Canada’s contested history projects conflicting national narratives on past and contemporary realities facing indigenous peoples in the “true north strong and free.”
In past decades a wave of disappearance and murder targeting women in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and in communities east to west, speaks to a disturbing culture of social violence that persists in Canadian society, gender-based violence targeting indigenous communities, a reality firmly rooted in Canada’s colonial foundations.
In Survival, Strength, Sisterhood: Power of Women in the Downtown Eastside, collaborators Harsha Walia and Alejandro Zuluaga present a beautifully crafted thirty-minute indy film on grassroots struggles and activism in Vancouver for justice for missing women.
Launched on-line in February 2011, the film both contextualizes and celebrates the 20th anniversary of the annual Women’s Memorial March, a grassroots protest lead-by women from the Downtown Eastside every February 14th. Thousands have joined the annual protest in recent years, in 2010 thousands marched during the Vancouver Winter Olympics, illuminated the reality of missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada to the world.
Via personal interviews, historical footage, and protest footage the film conveys “the voices of women who live, love, and work in the Downtown Eastside,” challenging “the sensationalism surrounding a neighbourhood deeply misunderstood,” a district often referenced as the poorest postal code in Canada. Instead of victimizing community residents the film aims to celebrate “the complex and diverse realities of women organizing for justice,” according to the filmmakers.
Echoing the annual grassroots decade old march in Vancouver, the annual protest commemorating missing women now occurs from coast-to-coast, including in Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa and other communities.
“It was really important to celebrate the strength and resilience that is take to organize for justice over years on an issue that has been so marginalized, not only in mainstream society but also in the left,” reflects filmmaker Harsha Walia, in an interview for Art Threat.
Beyond film making, Walia is a longtime grassroots activist based in Vancouver, a key organizer in the protest convergence opposing the recent Vancouver Olympics and is a celebrated grassroots voice on social justice issues across Canada.
“To many people in Canada this is a tragedy, but people are not moved into action to deal with the systematic issues; poverty, displacement, the main reasons that women end-up in the Downtown Eastside,” outline Walia, “the complete ruptures of indigenous communities and society, the loss of land, the loss of language, the inter-generational impact of residential schools, all reasons why indigenous women are forced into conditions of systemic poverty and find themselves in circumstances that predispose them to high amounts of violence.”
Beyond highlighting the alarming reality facing residents of the Downtown Eastside, the film and Walia’s activism highlights paths of action for people to collectively take action to challenge the economic and political factors in our society that lead to violence against women. Survival, Strength, Sisterhood: Power of Women in the Downtown Eastside is a must view for everyone living in Canada, activists involved in indigenous campaigns for justice, people struggling to end gender-based violence and all people living on these territories that we call Canada, lands that continue to be shaped by colonial realities and violence.