In a community center in Vancouver, rhythmic music blares from a multi-purpose hall where a group of women are dancing.
They are rehearsing for an upcoming performance in which each choreographed step is meant to make a statement.
“We call ourselves Butterflies in Spirit, and we use dance as a way to raise awareness for murdered or missing Indigenous women and girls,” said Palexelsiya Lorelei Williams.
Williams is a well-known advocate for the Skatin and Sts’Ailes First Nations. She founded the dance troupe, which uses traditional and modern choreography, 10 years ago.
“I do a lot of work to end violence against women and girls,” the 42-year-old said. “When creating the group, I just thought of butterflies because, like so many women, they are transformative, strong and resilient.”
Williams isn’t a professional dancer and never intended to mix advocacy with art, but that’s exactly what happened.
“A STRANGER GAVE ME A POSTER TO WEAR”
“While I was attending a rally, a stranger gave me a poster to wear, and on it were small newspaper clippings of those who were murdered and missing.”
At the time, Williams was struck by the small size of the font and the fact that no one was focused on the important message written on the paper she was holding.
With this, she decided to do more to bring attention to those who were lost and forgotten.
“I put pictures of missing and murdered people on T-shirts,” she said. “I could still walk in rallies, but I knew I needed to get more attention, so that’s when I thought about dancing at events.”
Williams first tested her idea in April 2012, when she staged an impromptu performance at a busy downtown Vancouver intersection.
“Family members of missing and murdered women and girls wanted to join me. They didn’t just want to dance, but raise awareness for their loved one.”
“My Aunt Has Disappeared”
While that first performance was memorable and formed the basis of Butterflies in Spirit, it was also extremely personal for Williams.
“My aunt disappeared two years before I was even born. I grew up in this and have always seen my family suffer and cry for her.”
Belinda Williams was last seen in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia in the late 1970s. There is very little police or public information about her disappearance.
“Belinda isn’t my only missing relative,” Williams said. “My cousin Tanya Holyk disappeared, then her DNA was later found on the farm of serial killer Robert Pickton.”
It is estimated that thousands of Indigenous women and girls have been murdered or disappeared over the past decades.
According to the Native Women’s Association of Canada, “Only 53 percent of murder cases in AFAC’s Sisters In Spirit database have been solved, compared to 84 percent of all murder cases nationwide.”
As the dancers move to the beat, a woman known as JB the First Lady counts in time and shouts words of encouragement.
She is a songwriter, hip-hop artist and longtime member of the Butterflies.
“It’s so important to spread awareness about the MMIWG,” she said. “It’s not just a headline in the news. It’s daughters, mothers, aunts, grandmothers, and we need to remember them.”
Every member of Butterflies in Spirit has had a loved one touched by violence. Many members of the group also had loved ones traumatized by Canada’s residential school system.
“I didn’t like being native, I was so ashamed of myself for years before I joined the band,” Maranda Johnson said.
Johnson has been with the Butterflies since the group’s formation. She thanks her fellow dancers for helping her reconnect with her culture and traditions.
“I’ve become so proud of my Indigenous heritage,” she said. “This group is so supportive and we stand side by side in true brotherhood.”
There’s a power in that pride and it’s something Williams has as well.
Indigenous delegates hold a ceremony in St. Peter’s Square outside the Vatican. (CTV National News)
In Italy recently, she joined other indigenous leaders who were in the Vatican for historic meetings with Pope Francis.
While there, she called on the Catholic Church to recognize its role in the legacy of trauma that has led to the disappearance and murder of so many women, girls and Two-Spirit people.
“When I look at reconciliation, the genocide must stop.” she says. “Not many people know this or want to believe it, but it still happens.”
With that, Williams and her butterflies are determined to keep going.
At the end of April, they will mark a milestone anniversary, an anniversary in which they will celebrate a decade of using dance to defend and honor the fallen and murdered.