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Canada’s MMIW inquiry begins with a glimmer of hope

Their fight no longer feels futile, say family members at the inquiry’s launch. ‘It’s a beautiful day and we must rejoice in life.’


 
Bridget Tolley, whose mother Gladys was killed in 2001, is embraced after the announcement of the inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women at the Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec on Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2016. The federal government has announced the terms of a long-awaited inquiry into murdered and missing indigenous women, unveiling that it will need at least $13.8 million more for the study than was originally expected. (Justin Tang/CP)

Bridget Tolley, whose mother Gladys was killed in 2001, is embraced after the announcement of the inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women at the Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec on Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2016. The federal government has announced the terms of a long-awaited inquiry into murdered and missing indigenous women, unveiling that it will need at least $13.8 million more for the study than was originally expected. (Justin Tang/CP)

The collective mood at the unveiling of the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls was pensive, solemn and gentle, but above all, buoyed by a certain brightness of spirit. Plenty of families are still waiting warily to see what exactly comes of it, but at the Canadian Museum of History, where the five-member commission was announced Wednesday morning, many people used the same word in taking the emotional measure of the room: hopeful.

Claudette Commanda, an Algonquin elder who offered the opening prayer, began things by chiding the audience for falling into reverent silence simply because they heard the word “elder.” She spoke of the “momentous occasion” to finally confront this “national tragedy and disgrace,” but her overall tone and message was one of gratitude and quiet joy. “It’s a beautiful day and we must rejoice in life,” Commanda said.

So against that prevailing mood, it was particularly arresting when Jody Wilson-Raybould was, for just a moment, overcome by her own emotions. She spoke slowly and thoughtfully, pausing to acknowledge the totem poles soaring above and six Pacific Coast big houses standing sentry behind her in the museum’s Grand Hall. “I am incredibly proud to be here, certainly as the minister of justice and the attorney general of Canada, but proud to be here also as a Kwakwaka’wakw woman from the west coast of British Columbia,” she said.

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It was when she spoke of the need to identify the root causes of the vastly disproportionate violence toward indigenous women and girls that the justice minister came undone a little. There was a long, quiet pause as she collected herself.  “We know that the inquiry cannot undo the injustices that Indigenous peoples have suffered over decades,” she said, looking directly at the audience of mourning families and advocates in front of her. “But we can review what’s happened in the past, reflect on our present circumstances and chart a path moving forward.”

She ended her remarks where she started, gesturing at the formidable big houses behind her—one of them from her home territory—which for her represent the resilience and strength of the people who lived within them. “It is that strength, the culture, the traditions and our languages that are going to assist in healing, that are going to chart the path to a future where Indigenous peoples can finally see their face in the mirror of our constitution,” she said.

In the audience, Bernie Williams (a member of the Haida nation, her traditional name is Gulkittjaad) and a friend had their drums with them. They debated for some time whether the drums belonged there, before deciding they did. Williams works in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, where her mother and two of her sisters were killed. Periodically when one of the speakers said something that grabbed her—such as when Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett mentioned that each province and territory had signed on, so the commission could work without obstacles—Williams pounded on her drum three times. “It’s a heartbeat. We were always taught that the drum is like the heartbeat of Mother Earth,” she said afterward, thumping one hand on her chest. “We are very, very happy that this is happening for us. And it’s been a long time, but the sad thing about it is it’s still going on—nothing has changed.”

RELATED: ‘It could have been me’: Thirteen remarkable Indigenous women share their own stories

On the other side of the audience, Charlotte and Abigail Carleton, Inuit throat singers who live in Ottawa, were sitting next to each other, quietly figuring out what they were going to perform. Just before they were called up, Charlotte, 24, sensing the mood in the room, thought of the right song. “Indigenous people are really resilient and strong. We go through much and come out better,” she said from the stage, alongside her 21-year-old sister. “This song we believe is appropriate—it’s called The River. And just like water, we push through things. We’re very agile and we adapt to things.”

Another set of sisters, Sharon and Gloria Johnson, were also sitting side-by-side nearby. Their youngest sister, Sandra Kaye Johnson, was both with them and absent. She smiled out from the front of their purple T-shirts as a teenager, and from the back, as a toddler clutching her favourite doll, Nicole. Her photo was inscribed with Sept. 26, 1973—her birthdate—and Feb. 13, 1992, the cold, snowy day when she was raped, murdered and left in Thunder Bay’s McIntyre River. “I always feel like she’s with me, like she’s walking with me in spirit,” said Sharon. “I feel like that every day, even if I’m not wearing this T-shirt.”

