Though it was a chilly evening, many neighbors came out for the monthly Black Lives Matter vigil on February 6 outside of the First Baptist Church, where they heard from journalist and activist Shelia North who hails from Winnipeg, Canada and was the first woman in the province of Manitoba to be named Grand Chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak.
North was in Boston for a screening of her new film, 1200+, which focuses on the issue of miss-ing and murdered indigenous women and girls in Canada. The film, directed and co-produced by filmmaker Leonard Yakir, was screened at the First Church In Jamaica Plain on February 7.
At the vigil, North outlined her story and how she came to be an activist for this issue. North comes from an isolated community known as the Bunibonibee Cree Nation in Northern Mani-toba.
“My parents did their best to raise their children to be productive members of society,” she said. “When they sent me off to to go school in the urban center, they had every faith that so-ciety would take care of me. It was dangerous for a young woman, a young girl to leave my community to go to high school in a center like this, in Winnipeg.”
She said her life was in danger many times because she was not prepared for life outside of her small community. No one even taught her how to do something as simple as take the bus.
“…they gave me a bus pass, and I walked up and down the aisle showing everybody my bus pass. In my head I was thinking ‘I don’t want this person to kick me off the bus so I’m going to make sure they know I have this bus pass,’” she said.
She said another time, she and some friends saw a revolving door for the first time, and all went into the same wedge. “Those kinds of things, we were like fish out of water coming into urban centers,” she said. “That also put us in a lot of danger because there were a lot of predators looking for us that didn’t know what we were doing in the city and started befriend-ing us and saying that we were in danger and that they were going to help us. But in reality, they were trying to groom us to be whatever they wanted us to be. And this happened to me too, and that happened to a lot of other women and girls in Canada, to the point that it’s be-come an epidemic.”
North said that since 2013, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) have reported that there are 1182 missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in Canada, but she said that advocates say that the reality is most likely closer to three times that amount.
In 2005, North became a journalist and started working on stories about indigenous people. “As a journalist, I started to realize that I was a survivor of the issue around missing and mur-dered indigenous women and girls…and as soon as I realized I was a survivor, it just hung on-to me,” she said. “It became a passion, it became a burden, it became a blessing.”
She then started working on the film 1200+ with Yakir, and explains that it’s called 1200+ be-cause “we know that the numbers are there and they’re growing.”
North said she has been to the United Nations twice to speak on this issue, and said that Canada is the world leader on this topic. She also credited movements where people gather for a cause— like JP’s Black Lives Matter vigil—which she said helped get the Canadian gov-ernment to inquire about missing and murdered indigenous women.
“There are over 100 calls to action but little has changed on the ground,” North said. “The big-gest change is that more people are aware.” She said she is really pushing for more legislative changes and changes to what makes women and girls more vulnerable—poverty and “being left in the dark about what it’s like to transition into a more urban center.”
North announced at the vigil that she and Yakir were starting a fund, called For Cherisse and Friends. The fund is in honor of Cherisse Houle, the girl who is featured in 1200+. Houle was 17 years old when she was found dead in a creek just outside of Winnipeg. “No one’s ever b been held accountable for her death,” North said, “no one knows how she died, really, and she had lots of dreams, lots of goals…all of that was taken from her.”
North said that Houle had been placed in 92 foster homes throughout her life, and died within three months of being with one she responded to well.
“Even though we have a good reputation in the world that Canada is kind and it’s good it peo-ple and is rich, there’s still these atrocities that happen to indigenous people in our own coun-try,” North said.
Money donated to the fund will go towards families who need it the most. North said that some families in Canada still conduct searches for missing and murdered women using their own money, as there are no public funds available.
More information about the film and a trailer can be found on the documentary’s Facebook page, “1200+ A Film on MMIWG.