The faces of missing and murdered Indigenous women will not be forgotten
A conversation with one of Canada's most vocal advocates
Darryl Dyck/The Globe and Mail
Every day that Lorelei Williams looks in the mirror, she sees the missing aunt she is looking for.
“I look exactly like her and I heard a lot about her growing up,” she says. “She went missing before I was even born and then I was the next girl in the family.”
She started her dance company, Butterflies in Spirit, to raise awareness about Belinda Williams, the aunt who went missing in 1978, and her cousin Tanya Holyk, whose remains were found on serial killer Robert Pickton’s farm in 1996.
This time of year is a stark reminder of Tanya, who was born on Dec 8, 1975. A day before what would have been her 42nd birthday, Lorelei was named the winner of Samara Canada's 2017 Everyday Political Citizen award in the over-30 category for her fight to ensure missing and murdered Indigenous women are not cast aside, including her aunt.
“Anytime you Googled her name, there was nothing, so I had to find a way to raise awareness myself,” she says. “We wore t-shirts with a photo of the missing and murdered women on it, to get their faces out there. At the end of the dance, if they were missing, the dancers would stay sitting up so you could see the shirt, but if they had been murdered, they laid on the ground and were covered by a white sheet. It looked like a bunch of dead bodies in the middle of the intersection of Georgia and Granville. That’s how we sent the first message that this is a huge issue in our country.”
To date, her group has staged over 70 awareness-raising performances for organizations such as Amnesty International and Canada’s Assembly of First Nations. She is also the Women’s Coordinator at the Vancouver Aboriginal Community Policing Centre, working to build stronger relationships between the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) and Indigenous communities, and volunteers for the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Coalition in Vancouver.
Lorelei sat with us on our living room floor a few days before leaving to Toronto for the award ceremony (at which time she didn’t know she was going to win). This is what she told us.
What does it feel like to look like your missing aunt Belinda?
I almost feel like I’m connected to her somehow. When my mom was dying—it was during the Wally Oppal inquiry and five days before our first Butterflies in Spirit performance—I had to decide if I was going to go on with the show. I did because I knew how much it meant to her. Even when I visited her in the hospital in those last days, I would walk in and she said, “you look so much like your aunty Belinda.”
So, Belinda was never found and then Tanya was murdered?
And in both cases, when my family tried to report them missing, they were faced with racism from the Vancouver Police Department and RCMP.
How is it possible for you not to be full of anger?
I don’t know if it’s just my personality, but the way I express what I need to, I don’t think it comes out as angry. One time I saw myself on the news and I thought, 'I should be more angry about this, why am I not more angry?' Then my friend said, 'no, this is why people are listening to you.' I’m more hurt than angry. It’s just something my family has grown up with, violence against women. I know it well.
What’s your relationship like now with the VPD, is it changing given the things you’re doing?
My relationship is totally different. With our people, in general, it’s in our history not to trust the police since they were taking our children and throwing them in residential schools. They are the ones who were physically and sexually abusing our women, across this country, even to this day. Part of my job is to try to build positive relationships between the community and the police, but if change is going to happen, it has to start from the inside. Police need to be held accountable for what they’re doing, because it’s really hard for women to come forward. Even look at the situation in Val-d'Or, Quebec when women came forward to say that 37 police were sexually and physically abusing them, and nothing happened.
How do you feel—and this is going a bit off-topic—about something like the #MeToo Movement where allegations against someone like Harvey Weinstein happened and all of sudden you have sexual assault being taken seriously, when Indigenous women have been speaking out about these problems forever and nothing has happened?
At first, I was like - oh wow, finally. Then I did some more research and found out it was all white women in the film industry. It’s good, I’m grateful. But, it should happen for Indigenous women as well. The Me Too campaign actually started ten years ago but nobody heard about it, probably because she was black. At least, that’s what I think because our women deal with that discrimination all the time.
Community organizer Tarana Burke founded the Me Too Movement in 2006, in order to spread awareness and understanding about sexual assault in underprivileged communities of colour. It was popularized in 2017 by singer/actress Alyssa Milano, as a means of addressing the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment in America. The celebrity posted on Twitter, asking people who had experienced sexual violence to reply “me too” to her tweet.
Besides trying to heal relationships between Indigenous women and the VPD, what else can be done?
