THUNDER BAY – For the past decade, Sharon Johnson has marked Valentine’s Day by leading a memorial walk to honour her sister.
She’s the first to admit she wishes it didn’t have to be this way.
“I wish we didn’t have to see people get together like this,” Johnson said just prior to the start of the 10th annual Valentine’s Day Memorial Walk on Wednesday.
“I wish that one of these times we could get together for a gathering where we’re celebrating being there for each other and supporting each other in a good way, not walking to raise awareness or because of the violence.”
Twenty-six years have passed since her sister, Sandra Johnson, was found murdered along the frozen Neebing-McIntyre Floodway on the morning of Feb. 13, 1992.
About 50 people gathered at Thunder Bay city hall for the walk, which proceeded north along May Street to the Heritage Building on the Canadian Lakehead Exhibition Grounds.
Nishnawbe Aski Nation deputy grand chief Anna Betty Achneepineskum, who attended the walk during the early years when there would be only about a dozen people, remembered it wasn’t that long ago when the issue of violence against Indigenous women was largely kept in the dark.
“It’s very encouraging that we have more and more people who are caring and that there’s awareness,” Achneepineskum said. “I remember there were very few of us that used to come on these walks, or even have this discussion.”
Johnson said she initially held the walk as a way to help her mother, who was struggling with the loss of her daughter.
As the profile of the event has grown, other people who have gone through similar experiences have sought her advice on how they can honour and remember their loved ones.
“I have met a lot more family members who are reaching out to me for help and guidance to do something similar where they come from,” Johnson said.
“I’ve met quite a few families over just the last few months that also want to do the same thing and I’m encouraging them to just do it and if they need any help I’m here.”
Achneepineskum, who was holding a sign pledging justice for Colten Boushie less than a week after a jury acquitted the farmer who admitted to shooting the Saskatchewan youth, said the memorial walk makes her think about Indigenous people who have been treated unfairly by court system, as well as families who have lost loved ones to violence.
“Those kind of circumstances continue to haunt our people,” Achneepineskum said. “It’s very hard for them to come to that place of healing when they have been treated so unfairly by the court system.”
Charges have never been laid in the death of Sandra Johnson, though the Thunder Bay Police Service has maintained the cold case remains open and have urged anyone with information to come forward.
Johnson tries not to dwell on not having answers.
“I don’t think about that part as much,” Johnson said. “Over the years I haven’t really thought about it. It’s just something you learn to cope with and you learn to live with it.”