Annie Yassie was 13 years old when she disappeared on June 22, 1974. She had just returned to Churchill, Man., from a residential boarding school in Dauphin about 925 kilometers away.
The initial Royal Canadian Mounted Police investigation revealed that Annie took a cab with a male companion, and they got out almost three kilometers away from the town.
That was the last time Annie was seen—and she remains missing.
“She came from my First Nations community, Sayisi Dene in northern Manitoba, a community that had undergone a great deal of change and displacement from its traditional lands,” said Shannon Perez, a justice and reconciliation mobilizer for the CRC’s Canadian Aboriginal Ministry Committee.
“Living in an unfamiliar place, without means to make a living, and without the use of English, made growing up in Churchill tragic,” Perez said. “That helps put into context the conditions under which young women such as Annie Yassie were living. Alcohol at a young age became for many a coping mechanism.”
With stories like Yassie’s in mind, Perez helped to compile a prayer resource to draw attention to the long-standing issue of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls.
“We came up with the resource to help make people aware that this issue is real—that this has happened to young women and girls such as Annie,” said Perez. “And it is still happening. This isn’t other people’s problem. It can happen to us in our communities.”
Originally made available last year through the CRC’s Canadian Aboriginal Ministries Committee (CAMC), the prayer resource consists of a month-long devotional series that includes Scripture readings, the Seven Sacred Teachings of many Indigenous communities, and related artwork.
The resource will be offered again through CAMC’s Facebook page this year during September, the month leading up to the annual Sisters in Spirit Vigils in October, but it is available for church use all year round.
Held every October 4 in communities across Canada, the Sisters in Spirit Vigils commemorate the memory of the missing and murdered women and girls and seek to put pressure on police forces to solve the more than 1,000 cases that remain outstanding.
Looking ahead to this year’s vigil, Perez said people will be able to ‘“like” CAMC’s Facebook page to receive daily prayers.
“Prayer is one of the most important ways people can be part of contributing a positive action to this issue of missing and murdered women and girls. Prayer can be as personal as people want it to be,” she said.
“But you have to pray for everyone involved—the women and girls, the families, the police.”
Over the past year, Perez and others involved with CAMC have heard personal stories from people who know families whose loved one is missing or was killed.
Often the stories emerge during the sharing time after a Blanket Exercise, which is an exercise in which people have the chance to learn through a hands-on experience how Indigenous peoples were forcibly removed from their lands across North America.
“We will be sitting in a circle and talking about this when someone breaks down,” said Perez.
Yvonne Schenk, director of The Gathering Place, a social services center in Thunder Bay, Ont., recalls a person who approached her after a Blanket Exercise to speak about a missing loved one. She was able to give this person the prayer resource developed by CAMC.
“This resource is very important,” she said. “I believe prayer is the foundation of everything, The way I see it, prayer is the beginning where the heart can be opened and changed.”
Harold Roscher, director of the Native Healing Centre in Edmonton, Alta., said the unresolved matter of missing and murdered women and girls has torn apart numerous families across Canada.
He recalls how a neighborhood family whose mother went missing asked if Harold would hold a prayer vigil for them. They were obviously distraught and seeking some kind of solace, he said.
“She was a mother in her early 40s and had several children. The mother was loved by the family, and they came to me after six months. They had had no answers coming forth from the police,” said Roscher.
Once they arrived at the Centre, the family gathered in a circle and people offered memories, sharing stories as well as their grief.
“It was almost like a funeral,” said Roscher. “We asked the Creator for strength, insight, peace. We lit a candle on behalf of the individual, and then we had a bit of a meal.”
Roscher hasn’t heard from the family since the vigil, which took place about two years ago. But he said the CAMC’s prayer resources serve an important purpose.
“I think they help us to keep our eyes on the issue and encourage us to make sure we make the system more accountable and responsive to what has happened. This resource can be an important witness.”