I talk to police cadets in training and tell them about my experience as an intergenerational survivor. But it’s not just me who goes in. I go with residential school survivors, intergenerational survivors, and First Nations police officers who are intergenerational survivors as well. Canada needs to know our history, because it’s not taught in the school system. People have to stop saying 'get over it.' The last residential school was closed in 1996. We have to heal from all of those wounds.
You mentioned that because you look like your aunt Belinda, you carry her with you, in a way. Do you feel like you have a burden on your shoulders to do the work that you’re doing? Where do you find the strength to take all of this on?
I don’t think burden is the word. This has been put on my shoulders for a reason. I knew my aunt Belinda was missing and my cousin Tanya was missing and then murdered, but I didn’t realize how much of an issue it was until I started Butterflies in Spirit. The way I grew up, it was almost normal to be around violence...
Lorelei trails off for a moment, almost as if remembering something.
Sorry, what was the question?
Where do you find the strength to do what you’re doing?
It’s hard, but at the same time, in the moments when I want to give up, I think about how close I am to finding my missing aunt. I remember all of the missing and murdered Indigenous women. Plus, I have a daughter, and that helps me to keep going. I have to fight for her too. It’s not fair that she has to grow up in this kind of society. She’s 12 and she wants to go hang out with her friends and I keep bugging her to join self-defense classes because our women are targeted all the time.
Tell me about your first Butterflies in Spirit performance, what was that like?
I thought of Beyonce’s song, Who Run the World? and that it was such an empowering song and the women looked so strong dancing to it in the video. I put the word out, and what I didn’t realize was that other family members of missing and murdered women would want to join my group, along with others, to represent their loved ones. We made up our own dance and we were able to incorporate the medicine wheel colours into our performance.
We blocked out the busy streets in Vancouver during the Wally Oppal inquiry, and we danced.
When my mom passed away, I had the worst anxiety and I had no idea what an anxiety attack even was. But during that performance, it went away. I realized how powerful dance actually is, because as soon as we were done, it came right back.
Do you believe that your mom is with you through this?
Oh yes; my mom, my brother—I have a little brother who passed away in 2008—my missing aunt and my cousin Tanya.
You have a lot of guardian angels. Do you notice when they show up?
There are signs, for sure. I never knew about all of this stuff until I lost so many close family members. I also took a course on Aboriginal Focusing Oriented Therapy on Complex Trauma and that’s when I realized more about the spirituality aspect of it. During that trauma course, it was actually told to me that it’s not just my family, it’s all the other missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls, who are standing with me too.
What are your next few steps going forward?
I want to finish school. I was on my way to a Bachelor’s Degree of Tourism Business Management before all of this. I still have healing to do. I was sexually abused as a child, and just the atmosphere I grew up in, there was so much trauma. It’s a lot of work to heal. I’ve been lucky that through dance, the trauma course, and my work, I’ve been able to learn about my culture, which I didn’t know much about because it was taken away from my mom who was put in a residential school. Anything I learned, was when my mom was drinking, so I became ashamed of my own culture.
Wait, anything you learned was when your mom was drinking?
If she was dancing around and singing our songs or saying some words, it would only come out when she was drinking. She was drinking all the time, so I grew up in an alcoholic household.
So, there was something in her that would only come out if she was drinking?
Yes. Whenever she spoke her language or tried to sing our people’s song in residential schools, I don’t know what would happen, but it wasn’t good. It took me a long time to realize why he drank, and it was to numb all that pain. I was able to express that to her when she was dying. I told her it was okay and I understood why she drank. It was because of her drinking that she died. When she passed away, I blamed the government for killing my mom. But after talking to my lawyer, I didn’t think there was anything that could be done. But it was the government who took her away from me, because they were the ones who made the laws, stole the children from their parents, and put them in schools.
It’s like the whole system was working against you.
And they still are. It’s still happening. That’s why our women are missing and murdered because police officers across the country aren’t taking cases seriously. Slowly, slowly, slowly, some things are changing.
What is your hope? And 'hope' is different than 'plan', because I know you have plans for what you want to do next, but what is your hope for how it will all turn out?
The main one is for women to stop going missing and being murdered, and for there to be no violence against women and girls in this world. I have to start with my community first. Butterflies in Spirit just went to Colombia to perform at a peace event and we ended up meeting up with powerful women’s groups out there; they shared their stories with us and we shared Canada’s brutal history with them.
How do you think women can come together to create change?
People need to show up to events and rallies because just being there and being supportive says a lot. You can get educated on Canada’s history and meet people. It’s not hard to do. Just show up.