As Amber O’Hara lives with AIDS, the only thing she says really hurts is the idea of dying without uncovering the person behind her cousin’s murder.
Two years ago, O’Hara’s cousin Carolyn Connolly was found raped and stabbed to death in an alley at Shuter and Seaton streets. Her case has yet to be solved.
O’Hara, a 58-year-old aboriginal woman, has dealt with her own set of struggles. From being sexually abused in residential school to being raped and diagnosed with HIV later in life, O’Hara has become a vocal activist in the awareness of Native women who are victims of violence and abuse.
Her website, Missing/Murdered Native Women, features over a thousand names and pictures of faces that are rarely if ever seen again. The youngest female on her website is six weeks old, the oldest is 93. Inside the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto (NCCT), a crowd of people listen to her story. Some look on in astonishment while others nod in understanding.
“Not all of these women were drug addicts and prostitutes,” O’Hara says of the women on her site. “Many were taken from their own homes, tortured and murdered. Even if they were on drugs, even if they were selling their body, so what? Nobody has the right to kill you.”
The NCCT hosted the Aboriginal Missing and Murdered Women’s Awareness Conference March 3 and 4. The conference featured speakers like O’Hara sharing their stories and advice. Self-defense classes were also provided to aid prevention measures.
“We have a responsibility to speak up and do something about this problem,” O’Hara said. “We need to teach our children non-violence so that future generations won’t suffer to the same extent we are.”
Attendee Stephen Keoke remarked that watching the faces of various victimized women on the overhead screen at the conference helped stress both the importance and ignorance of the situation.
“These are stories that get looked over so often,” Keoke said. “Hearing the names and seeing the faces makes it so much more real and gives it far more depth as opposed to glancing at a missing persons statement posted on a board.”
Bonnie Matthews, a membership, fundraising and volunteer coordinator at the NCCT, says this program will help send out missing persons notices to the Native communities at a faster pace.
“In Toronto, you have to wait 24 hours for a missing persons report,” Matthews said. “But if it’s reported to us, we would put it up right away on our website.”
According to Matthews, other organizations such as Native Child and Family Services of Toronto have been on board with this idea, though they have yet to issue it.
“We’re getting a programmer to develop the widget for us,” Matthews said. “It’s just a simple insertion into the code of the website and once we decide which organization is going to be the home base, then we’ll be able to receive information from people–who’s missing, their picture, etc. Hopefully we can get as many organizations as we can to take part in this.”