New sign honours Helen Gillings, an Indigenous woman whose 1995 murder in Hamilton remains unsolved

This week, community members came together to honour Gillings and acknowledge her unsolved murder in 1995. The group Sisters in Spirit Hamilton also worked with the city to install a sign about Gillings to the lamp post called Helen’s light. 

The 19-year-old mother of two was found near King Street East and Emerald Street North

Paper hearts taped to a lamp post with messages including "You are worthy of beautiful honest love full of respect."
Hearts taped to a lamp post honour Helen Gillings, who was murdered in downtown Hamilton in 1995. (Eva Salinas/CBC)

A red paper heart taped to the lamp post reads: "Remembering you Helen Gillings. Not one more MMIWG2S." 

It's one of dozens, big and small, tacked on below a sign honouring Gillings, the 19-year-old mother of two whose death in 1995 remains an unsolved murder case. 

This week, community members gathered at the spot in the alley off King Street East and Emerald Street North in Hamilton, where Gillings's body was found, to remember her and the thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, two-spirit and trans people. 

It's an annual event, held on Feb. 14, but this year the new sign was a surprise addition for the community.

The group Sisters in Spirit Hamilton worked with the city to create the sign telling Gillings's story and have it installed on the lamp post called Helen's light, in time for Wednesday.

"Helen is loved. Helen is remembered. We honour her and her memory," the sign reads in part. 

Sisters in Spirit was a program of the Native Women's Association of Canada. It inspired community groups like Hamilton's which works to educate people about missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, two-spirit and trans people, of which the group notes Gillings is one. 

"The sign is impactful and significant in informing community," said Jessica Bonilla-Damptey, executive director of the Sexual Assault Centre of Hamilton and Area.

A sign on a city lamp post which is also covered in paper hearts.
Sisters in Spirit Hamilton worked with the city to make a temporary sign telling Helen Gillings's story. (Eva Salinas/CBC)

"Those of us in community who know about Helen's light and know about Helen, we know it's here, but we know that the community is changing … and new people are coming in," Bonilla-Damptey said.

She said the hope is people who don't know about Gillings will see the red hearts and learn from the sign. 

Bonilla-Damptey, who is also a member of Sisters in Spirit Hamilton, said the current sign is temporary and the hope is to get a sturdier one in the shape of a red dress, which is a symbol used to honour missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. 

"We need to come together to grieve, to honour, to remember, as well as to to feel joy and laughter," Bonilla-Damptey said. 

A black and white portrait of a person
A police handout shows Helen Gillings, who was 19 when she was murdered. (Hamilton Police)

The group is also partnering with the Art Gallery of Hamilton to honour Gillings and others in a future exhibit, the group announced later on Wednesday at the Hamilton Regional Indian Centre.

Bonilla-Damptey said the group worked with Ward 3 councillor Nrinder Nann to get the sign made.

Nann shared a photo of her own visit to the site on Wednesday, encouraging neighbours to come out and remember Gillings. "She is gone, but never forgotten," she wrote on her social media post.

Hamilton police say on their website that Gillings was a sex worker last seen alive on Feb. 16, 1995, entering the alley near King and Emerald streets, where her body would be found the next day. She was with a man who police said they have identified. 

CBC Hamilton asked police for more information about the man they identified but did not receive a response prior to publication. 

Police said previously they believe people have information that could help solve Gillings's murder, and continue to offer a $10,000 reward. 

With files from Kelly Bennett, Eva Salinas