jamaican accent come from? He got on the mic and introduced himself in his regular voice and then all of a sudden he turned Jamaican!”
That in itself was racist. Was there an accent used during the song not original to the performer? Yes. But to label all non-white accents (put on or not) as Jamaican was racist.
Her critique of racism was racist.
And the racism continued.
Accurately, and angrily pointing out that the names of the 14 women murdered in 1989 were not read out loud (yes, you read correctly), the same attendee, a white woman, wanted to take the mic and say their names. At this point several Native women had started drumming. “Lets grab the mic before they start singing!” said the attendee. The disconnect between white and Indigenous cultures was on display. To her, no lyrics meant no song. And white women were more important than Indigenous women.
The song was in play, lyrics or not. And a white person, any person, had no right to disrupt.
“This is Indigenous land. Respect the drummers and singers,” I said four times. She stood their livid.
The entire vigil lasted just under 35 minutes; very short compared to years prior. The intro, two speakers, a racist rap, naming of the women murdered in 2014, forgetting to name the 14 women killed in 1989, an outro and the night was done!
I asked one of the organizers why the event was so short. She explained that traffic and TTC complications stopped performers Renee Ashanta Henry and Charmie Deller from coming. Although some members of the Raging Grannies were there they did not perform.
I’m glad the vigil happened. I’m not glad about some of the incidents that happened.
My yellow sign is old, creased, and taped up. It’s time to throw it out and make a new one; one that has all the women previously listed with “Sex Workers” added. I’ll bring that sign next year and do my best to forget this years vigil.