An Anglican church representative – Esther Wesley, co-ordinator of the national Indigenous Healing Fund – returned to a city she knows well, Timmins, Ont., to participate in a sombre service Dec. 14 commemorating the one-year anniversary of the disappearance of a native woman.
Ms. Wesley brought with her a poster and liturgical text for the service from the Sisters in Spirit campaign, an effort by churches and native women’s groups to highlight the disappearance of approximately 500 native women across Canada in the past 20 years.
“I set up the room, handed out (memorial) stones, greeted people, read some of the names from the poster,” said Ms. Wesley, who is Oji-Cree. Part of the Sisters in Spirit liturgy calls for the construction of a memorial cairn. As the name of a missing woman is read, a mourner places a stone on the cairn. “There were close to 100 women there,” said Ms. Wesley.
She and her husband, Rev. Andrew Wesley, who is Cree, lived in Timmins from 1980 to 2000, she said, when he was working for the provincial Ministry of Citizenship and Culture and she was teaching at Northern College. The service was held at the Native Friendship Centre.
Ms. Wesley did not know the woman who disappeared, Pamela Holopainen, but knows her family. Her mother, Holly Kowtook, who is Inuit, is president of the friendship centre and the past year has been difficult for her, said Ms. Wesley. “The police say they don’t have much hope, after a year. It’s hard (for the family),” she said.
Ms. Holopainen, who was 22 when she vanished, was last seen leaving a house party on Dec. 14, 2003. Her family said she was accompanied by her common-law spouse, Chris Manchester, who refused to comment on the case when contacted by the Timmins Daily Press. She left behind two sons, now 3 and 17 months old, who are in Mr. Manchester’s custody.
The case has received prominent coverage in Timmins, a small mining city in northern Ontario. The anniversary commemoration was the lead story on Dec. 14 in the Daily Press and an Ontario Provincial Police officer attended the ceremony.
An OPP detective, Dave Truax, told the newspaper that “at this point, we believe she is dead.” He said officers had conducted more than 100 witness interviews and searched “over and over” again for Ms. Holopainen or her body, most recently at a landfill site near Timmins.
Ms. Kowtook, however, told the newspaper she believes that, to some people, “(Pamela’s) only an aboriginal woman and to some that’s less than a human being.” Other missing women have been found, she said, “except Pam. Where is Pam?”
Sisters in Spirit, a campaign running from March, 2004 to March, 2005, is aimed at calling attention to violence against aboriginal women. “Many disappearances and deaths of aboriginal women simply go unreported,” said the Sisters in Spirit poster. “Aboriginal women continue to be targets of hatred and violence based on their gender and their race.”
Sisters in Spirit is sponsored by the Native Women’s Association of Canada, the Anglican Church of Canada, the Anglican Council of Indigenous Peoples and the United Church of Canada.