OTTAWA -- Missing and murdered women in Canada will be remembered Sunday in memorial marches across the country.
But the occasion may become a memorial for a government-funded research project that put a spotlight on the hundreds of aboriginal women who have gone missing or been murdered in this country.
Federal funding for the Sisters in Spirit initiative of the Native Women's Association of Canada runs out March 31, and the federal government will not give the group any indication whether it will extend its mandate.
"We haven't heard anything," said Sisters in Spirit director Kate Rexe. "The government is silent on the issue."
With a grant of $5 million, Sisters in Spirit spent the last five years compiling a database of more than 520 women who have disappeared or been killed over the last 40 years. The group prepared tool kits for families and police to use when a woman goes missing and developed policies and programs to help stop the cycle of violence.
Rexe said the Sisters group is prepared to begin implementing policies and community programs aimed at three specific areas -- the justice system, child welfare and poverty. But that's been on hold for months because Ottawa won't say if it plans to keep funding the work.
"It's unbelievably frustrating," Rexe said. "We have all the knowledge, the momentum. We can actually start to implement change, but we don't even know if we can keep planning."
A year ago, Status of Women Minister Helena Guergis said she was working on extending the project. "I want you to know, I've already engaged in the process of what Sisters in Spirit Two would look like," Guergis said at the Status of Women committee meeting Feb. 12, 2009.
But a spokeswoman for Guergis would not say Friday whether funding for Sisters in Spirit is forthcoming, and said in an email Ottawa has asked NWAC to share its database with police.
"Research conducted by SIS thus far has been aimed at informing policy recommendations and identifying future directions. There are currently four provincial investigations ongoing, which the RCMP is participating in. At Minister Guergis' direction, NWAC will be consulting with the RCMP to cross-reference their list with ongoing investigations," wrote Emily Goucher.
Rexe said she's angry at a federal government that "has been spending like drunken sailors with their economic action plan and now with a huge deficit are talking about cuts."
"We have been working for over a year to get a commitment to the life chances and access to justice for aboriginal women, girls and the families of victims, and we are still waiting." She said the Sisters office couldn't even help organize this year's Women's Memorial March in Ottawa because staff are too busy wrapping up loose ends and searching for other funding. Eight cities across Canada, including Winnipeg, are to hold marches on Valentine's Day.
SIS has painted a rather bleak picture of aboriginal women's lives. Rexe said Canadian crime statistics show aboriginal identity is the strongest predictor of violent crime. Aboriginal women are more than three times as likely as other Canadian women to experience violence and those between age 25 and 44 are five times more likely to die a violent death than non-aboriginal women in that age group.
Manitoba MP and Liberal status of women critic Anita Neville said she doesn't understand why Ottawa won't commit to extending Sisters.
"We have called for a renewal for funding to Sisters in Spirit and for a national investigation (into the missing and murdered women)," Neville said. "But money is tight, and I don't know what (the government) will do."
Annual Women's Memorial March
Sunday, Feb. 14
5:30 to 7:30 p.m.
Bullman Centre, University of Winnipeg, 515 Portage Ave.