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  • Indigenous protesters march before the start of a meeting between chiefs and Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Ottawa January 11, 2013.

    Indigenous protesters march before the start of a meeting between chiefs and Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Ottawa January 11, 2013. | Photo: Reuters

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As many as thousands of Indigenous women have been murdered or gone missing in Canada — a crisis finally being investigated with a national inquiry.

Hundreds of women marched Tuesday for the Annual Women’s Memorial March held on Valentine’s Day in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside to honor the memory of all women who have died due to physical, mental, emotional and spiritual violence as part of a national crisis of at least 1,200 cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls across Canada. 

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“Increasing deaths of many vulnerable women from the Downtown Eastside still leaves family, friends, loved ones, and community members with an overwhelming sense of grief and loss,” the Women’s Memorial March Committee said in a statement. “Indigenous women disproportionately continue to go missing or be murdered with minimal action to address these tragedies or the systemic nature of gendered violence, poverty, racism, or colonialism."

The march was founded 25 years ago when Cheryl Ann Joe, 26-years-old and mother of three, was assaulted for two hours, mutilated and then murdered in East Vancouver. Her killing was one among what advocates estimate could be thousands of cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women — much higher than the official police estimate of 1,200 vicitms. 

The annual march is held in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, known for its high rate of poverty, sex work and for being home to North America's first safe injection site that supports drug users in the area with a focus on public health. The neighborhood is also an epicenter of activism around issues of affordable housing, poverty and inequality, and movements have been organizing in the area to raise awareness about violence toward Indigenous women for decades. 

"We didn't want it just to be about Cheryl — her mother Linda Joe wanted it to be about all of the women whose lives were taken," Joe's cousin Melodie Casella told Canada's CBC. 

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Brian Allender, Cheryl's killer, is currently serving a life sentence at the Mountain Institution in Agassiz, British Colombia, but the victim's family is still deploring with what they see as many "flaws" in the justice system.

Among those challenges is the fact that Allender has already been on 59 work releases, according to CBC, including seven releases within the community under escort. The family says Cheryl's killer is still "not accountable" for the crime after 25 years, and they hope that the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women — launched in 2015 — will grapple with the problems they have faced in the justice system. 

The annual march is a long-standing public display of the anger and frustration around the issue of systematic and colonial violence toward First Nations communities, especially women. For years it has been one of many initiatives aimed at drawing attention to the lack of government action on the crisis.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government finally launched in 2015 a national inquiry to investigate the hundreds of cases after widespread calls were unanswered for years under conservative former Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Though welcomed by First Nations communities and allies, the national inquiry — and Trudeau's larger promise to renew relations with Indigenous people — has also faced criticism.

In 2014, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police reported that 1,017 Aboriginal women had been murdered in the country between 1980 and 2012, and another 108 are still missing under suspicious circumstances. Trudeau's ministers of women and Indigenous affairs have said that the accurate number of victims is likely much higher. 

Rights groups have long been demanding that law enforcement agencies do more to prevent and solve crimes directed at the community. 

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