Sandra was happy and outgoing: a powwow dancer from the time she could walk and a lover of heavy metal music who was learning to play drums for her brother’s band. Sharon and Gloria have spent the years since her death attending vigils and planning memorial walks. More than anything, they just wanted people to take notice that this was happening—to them and other families like theirs. It often felt futile, but in the last few years, they started to hear more talk about missing and murdered women like Sandra. Their fight no longer feels pointless. “Being here today for me was important because it feels good to know that our work wasn’t all for nothing,” Sharon said. “Even if we never find out what happened to our little sister.”


 

Canada’s MMIW inquiry begins with a glimmer of hope

  1. With respect, I predict that this inquiry will point the finger at colonialism, systemic racism, residential schools, discrimination, social inequality, and policing. And then we will be back to square one.

    • I agree. And then our bleeding heart Liberals will take the easy way out and just throw more money at it.

    • You might be surprised. There might be some laws come out of it about selling solvents for huffing. That certainly would be a step in the right direction. Also, they are going to have to deal with the high suicide rates among youth on reserves and First Nation’s education. It is certainly in the government’s best interest to look for solutions like educating First Nation’s doctors and mental health professionals who want to return to reserves as well as tradesmen. Perhaps the Indian Act will be gone and private ownership will emerge. No longer will Chiefs be getting rich while their people live in squalor.

  2. Indians killing Indians….next.

  3. They need to have it. The families need to be heard. Then the government needs to be accountable to act on recommendations because they insisted that they would. To hear that there are already 40 previous assessments with recommendations that were never acted on is sickening. 55 million dollars and the budget will likely go higher. Canadian journalists do your jobs. Hold the government’s feet to the fire on this one and ensure the entire inquiry is public and reported.

  4. everything the natives do is the fault of white people. white people are racists, natives are pure innocent souls. if you disagree with me you’re racist, racist.

    racism is bad.

    • Natives didn’t have these problems until white people arrived….so I’d say we had something to do with it.

      • Emily…..you really are an idiot.

        before the white people arrived, the Indians were butchering each other daily….and in far more gruesome manners than you may know of. Ritual Torture of the captives froom other tribes was common, and accepted by native peoples.

        Nowadays, they are simply attacking folks from the same tribe.

  5. The comment section of this website has really declined in tone and quality over the past few months. I guess it’s just dying a slow painful death.
    Must have been Paul Wells and to some extent Aaron Wherry who attracted a better group of participants.

    • CBC reporting that 500K is missing from a band in NWT and their new chief wants to know what the old chief did with the money that was given 6 months ago. Will crap like this be examined….it looks to be a case of chronic missing funds but the new Liberal minister ignored the problem and the solution…a third party intervention and paid the money out to the chief even after Health Canada had suspended payments due to funds going missing. Now history repeats itself. The band is broke and suffering and the funds paid to the chief in January are unaccounted for. One can reverse every one of the Conservative’s moves but that is like reversing every criminal sentence handed down. They were not wrong 100 percent of the time. Wake up. There is corruption among some of the Chiefs.

      • Well that certainly never happens with white people!

        • Emily,

          the fact that some folks in a position of power abuse their authority and take advantage of their positions to steal from folks…..is a well known fact. The problem when an Indian Chief does it though (Hi Chief spence)…..is that there is no punishment. If you throw a native chief in jail for stealing millions of taxpayers dollars meant for the chiefs band members…..then it means you are a racist, or a colonialist.

          At least we can still chuck non-native politicians in jail.

    • Paul Wells often replied to comments on his own articles and those of others. Emily was one of his favorite targets.

  6. the article notes:
    “It was when she spoke of the need to identify the root causes of the vastly disproportionate violence toward indigenous women and girls ”

    No need for an inquiry. We already know the reasons why so many native women and girls are killed. All you have to do is re-work the above line from the article.

    “It was when she spoke of the need to identify the root causes of the vastly disproportionate violence indigenous men commit toward indigenous women and girls”

    we already know who is killing these women and girls. It is the same for every race or creed….most women and girls are killed by men they are in a relationship with, are related to, or who they know.

    Native women die at higher rates simply because native men are violent at such a higher rate than the rest of us. No doubt due to their despair, hopelessness, drugs and alcohol.

    Kill the indian act…save the Indians.

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