TW: This article contains mention of violence and abuse against Indigenous women and children.
Attendees toppled the Gassy Jack statue in downtown Vancouver during the 31st annual Women’s Memorial March as hundreds honoured the lives of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
The event started in 1992 after an Indigenous woman was murdered on Powell Street in Vancouver. Each year since, organizers have channelled their pain into a march on Valentine’s Day to “express compassion, community and caring for all women in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside on unceded Coast Salish territories,” according to the website.
Shortly after noon, the march started with elders in the lead, followed by drummers and then supporters and allies. There were scheduled stops along the way at locations where women had been murdered or were seen for the last time.
As the crowd reached Water Street and Carrall Street, marchers stopped at the Gassy Jack statue. Cutouts of red dresses representing missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls were placed around the figure.
Using ropes and power tools, people pulled the statue down from its pedestal. Marchers then threw paint on the statue and on the base where it once stood, and left the statue lying on the pavement.
As reported in The Tyee, Gassy Jack married Quahail-ya, a 12-year-old Squamish girl, and had a child with her around 1870. There have been calls to remove the statue since at least 2020 when Ubyssey Video Editor Josh McKenna started a petition for its removal.
The Squamish Nation wrote in a statement that it had previously come to an agreement with the city to remove the statue, but was concerned by the “unsafe actions taken at the March."
“The discussions were ongoing, focused on a culturally safe and respectful process that would bring dignity and healing to all involved,” the statement read.
In a statement of its own, the City of Vancouver said it will continue to work with the Squamish Nation “to identify appropriate next steps” and that it recognizes the pain and trauma associated with the Gassy Jack statue.
But, the City voiced disapproval towards the actions of the marchers.
“We stand in support of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression but do not condone vandalism of any kind.”
People could be heard saying “the Elders are waiting” to those crowded around the statue.
‘We're here today for our stolen women’
Before and after the march, family members gave speeches in honour of the lives of lost and missing Indigenous women. Hundreds of attendees gathered to listen under grey skies, in a sea of red clothing.
Speakers gave voice to the pain suffered from losing so many of their loved ones and the lack of action by the Canadian government to implement the calls to action outlined in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report. The speakers also spoke to the trauma and murder of Indigenous men and boys.
The National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls — which ended in June 2019 — found that the root causes of violence against Indigenous women in Canada were “persistent and deliberate human and Indigenous rights violations and abuses.”
“We are here today on the unceded territory of the Musqueam, Tsleil-Waututh, Squamish and Coast Salish who have taken care of this land since time immemorial,” said Alyson Bear, the third vice-chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations.
“This is a stolen land, and we're here today for our stolen women, and we need to continue to bring awareness to this.”
Another speaker, Krista Fox, said that she will walk across Canada for ten months, starting in Victoria on February 18. “Let me carry those voices of our brothers and sisters, who, although they were silenced, we as a people and as a nation will never be silenced,” she said.
The march was the first since hundreds of unmarked graves were discovered on the sites of former residential schools in summer 2021, including 215 Indigenous children’s graves recovered at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in BC.
The event was live-streamed for the second year in a row.
Josh McKenna, who is the video editor at The Ubyssey and creator of the 2020 petition to remove the Gassy Jack statue, was not involved in the writing of this article.