Gladys Tolley, the mother of Bridget Tolley from Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation in Quebec, was struck and killed by a police officer’s vehicle on October 5, 2001. Ever since, Bridget has been advocating for police to be held accountable for her death. She runs Families of Sisters in Spirit, a volunteer-run, grassroots initiative supporting the loved ones of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit people across Canada. Since 2006, Bridget has been instrumental in organizing a vigil every October 4 on Parliament Hill, bringing together loved ones to honour their stolen mothers, aunties, sisters, and daughters.
Bridget is one of the grassroots Indigenous advocates at the heart of the movement to end violence against First Nations, Inuit, and Métis women, girls, and two-spirit people in Canada. On February 18, 2021, Amnesty International spoke with Bridget about her many years of art, activism, and her guidance for Amnesty International’s supporters.
Bridget’s wisdom helped to shape the No More Stolen Sisters campaign guide on supporting Indigenous-led activims to end violence against First Nations, Inuit, and Métis women, girls and two-spirit people.
Bridget, what role has beading played in your life?
I’ve been beading for a long, long time since I was a little girl. My parents had separated when I was a baby, when I was one or two years old. I went to live with my dad and his grandmother (Kokomis) Christine. Kokomis Christine, that’s what she did her entire life – sew and bead. She showed us at a very young age. Back 55 years ago, I started beading headbands with a feather. That’s what people liked then. Then it was other things like earrings and slippers and mitts. Eventually I made my own mukluks.
Kokomis Christine taught us. She said we would never be stuck for food or anything if we knew how to sew or bead and that stuck with me my whole life. I stopped beading for 30 years. As I grew up, I really struggled to cope with my dad’s suicide which happened when I was 11. I partied a lot, had kids very young, and had no money. It was just a very hard time, including losing my mom, Gladys, 20 years ago. Her death is what led me to stop drinking and doing drugs. But the grief and pain at having lost her in such a violent way with no justice or accountability has taken a toll on my health and wellbeing. This long healing journey is what led me back to beading. It was like riding a bike. You don’t forget. And I still do it today.
My daughter and granddaughter have their own Facebook pages to sell their art and are continuing Kokomis Christine’s legacy of sewing and beading to keep us going. That’s what Kokomis Christine said and it’s true. Any time I’m stuck I can pick up beads or a piece of leather and make whatever I want and sell them. Lots of time, I give them away as well.
How is your beading connected to your advocacy?
I bead and I think about all our Stolen Sisters. I can just picture all of them wearing these earrings when I make them. A lot of my time, the money that I make goes towards doing stuff for missing and murdered women. The earrings are something to make our women and kin feel good.
I know the earrings are native and it makes me feel good. I like to bead feathers or eagles. Stuff like that is very important to me. I love eagles. I know they are protectors of us. It gives me my own healing. I am going to teach beading to my great grand-daughter, Ava. This is what my Kokomis Christine wanted. I know she would be very proud of all of us in our family who are continuing. From Kokomis Christine to my great-granddaughter – that’s seven generations! Seven generations of Algonquin women and girls holding onto our traditions and celebrating who we are as First Nations. This makes me proud.
A lot of feelings go into my beading. You need a lot of patience because those beads are so tiny. It’s so beautiful to see the creation you make after the earring is done. I know I had a lot of patience when I was a young girl and I think that’s why I’m still here today doing what I do for our Stolen Sisters, because I learned to have that patience and to keep moving forward no matter what. It takes time to do this beading. Even one earring takes a couple hours, sometimes longer. There’s a lot of love. When we make these earrings, we put in a love of love. It’s all from the heart.
October 4, and in particular, October 4, 2021, is a very meaningful date for you. Would you like to share why?
October 4 is very special. October 4 was the day the Stolen Sisters report came out in 2004. October 5 is the anniversary of my mother’s death. This year is the 20th anniversary of her death. My mom passed at the age of 61 and I just turned 61 a month ago, so it’s not only her anniversary but I am now the age she was when she passed.
I met Amnesty a month after the Stolen Sisters report came out. This is when I started to learn more about the Stolen Sisters. I wanted to honour my mother. I didn’t want people to forget her and what happened in her case. I was fighting for justice. I wanted to honour my mother and everybody else. That’s when we started honouring our Stolen Sisters with vigils. We started in 2006 and it’s still going strong today.
When we started the vigils, I didn’t know how to get family members inside of Parliament, so I said I’d start outside at first but eventually we’ll get in there! At first, I didn’t know how to get our stories inside Parliament. I figured we would start outside and then come inside and that is what happened! They started talking about us and they haven’t stopped!
Thank you always being there. I knocked on your door and we’ve been walking with each other ever since.
Amnesty International supporters across Canada want to deepen their solidarity and activism to help end violence against Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit people. What is your guidance to them?
Contact family members and ask them what help they need. All family members are at a different place in searching for loved ones. There’s some like me that are decades old and some that are just starting fresh. A lot of people don’t know what to do with the information they find on the web. You don’t have time to read the web when someone you love is missing.
Ask families, contact grassroots organizations, whoever is doing the work in the community. The grassroots organizations are doing the work. Contact youth. We need youth to take over this movement. I don’t want my grandchildren to be fighting this in another 20-30 years. We have been fighting this for so long.
Lots of violence happens on evenings and weekends and over holidays and it’s hard to get help. Lots of organizations will write letters. Amnesty did more. Writing a letter is not enough. People want answers and people deserve answers.
Meet people where they are at. Nothing about us without us.
How do you support people who are searching for or grieving the death of a loved one?
I do whatever people ask me even if I don’t’ like it, even if I don’t agree with it sometimes, because it’s up to them.
What is your message to activists in the Ottawa area who want to support your work?
We’re still here! We never accepted government funding. We accept donations. We help as many as we can. We can’t help everybody, but we help as many as we can with what we have.
There’s always little things we need help with. We haven’t updated our website in ages. Whatever help people can provide is great. The important thing is to ask people what help they need.
I just do my little Facebook page and Twitter and emails. I don’t do all that stuff to update websites. There’s a lot of other people in my boat who don’t know much about the internet to make a page for their loved ones, or posting to them, or making a missing persons poster, etc. Often people just send me a picture with the little information they have and I try to do my best to make a poster.
Share your skills and ask what help is needed. Everybody is in different places. I know it’s hard, but this is the best way to do it. It’s the families that need the help so it’s very important to ask the families what they need.
We’re now almost two years since the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls concluded. What change have you seen? What is your hope for the future?
It’s getting worse with police killings. That scares me a lot and hurts me a lot. I haven’t seen much except for reports coming out. Other than that there’s not too much change.
What hurts the most is that on February 14 it was 30 years that the women in the Downtown Eastside [of Vancouver] started marching. I cried because we are still in the same place. Families are still asking for help. I have to help someone every day. It’s hard and it’s worse with COVID-19 because there isn’t so much help we can provide.
I’ve been in this movement for 20 years. I know it’s super hard and I see the people just starting and it’s hard to stay strong. I know so many give up. I wanted to give up millions of times too. Even today I still want to quit. It hurts like hell. I don’t know about this national action plan. I talk to people and it seems like it will be another five years before we get that national action plan. How many years is it going to take?
We don’t see action for a long, long time. It’s sad. It’s been 30 years. Something has to be done now. Now. Not in five years. Not in 10 years.